Week 44

After returning to the first chapter or prologue last week, I worked on two questions this week: why is my main character writing, and at what stage in the story is she writing? First things first. Is she writing, necessarily? Ross Raisin's book God's Own Country is narrated by a voice, not a very literate voice, so one must assume he is speaking rather than writing. Whether it is being transcribed and by whom is irrelevant; the story grips you immediately. The main character Sam is narrating events as they happen, whereas my main character is concerned with events from the past. I think she is writing.

Why? Something has happened. She is explaining herself. First person almost always implies the confessional. Is that the note I want to hit? Is that the note she wants to hit?

And when in the story is this? How much does the character know? Is it right at the end of the story, or some time before? I think it starts with some way to go, at the end of act four in the Hulk's narrative structure.

This consideration isn't just about getting the character's tone of voice right, it involves rethinking her entire narrative arc. Over the course of the story, she, as all narrative theories demand she must, comes to an understanding about herself, but to describe events in the order they happened would require a deliberately naive attitude. An authorial narrator writing in the third person could tell the story and show characters developing, but when it is a character telling the story things are different. The character is in charge. She has experienced all that she is describing, and it has already changed her. How do I make sure she doesn't give the game away from the start?

I focus on my main character too much. A 1982 interview with Philip Larkin reminded me that this is not a single-character medium (thanks to @lloydshepherd for the link). Asked for his definition of a novel, a notoriously thorny question, Larkin replies with a single statement:

"I think a novel should follow the fortunes of more than one character."

Point taken.

Philip Larkin Top TrumpsFirst person narrative does that though; every character is seen through the main character's eyes. There's plenty of scope to imply the main character's viewpoint is flawed, but it is still claustrophobic and incessant.

So I started writing a section with two other key characters. It's a crucial section - act three, to use the five-act structure as a reference - that sets the final events in motion. I've had to think about different characters and how they relate to her, what she thinks of them and what those thoughts let on about herself.

It's often said that characters leap out at you. They jump off the page. Well, bullshit. Mine don't feel real like that (yet). Some days my main character is clear, but some days she's difficult to make out from stuff I'd say, stuff I'd do. I refer to character notes when I forget what a character is supposed to be doing. I pin a list of characters to my board to remind me of their names.

Character is like every element of my book: added to and developed a layer at a time. I think I have a handle on them, and then I think of something else, another aspect to their character or backstory, or whatever it is that makes up an identity. Character doesn't just spring up from nowhere, just as no-one appears fully formed when you meet them for the first time. You must fill in the blanks, make assumptions and change them.

This week's word count is low, but I'm pleased with how the plot is taking shape through a focus on characters. When those two things work together - plot derived from character, and character fleshed out by plot - then you know you're on to something.

Focussing on one, whether by endlessly structuring your book and planning scenes, or by working on character in isolation, believing in a constant index of character, is always to the detriment of the other.

Erm, as Aristotle put it rather better 1,400 years ago. Keep checking back here for more up-to-the-minute news, folks.

Word count this week: 2,943 Total word count: 83,551 First draft: 73,535