Posts Tagged first person

Masterclass snapshots: how to write several narrators and make them sound distinct

guardian classHere’s another of my favourite discussions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass…

characters sound distinct Nail Your Novel

How to write several narrators and make them sound distinct

One student had several narrators and was finding it hard to make them distinct. His writer group reported that they sounded too similar, especially in dialogue. One character was male and one female, so some of his critiquers were assuming the gender was the problem; that he as a male couldn’t write as a female.

Hold it there. Some writers – and readers – believe that males can’t write plausible females and vice versa. And certainly, there may be some gender-specific mentalities that are impossible to disguise … but before we all assume we’re tethered to our chromosomes, let’s consider what makes a character distinct.

Difference usually comes from outlook, education standard, moral compass, background and the character’s emotional state. I thought it far more likely that the problem came from not making the characters individual enough, rather than the influence of our writer’s gender.

Sure enough, he said that when he explored his writing group’s objection, they had observed that his characters used similar vocabulary in dialogue. So perhaps the problem was not gender at all.

Where the differences really lie

If you have several narrators, you need to find different ways for them to express themselves. Different catch-phrases, senses of humour, frames of reference, moral and social codes.

jason uvIf you like writing with music, that can take you to a gut sense of who your different people are – this post on The Undercover Soundtrack by actor-writer Jason Hewitt shows how a few talisman pieces of music conjured a character’s state of mind and helped him remember who each person was … on the inside.

Two characters …. two tenses?

Another of my students had a similar problem. She had two characters in the Arctic; one a hard-bitten scientist, the other a wonder-struck friend who was visiting. They narrated alternate chapters. In her own mind she had a sense of how they were distinct, but despite this she found they sounded too similar on the page. So she decided she’d write one as first-person present and the other as close-third past.

I said I thought that sounded confusing. Some readers would think the shift of tenses was significant in story terms and would look for a reason. Did it mean the action was happening at a different time? Was it a parallel thread? I suggested she scrap that approach and look more forensically at the characters’ outlook, attitudes etc. She agreed as she’d worried about that herself.

But then she said something that was rather interesting.

She’d never written in first-person present before, and when she did she found she felt and thought differently. She found herself inventing all sorts of back story and behaviour that took her by surprise. By squiffing the tenses, she’d hit on a new creative mindset that suited this book.

The verdict was clear – and exciting; write a discovery draft in these two tenses. Then edit and make them uniform, marvelling at the new inventions. Eureka.

Just like listening to music, a change of writing style or technique can get you to new places. Do whatever you need to, then tidy up afterwards. The reader never needs to know how you did it.

Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel by Roz MorrisThere are a lot more discussions on how to make characters distinct in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.

 

Have you tackled a similar problem? Especially, have you hit on any tricks that helped you give your characters different voices, and then later removed the evidence of how you did it?

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Point of view shifts and head-hopping: always bad?

4585943478_351eb03f76_zI’ve had this interesting question from Robert Scanlon:

‘What are your views on head-hopping? In my steep learning curve, I gathered it was frowned upon (maybe just for newbies?).

Head-hopping. First of all, what’s Robert talking about?

All narratives have a point of view – the ‘eyes’ through which a story is told. It might be a dispassionate third-person camera following everyone. It might be a more involved third person account with insights into one or more characters’ thoughts and feelings (close third). It might be first person, where there is only one person’s experience.

Head-hopping is where the point of view changes. It’s not always verboten – we’ll come to that. But it’s often done unintentionally – and when it is, it can cause a logic hiccup. It can even kick the reader right out of the story.

It’s easiest to spot POV slips in first-person stories, where the narrator describes something they couldn’t possibly know or experience – another person’s intentions, or an event they aren’t present at. (Indeed, this is usually where writers realise the limitations of first-person narration. And so the character finds a diary or a secret blog…)

Head-hopping problems are not confined to first person (or close third), though. A third-person scene might be following one character’s experience, then slip into a perspective that somehow doesn’t fit. Maybe it’s just a paragraph, or a line. It’s often hard to spot. If you asked the reader what was wrong they might not be able to explain it. But they’ll sense something’s off and they’ll disengage from you.

However, point of view shifts aren’t bad per se. In most novels we need to accommodate a lot of characters and their stories. Here’s part 2 of Robert’s question:

I’ve been reading a lot of Stephen King, and my word, does he head-hop! Is that because he is such a good storyteller? Or should he be advised to avoid this? (I can write to him and let him know…)

Hah! It’s a while since I read Stephen King, and the chances are even slimmer that I’ve read the same Stephen King as you, Robert! But some general points.

He might indeed have got it wrong. All writers have blind spots. And it’s entirely possible that he wasn’t edited rigorously.

But also … he might have got it right!

The only way to tell? When you notice it, ask yourself if it was an inconsistency that shook you out of the story, even slightly. A good POV shift keeps you immersed.

