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Status Update #5: When First Isn’t Best

September 13, 2010

When I go on vacation and go into a restaurant, I usually look for the most interesting thing on the menu and order that.  This is my “what the hell” philosophy.  By that I mean, I’m probably never going to be back here, so why order a burger when I can get a fried crab sandwich or a crab grilled cheese?  What the hell, let’s do it!

Unfortunately that philosophy isn’t the best idea for writing stories.  I just finished Sisterhood:  Tales of the Coven, Volume 1 (and God willing there probably won’t be a volume 2 any time soon) and experimented with first-person, present tense narration.  At the time I was reading a book with first-person, present tense narration.  So I thought, what the hell.

The present tense isn’t the real problem, though I’ve never become a fan of it except in small doses.  The real problem is the first-person point of view.  It just did not work for this story.  Or really, it didn’t work for this character.

To really explain this you’d need a little background.  (I doubt you really care, Phantom Reader, but I’ll do it anyway.  My blog, my rules.)  In the Tales of the Scarlet Knight series there were two old witches:  Agnes and Sylvia.  They’re sisters–Agnes is the oldest and Sylvia is the youngest–and have different personalities.  Agnes is the nice one, the sweet old grandma who bakes cookies and kisses your boo-boos.  Sylvia is the tough one, the one who would tell you to bake your own damned cookies and suck it up if you scrape your knee.

As the series went on, the characters became more well-rounded.  They both decide to become young again (which they can do because they’re witches) and both acquire a lover.  Agnes’ lover is actually a woman and through some bizarre machinations they wind up creating a child.  Sylvia falls in love with a nerdy engineer and then dies to save his life.  In the process of writing all that, I also introduced some background for them.  Like that they came from France, that they had a middle sister (whose name changes like 3 times in the series) who dies in the Salem Witch Trials (so they think), and most importantly that Sylvia had an affair with Agnes’ husband and produced a child she gave up for adoption.

Then just for fun–what the hell!–I thought I’d write all of this background into a separate story, despite that I detest prequels.  When I was laying out the events, it became clear that Sylvia would be the most interesting character because she gets to go around killing monsters and vampires while Agnes mostly stays home and brews potions.

As I was getting ready to write it, I had that moment of, “Let’s write it in first-person, present tense!  What the hell!”  Since Sylvia was the one the story was going to focus on, it made sense to have her narrate.  It didn’t take me long–about four chapters–before I realized this wasn’t a good idea, but I figured I’d press on until the end.

It’s not like the story is complete crap–at least in my mind.  Sylvia’s character takes some interesting turns as she tries to come to terms with being a nearly-immortal witch.  She gets to be a lot more vulnerable as a main character than as a supporting character.

But I can’t help feeling that this kind of narration sold my character out.  For a hard-nosed loner like Sylvia (in that mold of Clint Eastwood’s western characters or Wolverine) you really need the distance that third-person narration provides.  She’s not really supposed to be vulnerable or sensitive or any of that; she’s supposed to be an ultimate badass!

The only way to do this properly in first-person would be to do it in the fashion of the old hard-boiled detective novels.  You know, the kind that start out with something like, “This dame came into my office…”  The problem was the material didn’t really lend itself to that.

First-person POV is one of those things that in vogue right now, but in this case–in my mind at least–it wasn’t the best way to go.  Really where the first person works better for me is when the narrator is more of an observer, the one along for the ride as opposed to the one behind the wheel.  That was what worked in my novel Where You Belong.  Although people complain about the narrator being too passive, the whole point is that he is too passive!  It was only after all the stuff he goes through that he starts to take more control of his own destiny.  If I had focused on one of the Maguire twins our narrator becomes involved with the book wouldn’t have worked as well because there would have been that tendency to make the narrator seem sympathetic when he/she wasn’t supposed to be.  I’m not as good at writing bad people in first-person as say Bret Easton Ellis.

It’s not that I didn’t want Sylvia to be sympathetic.  What I mean is that I didn’t want her to seem so vulnerable or weak.  She wasn’t supposed to be.  That wasn’t how I designed the character!  But sometimes things take on a life of their own.

I had this same sort of problem when I did the second draft of Tales of the Scarlet Knight, Volume 1.  I did the first draft in third-person but then what the hell! I did the second draft with Marlin the ghost and Keeper of the Lore for the Order of the Scarlet Knight narrating.  That didn’t work either, but for a different reason.  In that case Marlin couldn’t be everywhere, seeing everything or knowing what people were thinking.  In a story with various characters running around, trying to have Marlin narrate became a liability because I had to keep trying to explain how he would know something, like why he would be following a certain character around at that point.

Clearly first-person POV does work in a lot of cases, but in cases like these it doesn’t.  Sometimes you have to resist that voice saying, “What the hell!”

Now I’ll maybe finally be working on “Chet Finley Vs. The Machines of Fate” which I’ve been meaning to get to for a year now.  It will most definitely be third-person–at least in the first draft.

That is all.


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