Our Stuff and Our Things - first person bad, third person good
20 April 2012 in Our Stuff and Our Things
I’m working on my new novel in the normal one step forward, five steps backwards, I’m a genius, I can’t remember how to write, kind of way. As always, I have issues when it comes to figuring out voice in these early drafts, in particular, whether to use first person or third person, or a mix of the two. This was a major stumbling block for me during the writing of my last novel, The Mistress of Nothing. Turns out that it’s a stumbling block with this new book as well.
Before Christmas I had a working draft of the first part of the novel, an eighty page chapter with which I was rather pleased. In it, I’d used an almost random mix of first and third person, as well as past and present tense. Needless to say, on reflection, spurred on by the incredulous horror expressed by one of my agents upon reading it, this didn’t work. So I’ve embarked on a complete rewrite, which I’m about half—way through.
The story of Our Stuff and Our Things grows out of my digital fiction project ‘Flight Paths’, created by me and Chris Joseph. When it comes to works of multimedia that reside on screens, like ‘Flight Paths’ and ‘Inanimate Alice’, I’ve found that the first person works extremely well. There’s something about the intimacy and immediacy of the first person that works well for text on a screen; it’s the voice of the character, speaking directly to you as you click and scroll and navigate your way through the story. Many of the multitude of episode 5s of ‘Inanimate Alice’ that have been created by students around the world use the first person. ‘Flight Paths’ uses two first person voices, interwoven to tell a story.
So I suppose it was only natural (read: not thought-through) that when I embarked on writing a novel that takes as its starting point the ‘encounter’ between the two characters from ‘Flight Paths’ - Harriet and Yacub (he falls out of a plane and lands on her car) - that I should continue to write using their first person voices, voices that I could hear very clearly inside my head.
But it doesn’t work. If there is one thing that long-form prose fiction offers above all forms of story-telling, it is the ability to provide psychological insight, to go inside characters’ heads and bring forth their memories, their perceptions, their ideas. Writing in the first person has severe limitations when it comes to opening out and exploring a story through an ensemble of characters over time. So I’ve ditched it.
Hard work. As @touretteshero, the brave young woman campaigning to raise awareness of Tourette’s Syndrome, said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme earlier this week: Biscuit.
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