Let’s explore a few ways to shift point of view and do it well.

Two ways to shift point of view

tulip2New chapters – a new point of view gets a new chapter. You might even write some chapters first person and some third – as Deborah Moggach does in Tulip Fever. In each she follows one character’s experience closely. And if two of the principals share a scene? She writes one chapter from one point of view, and revisits the event in a separate chapter for the other person’s. She always remains disciplined about which point of view she is following. Charles Dickens writes some of Bleak House in first person, following the experience of Esther Summerson. Her honest, diary-like narrative is a warm contrast to the conniving characters in the Dickens-narrated sections.

Shift within the scene – yes you can get away with it, if you are well behaved. You might:

  • Show one paragraph from one point of view, the next from the other. Make sure the reader will be able to follow which is which without getting confused. But if the scene is intense, you might leave the reader punch-drunk from trying to follow two strong experiences. It might be better to…
  • Switch the entire point of view during the scene – so the first half follows one character’s perspective, then swivels to the other until the end. I’m doing this in Ever Rest as I have several protagonists, all getting into dire angst. Note this is usually a one-time change – it can bust the reader’s patience if you flip back again.

(There’s more about point of view in my characters book)

What we leave out

One of the keys to point of view is judging what to leave out. The writer always knows a lot more than the reader. We know every main character’s thoughts, back story, front story. And that’s why it’s hard to spot head-hopping in our own work – because we make the mental switch without realising. But the reader can’t. They get lost, even if only by a micron.

All points of view have their limitations and boundaries. We have to write within them.

Control is everything

Robert says: In my first book, I found some errors where there was a transfer of POV. When I edited them to stick to the main POV, I thought it read better.

Amen. And this is why: when you begin a story, you establish a set of conventions. In the same way as we set up rules about the story world (whether it’s realistic contemporary, medieval with magic etc) we also set up rules for how we will tell it. If we’re going to shift between experiences, we establish the pattern from the earliest chapters. If we break that pattern, it disturbs the flow. Of course, we might use that to disorientate or shock – imagine a story where the surprise appearance of a new narrator might cause delicious mayhem. That’s the head-hopping principle – used for deliberate impact.

Skilful writers never fumble the reader’s experience. And point of view is a potent storytelling tool.

Thanks for the Rear Window pic x-ray delta one

Do you have problems with POV and head-hopping? Do you have examples of when it’s been used to create an interesting effect – or writers who seem to be getting away – gasp – uncorrected? Share in the comments!

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NEWS The audiobook of My Memories of a Future Life is now live! You can find it on Audible in the US and the UK. If you’re thinking of trying out Audible for the first time, you can get the novel free when you sign up. It will also be on iTunes but that takes a little longer to percolate.

If you’re thinking of making an audiobook yourself, either with ACX or by some other means, you might find my posts about the process helpful.

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How to switch point of view without confusing the reader

point of viewOne of the deadly sins of writing is the ‘head-hop’ – inconsistency with the narrative point of view. The writer will be following one character’s perspective, then forgets to keep to it, or switches to another in a way that creates a logic hiccup.

The problem is often subtle, which is why it’s hard to spot in your own work. If you asked the reader what was wrong they might not be able to explain it. But they’ll sense something’s off and you’ll have lost your grip on their imagination.

First-person narratives usually don’t have this problem. The writer is usually extremely aware of what the character can and can’t know. (And often realises they need devices such as letters and diaries to get information across.)

But not all stories are written from one perspective only. Perhaps we have many characters whose experiences count. Or an omniscient narrator who contributes observations from time to time. Once you have these multiple voices, you need to be strict about how you handle them.

Here are my tips for keeping multiple POVs in control.

1 Stick with one POV per scene

Simple is usually best, so write each scene from the experience of just one character, making the POV clear in the scene opening. What if two equally major characters have a dramatic scene? I’ll discuss that below, but let’s get into good habits first.

gonetulip22 Imagine each scene is titled with the POV character’s name

Some novels with multiple POVs name their chapters according to who is ‘speaking’. Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever hops around a large cast in short chapters, each following the experience of one character. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl alternates between the male and the female accounts in different timelines, and the headings allow her to show who’s talking and when the action is happening.

Of course, many other novels use multiple POVs without chapter headings, and that’s fine too. But if you get confused about what you can and can’t show, put them in your draft to focus your mind. Or tint the text in a colour according to whose experience we’re following. Later, remove these props and you should have a logically flowing story.

