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I have written novels in both third and first person. Sometimes a novel obviously needs third person, sometimes the protagonist’s voice demands first. Here are the first lines of my completed works.
Angel’s Fury: Before my back hit the headboard, I slammed on the sidelight.
The Weight of Souls: Dead men take me to the nicest places.
Windrunner’s Daughter: The ground below the black cliff was littered with the bones of Runners.
Wavefunction: Blood dripped and made crysthanthemum drops on the floorboards.
Two in first person, two in third. All dark and atmospheric.
Very occasionally I will begin in one state then go back and rewrite in another as the story progresses and the demands of the main character change. In dream sequences and memories I will change tense as well as font. In Angel’s Fury I include pages read from an old-fashioned biblical style book. In The Weight of Souls I include an old diary. I try different things out, different voices; different modes of communication with the reader.
The thing with writing in first person is that the reader enters the protagonist’s head, sits on their shoulder in the form of the eponymous angel / devil, reads their mind and judges accordingly. Written in the style of ‘I did this, and I think that’ the protagonist and the narrator become the same person and this has its own problems for the author.
The writer of a first person narrative must first decide how their main character is going to tell their story. Will it be a diary (Bridget Jones), an epistolatory novel (Pamela, e) a conversation with the reader (a bit like Five People You Meet In Heaven), or is the reader literally going to mind-read?
All but the last method implies that the protagonist knows that they are being ‘overheard’. The writer of even a private diary knows that one day there is the possibility of being read. When writing ‘dear diary’ we are really writing ‘to a future reader’ and even the most soul-baring of diarists would hesitate to put themselves in a totally honest light. Our lives, after all, are viewed through the filter of our own worldview. We justify ourselves, even to ourselves.
And if the narrator knows that they are being ‘overheard’, then the narration becomes unreliable. The reader can only see what the narrator intends others within his world to see. He may lie by omission, justify himself, colour his actions the way that he would like them to be viewed. Additionally, the way he sees the world is retrospective (as even the most immediate of diary entries cannot be written during the course of the action) and thereby tinted with the benefit of hindsight.
A reader encountering a novel where the narrator knows that their thoughts are being overheard, must read with greater attention and cunning. They must be aware that everything they read could be a lie. They have to examine every scene, to spot what perhaps the narrator does not want them to know. The reader has, in a way, to read on two levels: the level of the protagonist’s conscious communication and the level of what he conveys unconsciously. The reader has to look out for what the author really wants them to know.
When the reader is sitting on the protagonist’s shoulder and, as it were, mind-reading, the only things hidden are things that the protagonist does not know themselves. The main character is laid bare, their hidden thoughts and feelings open to the reader’s judgement. There is less opportunity for interpretation of events, but also more immediacy and greater intimacy.
This is how I wrote The Weight of Souls. Taylor’s voice comes through straightaway. By the end of the first chapter we, the reader, know her well, understand her worldview, trust her, like her and root for her. There is no question that what we see in this book is truth. But it is Taylor’s truth, not a universal truth. She does not know that we are sitting on her shoulder, but nevertheless everything we see is coloured by her perception.
Many readers hate Justin and cannot understand why Taylor forgives him later on for his bullying behaviour.
“I gotta hand it to Taylor. I’m not sure if I could easily forgive, forget, and fall in the love with the guy who’d been a jerk to me for the past few years in a matter of weeks.” Goodreads Quote
But the reader has only seen Justin through Taylor’s eyes. When Taylor hates Justin, so do we. In theory as her feelings towards Justin alter, so should ours. But I have noticed (via Goodreads) that my readers are not always following along. They have judged him already, via Taylor’s point of view. They trusted her perception.
Many readers (particularly those who cannot forgive Justin), do not notice that at no point in the novel do we actually see him do anything mean to Taylor. He is present at many of the incidents of bullying, but never says anything mean himself. He is not even there when his friends put Alan up to knocking her in the sandpit. The worst he does to Taylor while the reader is watching, is fail to step up and stop his friends from tormenting her. Yet Taylor blames Justin and so, therefore, does the reader.
I have done a character interview with Justin where we see a scene that Taylor describes in the book from his point of view. It is interesting to compare them:
“I headed for my usual seat but someone was already there – a new boy. He sat with his back to the room, looking out of my window, so all I could see was his neatly clipped hair, almost as dark as mine, and his thin brown fingers playing restlessly with a pencil.
“Hey.” The boy turned and our eyes met. My first feeling was disappointment. He wasn’t black like Pete, or even half-and-half, like me; he was just a boy with a deep tan. His eyes were brown, like mine, but they flickered nervously, taking in my clenched fists and the sight of Pete and Hannah standing behind me. I narrowed my eyes. “That’s my seat.”
