Issues nag at you when you write, and often it's best to ignore them and carry on. But one came up a lot, and it had to do with voice. I was writing in first person - I've been doing so since the beginning - but maybe my hesitation was down to it not being my natural PoV. The books I enjoy reading are usually written in the third person. The short stories I’ve written in third person flew off the page, and there’s a current vogue for 'out-there' unreliable first person narrators that is getting boring. It’s also a tenor that's difficult to maintain - the story must be tucked away in what the narrator doesn't say or doesn’t know as much as what they do. Then there is the question of why - why are they saying this stuff? To confess? To invent? I chose first person for its claustrophobic quality, but it soon sent me demented. Third person felt like a breath of fresh air.
As ever, Zadie Smith said it best. In an interview with John Self she described her attempt at first person narrative:
Everyone who read it hated it – me included. Then another writer said to me: “You’re the only writer I know who can create no sympathy in the first person.” I thought: that’s right! When I write the pronoun “I”, I think of myself and end up being incredibly cruel. I’m not sympathetic to myself, as it turns out. I need the she and he.
Reading this I realised what my problem was: I was thinking too much of myself.
After ideas, plot, structure, the last jigsaw piece to fall into place was voice. It modulates everything, even plot, because it is everything. It's the narrative. In a diagram of a story, plot, structure, settings, characters - the lot - all come under it. My dislike of overbearing, unreliable narrators had sent me too far in the other direction. My narrator was hesitant; eminently sensible; just as I would be in that situation.
Moreover the action of my book was dictated by other characters, who did strike out and were all decisive and conflict-y, when that was lacking from my main character (also narrator). So I combined them, and suddenly there she was, transformed.
So now she has a very er, shall we say, distinctive, way of looking at things. She looks different too (earlier sketches were, by and large, was an unflattering portrait of me). She has one clear goal that motivates her, and lots of other secondary but more telling ones. Her relationships with others are clear. My work on structure and plot is not lost either, but (I hope) has been reinvigorated. My story feels like it's the one that I've been groping for, not one I've created in spreadsheet cells. Even my oddball first draft is relevant; some of that early, fresher writing fits into the story now, and the title I've had in mind since the beginning works too!
For the first time, I feel like I'm writing a story, rather than trying to sum up my-entire-life-and-all-the-thoughts-I’ve-had-thus-far. And it all came from revising my main character.
As Aristotle said, character is action. Gah. Don’t you hate it when the big dead men were right all along.