Saturday 13 June 2015

The Right Voice for the Job: The First Person

When people talk about Narrative modes and Narrative Point of view it all sounds very complicated. Often it's instinctive. It's the choices of whether the story is told as 'I' or 'you' and whether it's in the Past Tense ('I said') or the Present Tense ('I say.')
Narrative modes in fiction are the methods that writers use to tell their stories. In other words, everything that encompasses basic storytelling elements.

Narrative Tense
Narrative Tense is when the story happens. Stories may be told in the Present Tense or in the Past Tense. The Past Tense is still the conventional tense for telling a story and many writers find it the easiest to handle. The Present Tense is more immediate, taking the reader into the heart of the protagonists' lives, combined with First Person point of view it can be incredibly powerful.

Narrative Point of View
The narrative point of view (POV) is the way of linking the narrator to the story.
If the reader doesn't feel interest, liking or empathy for the main characters (the narrating characters) they are unlikely to carry on reading.

In the First Person:
1.) The narrator refers to him or herself as I.
2.) Usually the I character is the protagonist, but that’s not essential.
3.) A story can feature multiple first-person narrators.
4.) The narrator is virtually always a character in the story (apart from stories told by a narrator who says that another person first told the story to him).

There are disadvantages with the First Person POV:
1.) It is hard to describe the narrating character without resorting to artificial strategies.
2.) The voice has to be right and the viewpoints expressed sympathetic. If not the First Person POV can irritate or alienate the reader.

There are many examples of First Person narratives, often a character telling a story where they are not the leading protagonist, such as Watson narrating the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or Hastings describing Hercule Poirot's investigations.

The Fragility of Poppies is due to be published this summer (2015.) It is a crime novel but it has a large amount of relationship/romance in it too. The action is divided between Annie Evans' life as an artist and art tutor, and her husband, Rick Evans' life and work as a detective inspector. At times their lives run parallel, at times together and sometimes they collide.
When I started to write The Fragility of Poppies, I instinctively wrote in the First Person, Present Tense. At first I intended the whole book to be in Annie's voice but then I realised I needed Rick's First Person narration too.
The use of two First Person narrators, both speaking in the Present Tense, made an interesting challenge. The hardest thing was to make sure that the two voices were easily identifiable. It was also challenging to make the time-lines of the two narrating characters run concurrently.

These are two starts of chapters, about a third of the way into the book, after the reader has already met the narrating characters and their work. They are both set in the morning, at the start of a working day.

1.) Annie Evans: a teacher at a F.E. Art College.
I wake up too late to go home before work and I feel glad I’ve brought a suitable change of clothes, but when I walk into the departmental office I wish I'd skived off for the day. The atmosphere's distinctly nasty. Lucy is listing all the changes Maris has made and scowling at Neil, who has lost his usual indifference to her attitude. He's in a foul mood and holding his head at a funny angle, which actually isn't funny because he's obviously in pain.
"Where's Sara?" I ask.
"Off sick," says Neil. "She went home in tears because someone upset her."
I follow the direction of his glare. "Lucy, what did you say to her?"
"I merely commented on the state of her desk. That girl has no idea of order."
"She manages if she's left to work in her own way." For the money the College pays we can't expect better than Sara and, in the past, we've had a great deal worse. "Lucy we're grateful to you for stepping into the breach but I asked you to keep things running, not to close the departmental office. Sara isn't your responsibility."
I half expect her to walk out on us and, from the blistering look he's giving me, Neil thinks the same. Instead she gives me a grim smile and says, "So keep my nose out? Fair enough, I'll try."

2.) Rick Evans, Detective Inspector at Galmouth Police Station in the south of England
I wake up when they're well into the post-mortem. They've got to the bit that requires drilling through the centre of my head. The pain helps me suss out I'm not dead and whoever's doing the drilling is doing it from inside. I make it to my feet, do an urgent pit-stop at the cloakroom, then out to the kitchen. I drink half a gallon of water followed by black, sweet, instant coffee and manage to choke down paracetamol.

When I get to the Incident Room, Roebuck sends for me. He looks down his nose like he's trying to decide what stone I was under before I crawled into his office.
"You're late."
"Sorry, sir.”
He glares at me and I think he's going to take me off the case. I don’t want that, not until we know about the kid and whether the link to Elmwash is for real. To my surprise he says, "I've got two important jobs for you. The Family Support Officer has had to take some leave. Can you liaise with the Frewers until she gets back?"
"Yes sir." That's shoving me right into the heart of the case.
"And there's something else. You know the Elmwash investigation inside out. I want you to interview the witnesses in this case and review the evidence to see if you can spot anything significant."
"Significant, sir?"
"Anything that ties this in with the Elmwash case."
"The Elmwash killer's dead."
"No, Ernest Clift is dead. I trust you'll approach this with an open mind. Take Detective Constable Kelly with you, it's best to have a woman on the job."
What would he know about having a woman on the job? “Yes sir.”

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