He bit his lip and said nothing. I glanced at the teacher. Mr Barnes wasn’t looking at us so I squared my shoulders.
“You’re new, so you don’t know. But that’s my seat. Harley’s not here today, why don’t you go and sit next to James?”
In his place across the classroom James heard his name, and leaned back to study us until my hackles rose. Finally he used one toe to push the empty seat back: a silent invitation to the new boy.
But the new boy gripped the table. He wasn’t going anywhere.
I pressed my lips together. “Look, today’s my birthday and I’d really like to sit in my own seat near my mates.” I tried a smile.
The boy licked his lips. “It’s your birthday?”
He looked out the window a final time then sighed and raised his voice loud enough for the rest of the class to hear. “Well seeing as it’s your birthday.” When he moved past the three of us he looked as if he really was doing me a favour.”
“It was my first day at this new school. I was ten years old and really nervous, but trying not to show it. I thought it would be like blood in the water, you know?
I got into the classroom early and found a seat by the window. I liked it there because it felt like being on the boundaries, a little bit outside, like I could stare out of the window and pretend I was by myself in the playground if things got too much.
Then there was this girl’s voice snapping at me that I was in her seat. I turned around. My eyes were a bit blurry from staring out at the sunshine, so at first she was more of a silhouette than anything else. I blinked a couple of times and she came into focus.
The first thing I noticed were her hands. She had clenched her fists – she was obviously really annoyed – but her wrists were really slim, the colour of pale honey and where they disappeared into the sleeves of her blouse my eyes wanted to follow the line of her ulna up past the white material. I remember badly wanting to see her elbows.
I looked up to find her glaring at me. Her eyes were the darkest brown I had ever seen, so dark that her irises and pupils almost merged. Her chin was small and pointed, an arrow directing me away from her grimace.
I could see right away that she was Chinese, but her skin was slightly darker, her eyes slightly rounder. Perhaps half English?
It felt as if I’d been punched in the solar plexus. For a whole minute I could barely breathe. She might have been the most beautiful thing I’d seen in my ten year life. I literally couldn’t move. I tightened my hands on the table because I think it was the only thing holding me upright.
I would have given her the seat back, given her anything, I just needed a minute to recover, but she didn’t know that. She bitched at me for a bit; then eventually told me it was her birthday.
Finally I managed to say something dumb. It felt like I was forcing my voice out through a tiny hole. I probably squeaked.
I said something like ‘seeing as it’s your birthday’ and then I got up and moved. I’m pretty sure I managed to retain some dignity; I didn’t fall over or anything.
I thought for sure she had to be the coolest girl in the class; everyone else looked pale and incomplete next to her. I tried to get her attention, but she barely knew I was alive. After all, she was the cool kid and I was the new boy.”
Because the reader can only know what Taylor knows, we cannot know that Justin has been in love with Taylor since the first moment he laid eyes on her. We cannot know that he blames her for the way that he was dragged into James’ twisted games (she made him sit next to James and later on carelessly gave him bad advice on how to deal with him), we cannot know that Justin tormented her at first just to gain her attention (he was in love and only ten after all) and that he regrets how his friends followed his lead. We cannot know that he stopped them from picking on her when her mother died and that the bullying restarted because Taylor got increasingly weird or that Justin himself hasn’t done anything cruel to her for ages.
We cannot see it, because Taylor cannot see it, but the clues are in the book for those who can step back far enough to see. In chapter two for instance, when we meet Justin, he actually saves her from James:
“James, what’s taking so long?” Justin’s arm was around Tamsin’s shoulder and he was stretched out on the back seat, apparently relaxed, but his eyes were steady on us. “We’ve got stuff to discuss. You’re holding us up, man.”
Yet, we do not see it, because Taylor does not see it.
Taylor does not know that she is being overheard. She does not know that the reader is here watching her life. But the reader must still be careful, because one person’s perception is always only half the story.
Bryony Pearce lives in a village on the edge of the Peak District and is a full time mum to her two small children, husband and cat. She is vegetarian and loves chocolate, wine and writing. People are often surprised at how dark her writing is and since the publication, by Egmont, of the award-winning Angel’s Fury, have started looking at her as though worried she might start serial killing in her spare time.
She enjoys doing school visits, festivals and events, when the children let her out of the house.
Her new book The Weight of Souls is published by Strange Chemistry on 1st August 2013.
For more information on Bryony, please visit her website www.bryonypearce.co.uk follow her on Twitter @BryonyPearce or like her FaceBook author page BryonyPearceAuthor.