As those of you who visit regularly will know, my first novel is coming out in February next year. It’s off to be typeset shortly, then printed. I’m excited and terrified – primarily that as soon as I flick through a printed copy I’ll find a typo.
These are the fears that keep a proofreader/editor up at night.
But I digress.
I was in my garden this morning, looking at my gorgeous blossom tree from different perspectives, noting how the sun caught each angle in a different way, and how the wind challenged the branches and the fragile candy floss petals on one side differently to those on the other. It got me thinking about perspective and point of view.
Writers. Can’t even look at a tree without thinking about stories.
A few years ago, deep in the mire that is trying to write a first novel, I went to a workshop by fabulous New Zealand author Elizabeth Knox. I asked her about point of view, specifically which one I “should” be using for my novel. (I use inverted commas because, in my opinion, there are no “shoulds” in the writing universe. There are no hard and fast rules, and we all must find our own style and voice.)
Her advice was that first person narration can be very tricky because of the subtleties and complexities often not fully grasped by first-time novelists, and it might be better to steer away from it.
So off I went and continued writing my novel, which is told by two alternating first-person narrators, one of whom tells her side of the story almost entirely by writing letters (it’s called epistolary narration).
Well, it was too late to change; I’d already written half the bloody thing.
I did, however, rewrite the first chapter in third person, just as an experiment. Oh God, it was dreadful. The novel has to be in first person; it just wouldn’t work otherwise. I wanted readers to discover the story along with my protagonists, seeing things only through their eyes, trying to figure out the mysteries in the plot at the same time as them. I wanted readers to grieve and wonder and question and rage and love alongside them, not at one remove.
I wanted my readers to listen to the voices of my characters, and to find themselves in those voices.
And there’s another reason I chose first person. Both my protagonists are—and we start to realise this as we compare their two viewpoints—unreliable narrators. As they both recount versions of their relationship and what happened at key points in their lives, the reader will start to notice discrepancies and gaps and contradictions. And this adds yet another layer of mystery to the novel: what really happened? Who’s telling the truth? Is there such a thing? The reader will, hopefully, work out some puzzles before the two narrators do. There’s something very satisfying in that. And only first person narration can offer that extra layer of narrative complexity, I think.
Just don’t tell Elizabeth Knox I ignored her advice.