I had an interesting chat recently about point of view and how writers use different voices in their writing. The Birds That Never Flew regularly switches between first and third person narrative voices. I used this approach because it feels natural to me and the way I write.
I enjoy the intensity of the first person narrative; the intimacy of the voice, the immediacy of the character’s actions and interactions from their point of view. It’s a true reflection of how the character sees themselves and their situation and surroundings. It is, however, an emotional way to write and these sometimes tragic and heart-wrenching emotions (very often you become entwined with your character, your heart racing along simultaneously with theirs) can be draining. That’s one of the reasons I find the switch from first to third person POV so useful. It allows me to fall into the story from a different perspective. Not necessarily in a disconnected way, the power is still there, but the reflections are different, adding to the narrative in a rounder way. I can step back but all the while move right into the story using another’s eyes, and of course emotions.
I think this is an important switch for the reader too. When I was writing TBTNF I was conscious of how crippling it might be for the reader to spend time inside my protagonist’s head. Elizabeth’s life, shaped by sexual and physical violence in childhood and adulthood, is incredibly harrowing, so she’s an emotionally draining character to live alongside. A gear switch to observe and contemplate her world from a different point of view helped with the pace of the narrative, and also allowed me to put the appalling consequences of the impact of other characters’ actions on her life into a far deeper context. It was useful for me too, writing scenes of abuse are incredibly difficult, even more so when you are in the head of those suffering the extreme violence. Don’t get me wrong, she has moments of joy and her relationship with her child and her friends are simple and beautiful, themes that run throughout the story. In some small way, in approaching the story in the way I did, I was able to look out for her.
The discussion on POV came about when I was talking to the playwright/screenwriter I am working with on a potential adaptation of TBTNF for stage. Yes, this is very exciting, but I am aware of the volume of material that is optioned that doesn’t go anywhere so I am cautiously joyous! That said, it is rather lovely to think that the story is shifting so dramatically and heading in another challenging, yet thrilling, direction. I think my story could be incredibly powerful in 4d.
While we were talking about the dual POVs and the various themes in TBTNF my theatre man (we’ll call him “E” for now) said that he felt there was a synergy between my novel and the powerful themes he absorbed in Emma Donoghue’s ROOM.
I am really chuffed by this. E’s ability to understand the depth of the themes in my novel has given me the comfort I need to let him get on with taking my story and adapting it into a narrative that can unfold on stage. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the script (I will receive a draft in two months). I didn’t think I would ever feel so emotionally free enough from my characters to allow them exist independently of me, their creator, but time is obviously a great healer. I still love my girls, but I’m ready to let them move on and do something majestic with their lives.
As we rounded up the conversation on voice I mentioned that I had read somewhere recently (can’t remember where) that most writers write their first novel in the first person POV because of their inexperience and then mature into the confidence of writing from the controlled and confident perspective of a third person narrative.
This unnerved me and in response I questioned my writing in my new novel. Like TBTNF the POV regularly shifts in “wee voices”. Had I got it terribly wrong? Am I a failure? Am I unable to write properly? Overnight I lost my nerve, and my faith in my narrative. I took my “immature” first person POV and began writing both the lead characters again, this time unfurling their arcs in third person narratives, buzzing through the text like a bee sucking the last of the pollen from the sycamore.
It was a complete waste of time. It didn’t work for me and I quickly changed the text back, resting easier when I recognised the voices as true to me. I love reading a book with a storytelling voice but I don’t think I’m naive in finding that my writing voice has to switch. I think it means I have the confidence to believe in the very characters I have created. So, first and third it is and shall remain in this book.
I guess the real message is write what you want to write, you have to draw the story from deep within so that should be from where you are at your most confident. Do what you need to do, not what other voices tell you. It’s your own voice that is the most important in writing not the expert who doesn’t understand your POV.