My first novel had a single first person narrator throughout. It was the ideal choice, since the book was loosely based on a fairy tale in which the central character is mute for much of the story (think Jane Campion’s wonderful movie, The Piano.) First person allowed the reader into her thoughts and feelings, and meant we could walk her journey alongside her. I kept the same pattern for the rest of that series, with a different narrator in each book.
I love the immersive feel of a first person voice, but of course it doesn’t suit all stories. First person is intimate, bringing reader and character close. If the narrator is unreliable, first person can draw us in, then deliver a big punch when the truth becomes evident. But it does give a very tight focus to the story, the only ‘live’ scenes being those in which the narrator is physically present. If there’s only one narrator, other characters are denied a point of view, making it trickier to show their thoughts and feelings. Devices such as dreams or visions do provide a vehicle for such insights, especially when writing fantasy, in which the uncanny is usually present in some form. I made use of psychic connections between some characters in that series.
Later on I wrote novels on a more epic scale, with a bigger cast and a wider geographical reach. Third person was a better fit for those. I gradually learned that with clever use of tight third person rather than distant third or an omniscient view, a writer can create the huge canvas of a saga while also allowing the reader deep into the minds of the main characters. With each new series, I set myself some further challenges and tried out different techniques. I noted how brilliantly some writers use structure and voice in the service of storytelling. As I continue writing, I keep on learning. I’ve moved gradually toward a structure in which a small cast of central characters takes turns narrating in first person, chapter by chapter. This approach can also work well with tight third person, in the right hands – an excellent example is Joe Abercrombie‘s The First Law series.
At present I’m putting the finishing touches to the last book in my current trilogy, a historical fantasy series called Warrior Bards. Those of you who write trilogies will know about the challenges of the third book, in which the writer must tie up the threads of two stories to the reader’s satisfaction: the one-book, stand-alone story, and the over-arching series story. In this series I have a trio of central characters narrating chapters in turn. Braiding three strands is relatively straightforward, even when those three strands don’t match (characters are individuals.) But what if the story takes those three strands in different directions? What if it’s necessary to add a fourth narrator? How can this become a neatly woven, coherent story?
In this book, the over-arching story requires my narrators to be separated for a long stretch of chapters. Not only are they physically apart, but they can’t easily send messages. This story is set long before the time of motorised transport and lightning-fast communications. Then there’s the fact that the characters are working under cover; contact holds an added risk. How could I maintain the connections between my narrators, whose interactions and developing relationships had helped bring the earlier books alive? Might this be both challenge and opportunity? [Read more…]