Friday, April 27, 2012
The Art of Writing No. 24
I thought I’d mumble on a bit about first person and third person characters in your writing.
In many ways, writing in the first person is more difficult because it challenges the reader to identify with the ‘I’ in your story as opposed to ‘he’ or ‘she’. There is a far greater degree of distancing when your hero or heroine is depicted in the third person. The reader has choice as to how much s/he identifies with your central character when ‘he ‘or ‘she’ does this or that, whereas if it is an “I’ who is doing it, the reader is faced with the direct question as to whether he or she would ever do such a thing or feel like that. Given the way that most narratives are, it is also easier to write in the past tense. The past tense also allows some distancing and emphasises the storification of people’s lives. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there“, was the wonderful line by L P Hartley that emphasises my point. We are used to being entertained in this way, from early childhood fairy tales.
Writing in the present tense is not particularly unconventional but it is a strain on the writer. Having written a novel in the continuous first person present about a Marlowe-like Private Dick, The Strange Attractor’ I found when I started editing for the third time, I still had sections that had slipped into the past tense. You may be better at it than me! The real difficulty is in conveying dramatic action. “I am punching him as he grabs my throat. I fall back, half-exhausted” or, “I press my lips against hers and watch as her eyes half close but a glint…” can be very effective and even seductive but you have to do it through the whole novel. The third person present tense is a little easier, maybe. But nowhere near as easy as third person past tense.
In Azimuth, all but the first Tale is in the past tense but in the first Tale I use the continuous third person present. I wanted to draw the reader into the birth of the central character in all the Tales and make it dramatic. It starts the whole train of events, lasting 3 books and 920 pages! Since it happens while the mother is being hunted down by assassins it was an effort of concentration to keep to the format.
Mixing first and third person narratives can give a multi-dimensional set of perspectives on a Tale as events are seen through different characters’ eyes. Mixing past tense and continuous present provides an equally rich range of possibilities as we move from a past period to the present. If you prefer to map out your work before you start, you can work out the different media you are going to utilize to make your work truly gripping. If you are more organic in your approach, you will find yourself wrestling with the narrative constantly – but, we hope, fruitfully.
The Strange Attractor by Eric le Sange, Kindle Amazon