Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Question of Voice

Apologies to readers who've been unable to post comments as a result of technical difficulties. (I've been having the same.) Here's a question Matt emailed to me about an earlier post on Alternating First Person Point of View:

I'm curious what your thoughts are on alternating between first and third person, or at least third person and third person limited. When writing, I feel my world is so much more immersive from a first-person perspective, but naturally I keep running into things I want the reader to know without the protagonist's awareness. I would also like to give readers a fair chance to identify with other characters. So I was thinking of having occasional third-person chapters peppered throughout my novel. What are your thoughts?

Here is my answer:

It looks like you're coming up against a problem most authors have to face - what narrative voice to adopt given the obvious strengths and limitations of each.

It's true that writing in the first person is very immediate and a good way to immerse your reader in the story right from the start, but the obvious limitation is that the reader can only know what the narrator reveals. The advantage of writing this way is that the reader experiences the story in the protagonist's shoes, and is generally surprised or shocked along with the protagonist at critical moments. However, this is not always the case. If you choose a naive narrator to tell the story - for example, someone mentally imbalanced or a child - the reader is able to 'read between the lines' in a way that the protagonist cannot, and therefore understands more than the protagonist can, even though it is the protagonist who has supplied the information. A good example of this is Room by Emma Donoghue.

As for your desire to give your readers a 'fair chance to identify with other characters', I believe this can be done when writing in the first person, even if it's from a single person's point of view. The most common way to achieve this is through dialogue - if you give the other characters a chance to speak and voice their opinions, you can make them fully relatable. What people say and do goes along way to shedding light on who they are, and what they think and feel. You can also use your characters to make comments about other characters, so if your protagonist seems to, say, mistrust one character and respect another, a different character can be seen to trust the very person not trusted by the narrator, and lack respect for a character the narrator admires.

Just as your first-person narrator can engage in conversation with other characters, so too he/she can overhear things they say - either unintentionally or deliberately. Similarly, he/she can receive/find letters, emails, diaries, etc.

Writing from the third-person intimate point of view can often give a similar sense of immediacy and intimacy as the first person, with the advantage that you can write different chapters from different characters' viewpoints without worrying about whether the voice sounds too similar - which would be my main concern with multiple first person viewpoints (though I must say that there are certainly many writers who manage multiple first person viewpoints competently and to great effect).

As to whether you should write primarily from a first person point of view but throw in a few third person intimate chapters from other characters' perspectives, my own feeling is that it may be difficult to achieve this without undermining the structural clarity of the novel as a whole. Alternating between third person distant and third person intimate is fairly easy, but won't solve your problem. Alternating between omniscient narrator and third person will allow you the flexibility to give differing viewpoints, but will be just as problematic for your novel in terms of narrative structure.

I feel the most elegant way to solve your problem would be to decide on either first or third person narration (whether single or multiple) and use the tools described above to shed light on other characters when the need arises.

However, there are no hard and fast rules about novel-writing. A draft is not written in stone, and sometimes the best way to know whether something will work is simply to try it. While I would not personally attempt a novel that mixes first person narration with third person narration in the way you describe, (at least, not at this point in my writing life), that's not to say you shouldn't. What may not work for me may work for you. Only you can decide.

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