3 Establish the POV pattern early on

At the beginning of the novel, you need to establish the rules your narrative will follow. If you’re going to circulate through a big cast, give each of them an early chapter, then we’re prepared for the pattern. If you stick with one character for a while and then switch, you might need a more obvious signpost such as a chapter or section heading to ease the gear-change.

point of view 24 Some first person, some third, some omniscient? No problem

Want to narrate some of your book as first person and some as third? No problem. Charles Dickens writes some of Bleak House in first person, following the experience of Esther Summerson. Her honest, diary-like narrative is a warm contrast to the conniving characters in the Dickens-narrated sections.

Deborah Moggach presents one of her Tulip Fever characters as first person, and explained on BBC Radio 4’s Book Club that she wanted the reader to understand some of the cruel things she does. Everyone else is close third person.

Moggach’s device of the headings also allows her to slip into omniscient distance – to convey time passing and chaos settling. One chapter is ‘Autumn’; another is ‘After the storm’.

But whatever you do, stick to it. If you begin by narrating one character as first person and change them to third, you risk disorientating the reader unless you have set up a mechanism for them to understand it. (And preferably a reason why they should bother.)

5 Two key characters in one scene? Which POV?

Of course, some characters will have overlapping experiences. For these, you could:

  1. Pick the person who will have the most intense experience.
  2. Pick the person with the least intense experience and rely on the reader to intuit the turmoil in the other character (can be very effective, but needs setting up)
  3. Hop between their experiences in different paragraphs, but be very disciplined to make sure the reader is clear whose experience they are following. To do this might interrupt the flow of the scene, especially the dialogue. And often when I see writers do this, they’re missing an opportunity for more tension.
  4. Settle into one POV, then change. Start the scene from one character’s experience and after a while, make the switch. Do this with a break in the action, or even a line break,  so that the reader understands to tune into a different experience. And it’s a one-time thing. Don’t switch back again. Moggach solves this by writing a chapter in one POV, then starting a new chapter from the other character’s angle and winding time back to revisit the episode. (Do you notice something important here? She never breaks her rule. She’s schooled the reader to expect a framework and she never breaks it.)

roz birthday plus NYN2pics 052compThere are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life 

Have you seen other ways to handle multiple POVs? How do you do it? Have you seen the rules ‘broken’ to interesting effect? Let’s discuss!

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First person or third? How to decide point of view

Which point of view should you choose for your novel? Some points to help you decide

1 If the focus is on the events, you’re better off with third person – most commonly this is historical fiction, family sagas, epic fantasy, crime, thrillers. If the story is more about the characters – and the events might seem insubstantial compared to the psychological journey, first person is generally best.

2 In first person, you see the world and all the other characters as the character does. It’s especially useful if the character may not be sympathetic or has dubious qualities – such as Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, or Barbara Covett in Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. First person lets you add layers of irony and unreliability – all part of the fun.

3 If you’re going to use an unreliable narrator, be consistently unreliable from the start. Don’t turn them suddenly unreliable half-way through.

4 Whose POV do you show? With character-based novels, the same events told by a different person would make a different book. Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin is a mother in a confused, conflicting relationship with her son. Kevin in the same novel is a child growing up with a mother he knows hates him. Which story do you want to tell?

5 First-person narrators might be aware they’re telling the story, like Eva in we Need to Talk About Kevin, or they might be experiencing the events in real time with no sense of explaining themselves – like Carol in My Memories of a Future Life. (And I chose first person because her experience is more important than the events.)

6 The narrator isn’t always the protagonist – Dr Watson narrates Sherlock Holmes, showing someone extraordinary through his more sane, relatable eyes – yet preserving the mystique of his more remarkable moments.

7 Usually the first-person narrator doesn’t know the thoughts or feelings of other characters, or what happens when they are not present. Writers of first-person narratives have to make use of letters, chance conversations, listening at a keyhole, online eavesdropping – without being cliched. However, Alice Sebold in The Lovely Bones writes a first-person narrator who spiritually snoops on the private moments of others. Ghosts do that.

8 You might have filter characters for some or all of the story, like Nelly Dean in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, who tells the story of Heathcliff and Cathy to first-person Mr Lockwood.

9 Sometimes there is a central character who is the story’s exclusive viewpoint, but the novel is written in third person. Henry James’s What Maisie Knew is a story of multiple adulteries seen through the eyes of a child. James chose third person because he wanted an innocent who notices far more than she has the vocabulary to describe. This is sometimes known as limited third-person.

10 Third person can show a godlike view of many characters, but it’s usually better for the novel to focus on the thoughts and feelings of just a few characters – subjective viewpoint. Decide whose heads you will get inside – and stick to that main cast. Less important characters can be shown from outside through their dialogue and actions. If you suddenly add the intimate POV of another character late on in the novel that’s very dislocating – although you might just get away with it if they’re a long-lost sister who we’ve been curious about.

11 Crime novels and thrillers, which are generally more about plot than character, get away with introducing new characters, in close up, anywhere in the story. They will often devote a chapter to a character who is about to meet a sticky or spectacular end, narrated so we share their thoughts and feelings. Or they introduce a new assassin half-way through. This works because the main hook is the events, not the characters.

