Not too long ago, something very strange happened to me. I sat down to rewrite a section of my novel and, half way through, I realised that I was writing it from the first person instead of limited third person. All of a sudden I was grounded in my main character’s head and not just privy to his thoughts, but also experiencing his fear, pain and doubt.
I have made a concious decision to write the main arc of my novel, That which is left is lost, in a third person limited viewpoint. This is partly because I have three sections where the story is told from the first person viewpoint of other characters relating their past experiences. I wanted these to be distinct and easily recognisable as ‘flashback’ scenes from the past, so it made sense to immerse the reader in these characters’ memories whilst keep the main flow of narration separate to this.
Also, I wanted my protagonist to remain distant from my readers. He is not a particularly ‘inward’ facing character, therefore in order to be able to share information about his past I need to be able to explain matters without having my protagonist dwell on them. He might very well remember the moment his mother died, but he doesn’t necessarily connect this to his desire to ensure others don’t die alone, nor does he understand that his father’s death – a solitary affair in a bedsit where he lay undiscovered for some time – also fuels this motivation to ensure others have ample support in their time of need.
Thus, this section I had written as my protagonist surprised me. I hadn’t realised how rigid he was in his beliefs, nor how he made observations about people’s behaviour that gave him clues to how they were feeling. He’s a lot more compassionate than I thought, but also more judgemental. He regrets his mistakes, but does not accept responsibility for them. These are all things that are new to me in my understanding of him. Perhaps these nuances shouldn’t be a surprise; maybe it demonstrates that I don’t know my character well enough. But, writing him in the first person certainly allowed me a glimpse into an inner psyche that I hadn’t realised he owned beyond my creation of him.
I’m still going to write my novel in the limited third person viewpoint – with my first person narrative flashbacks – but, I might attempt to write those scenes I’m finding difficult in the first person from now on, just to see if it elicits an aspect of the action that I would otherwise have missed. At the very least it will allow me to explore my character in more depth and make sure that the story I have written for him makes sense for who he really is.
It’s possible that this technique could also work the other way around – using the third person narrative to gain some distance from a first person character and gauge the reactions that might occur as a result of their behaviour: is it believable? How might other characters react to this scene objectively? Is it missing out the emotive descriptions necessary to justify the first person viewpoint? Lots of potential to explore by doing this, perhaps, and I might try it this way around for my flashback scenes when I get to them.
If anything, this experience has taught me not to take viewpoint for granted. It’s also allowed me to realise the impact that writing from different points of view has on me as the writer, as oppose to a reader. I would definitely recommend experimenting with it if you’re having trouble with a particular scene or doubting if a character’s motivation is realistic. Even writing the same thing from differing viewpoints can have a revealing effect on the scene itself, permitting you as the writer a much more significant understanding of the key events and its impact on your characters, rather than simply seeing it from a single character’s perspective.
How do you chose which viewpoint to write in? Does it come naturally or is it a concious choice?
Let me know in comments or tweet me your view!