What You've GoT To Know About Having A Writing Mentor and I believe the same of this one.
FINDING YOUR VOICE: Writing in the Third Person (or First)
Or – who is telling this story?
What I am writing about in this blog post will not be new to other authors, who will all have asked themselves the same question many times, possibly even several times in the course of writing one novel. Readers, though, may not be aware of the importance of the question, or of how a writer decides whether to write the novel in first person (I) or third (he, she). It is a question which needs to be answered before the author even starts tapping out Chapter One on the keyboard.
What difference does it make? A good story is a good story no matter whose voice is telling it – right? Well, yes, that is true, of course, but the writer’s choice of voice will completely alter the novel. It will be the same story, same plot, and same characters but, you the reader will be taken on a different journey depending on the author’s choice of voice.
Using the first person voice – the ‘I’ voice – allows the writer to tell the story from the point of view of a character – most often, the main character. This allows the reader to get very close to the character, to become emotionally involved in everything the character does feels and thinks.
The disadvantage of using the first person voice is that it limits the reader to the perspective of that character. Readers only know what the character knows – so the writer can’t tell the reader what is going on in some’s else’s head or show what the other characters are doing when ‘off the page’. One other point about the first person voice is that the reader is aware (even if only subconsciously) that the author is perhaps not telling the whole truth or omitting character flaws. A first person narrator is always unreliable.
The third person voice can either be omniscient or limited. If the author chooses to use the omniscient third person the reader can follow all the characters and sub-plots even when the characters don’t know what is going on. It is much less emotionally engaging than the first person voice or third person limited.
Third person limited is the most popular, especially in novels which are linear and don’t have too many sub-plots. The writer can show the reader the character’s thoughts and everything she sees and does. It is as if the reader is witnessing events through the character’s eyes. The beauty of third person limited is that it is possible to give the reader other character’s points of view – providing the switch is made cleanly and doesn’t cause confusion.
When I started writing my novel No More Mulberries I knew I wanted to tell Miriam’s story. Miriam is a Scottish midwife married to Iqbal, an Afghan doctor and the couple live and work in a remote, rural area of Afghanistan. Their marriage is clearly in trouble and Miriam can’t pinpoint what is going wrong or why Iqbal has changed from the man she married. I worked in similar remote areas of Afghanistan for several years and can draw on lots of personal experiences to provide an authentic portrayal of daily life there. I wanted readers to feel close to Miriam, to be on her side all the way, so decided on the first person voice and started writing.
However, part way in, I was having problems. The story was beginning to seem too one-sided. Yes, I wanted readers to empathise with Miriam and her struggles to deal with cross cultural issues, family concerns and a seemingly uncaring husband but not to the point readers would start to wonder why she didn’t pack her bags and leave. That unreliable narrator I mentioned was at work, and I began to feel Iqbal’s side of the story was not being fully explored.
Iqbal is a more complex character than Miriam was suggesting and I wanted the reader to know that. He bears metaphorical and physical scars from his childhood; he is battling against his own narrow, cultural upbringing and his difficulty in communicating emotions. And so, I began again, this time in the third person. This time I could let Iqbal’s back story be told so readers could a better understand why he is the way he is. And Miriam has to accept there are other sides to the story of a relationship!
Think about some of your favourite novels and consider how different they would be if written in a different voice from the one the author chose.
If you read No More Mulberries when you reach chapter four – have a think about how it could have been written if I was still determined to write the novel in the first person. It would be a different story and, I believe, not nearly as layered and complex as it is.
After returning to Scotland she worked as a freelance journalist while writing her first book, Before The Taliban: Living with War, Hoping for Peace. This narrative non-fiction account of her time in Afghnaistan lets the reader meet some of the ordinary Afghan women and their families with whom Mary worked.
Her second book, No More Mulberries, also set in Afghanistan is her first novel.
Mary's years in Afghanistan - often working in remote rural areas - allows her to bring a high degree of authenticity to her work.
Mary Smith is now a freelance journalist while working on her second novel and first poetry collection.
For more information on Mary's journalism, poetry and other projects visit her website atwww.marysmith.co.uk