12 Most scenes are better if written from one character’s POV. But what if you’re narrating in third person and you have put two key characters together? You can either narrate it all from a more distant perspective, trusting the reader to understand the tensions. Or you could shift point of view. Yes, honestly, you can if you…

13 Use POV shifts with care. The best way to do this is to start the scene from one character’s POV and after a while, make the switch. Do this with a break in the action so that we know we are tuning into a different person’s experience. And it’s a one-time thing. Don’t switch back again.

14 You can have alternating first-person chapters, first and third, so long as you establish the pattern early on and do it consistently. And you have a good reason.

15 You can mix omniscience and subjective view. In Lifeform Three, I have a hybrid of omniscient narrator and limited third person. The narrator is never a character (but is me the storyteller), is able to talk loftily about some parts of the world that the main character doesn’t know, but aside from that is glued to the main character. I made strict rules – the narrator knows about the world in general but does not know about the main character’s history or what happened to him before the story started. Some fairy tales are like this.

16 You can do what you like, really, so long as you make your boundaries clear. Write in second person if you must, or plural instead of singular – although you do risk wearing out the reader. Unless you’re writing about Siamese twins.

Thanks for the pic, Jenny Downing and wonderferret

Do you have any guidelines to add about choosing point of view, or interesting examples? Share in the comments!

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Call me Ishmael… When to reveal your MC’s name if writing in first person

Daisy Hickman from SunnyRoomStudio has sent this question. ‘How soon, when writing in first person, does the story need to reveal the full name of the protagonist? And how do I weave it in? It always feels awkward.’

Slipping in your first-person narrator’s name is a small matter but often feels awkward. It’s logically unnecessary, since the narrator is talking to the reader directly. Of course, naming shouldn’t look like a piece of explanation for its own sake, the dreaded exposition. So writers can tie themselves in knots bringing in other characters who will intrude with a plausible reason to utter their name.

Dickens and du Maurier

Here’s how Charles Dickens handles naming in Great Expectations:

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

This is the opening paragraph of the entire novel. No messing there. But actually, Dickens has another reason for giving us his MC’s name so early. For much of the book Pip isn’t very likable, but every time we see the name Pip used later on, we are reminded of his child self.

At the other end of the naming spectrum is Daphne Du Maurier’s narrator in Rebecca. She doesn’t have a name at all until she marries Max and becomes Mrs de Winter. This is logical because until she marries she is a paid companion, with no status and nothing of her own and no one ever uses her name. It is also resonant– the girl has no identity, to herself or to the rest of society, until she becomes Mrs De Winter. And of course she feels like she is an impostor… I could go on.

Dickens had a good reason for giving us Pip’s name at the very start. And Du Maurier had a good one for not giving a name at all. So the reader isn’t going to feel lost or annoyed if the protagonist’s name isn’t revealed for quite some time.

Names in a first-person narrative are usually pretty peripheral anyway, unlike third person, where the name can be a profound symbol. You can get interested in a first-person character without knowing their name. We do it all the time in real life.

A terrible memory for names

How many times do you hear people say they don’t have a good memory for names? When we first meet people, we remember them more by what we connected or disagreed over. I have a friend who I first met when she was crazy for a handsome Italian guy she worked with. It was a few weeks before her name was ingrained in my brain, but I remembered every detail of her romantic plight effortlessly – and always will, even though they have married, had a daughter and divorced.

Your first connection with someone who talks to you as ‘I’ has little to do with a name. (Usually. Except for Pip. And Ishmael in Moby-Dick, who has chosen a symbolic name that tells us something about his character.)

Safety net

Also, to an extent, you have a safety net. Where is the first place a reader looks once they’re enticed by your title or cover? The blurb. Most blurbs – or the Amazon version – slip in the protagonist’s name anyway. If the reader really starts to feel rudderless, they can look there. (This may seem like a cheat but it’s not a bad idea to write with an awareness of what is on the blurb. Lionel Shriver was spurred to find an extra twist in We Need To Talk About Kevin because she knew the flap copy would give away the novel’s main event. But I digress.)

Key points

  • Don’t be in a panic to slip the name in. It takes as long as it takes.
  • If you have a brilliant reason for doing it at the beginning, like Great Expectations and Moby-Dick, then do it. If it doesn’t naturally arise until later, don’t fret – it’s not the most important thing the reader wants to know.
  • Don’t try to shoehorn in a tired scene where the character picks up the morning post and sighs that someone has misspelled their name.
  • As with all kinds of back story, see if you can use the name-revealing for something else as well.

Thank you, Daisy, for a great question, and Thunderchild7 on Flickr for the picture. Let’s share some examples: first-person introductions that work brilliantly – and ones that make you cringe

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