“So, what I told you was true…from a certain point of view.”
I think about those lines, spoken by Obi-Wan Kenobi in Return of the Jedi quite a bit when it comes time to start writing something new. Whose point of view am I telling the story from? Are they reliable in their narration? What is their voice? Is it the best means of transmitting the story in my head to my readers.
In One Fate for Failure, I made the decision to write in the first person. I felt like a great deal could be added to the narrative by filtering it through Maddie’s perspective. The entire tone of the story depended on her voice being an ever present force in the text. Take for example this bit of expository inner-dialog that we get from her in the first chapter;
Rick was ex-Delta and I was Naval Intelligence. We were as different as two people could be, but we had a mutual respect that made us gel in ways that lots of people wished they could. There were plenty of people in the intelligence community who didn’t care for me much at all for one reason or another. I couldn’t tell you why. Well, I could but I won’t because it’s crass and I don’t have the stomach for it. I come from a family that was always big on being proper. My parents were New England blue blood through and through. Cape Cod in the summer type of folks. They raised me to have manners and be respectful like a lady should. Then they died in a boating accident like the worst kind of east coast cliché and in my adolescence discovered a lot of things about myself while rebelling to manage my grief.
If I were to try to re-write that same excerpt of text from a different perspective, the same information would be conveyed but it is the fact that the details being relayed are being voiced by the character herself that lend it the appropriate tone. She is making these observations about herself and that somehow, to me at least, makes the whole passage more legitimate and serves the character better. While Maddie is telling us what is going on in her head, feeding us information, the fact that she is divulging this sort of backstory lets us know that she has a self-analytical mind and thus the layered distribution of information makes for a deeper reading experience.
I have only written in first person once before, in 2012’s Grave Danger. I’m not sure if a pattern is emerging or if my two recent writing exercises demanded a first person narration due to the conventions of their genre. At its heart, Grave Danger is a detective noir, albeit filled with paranormal elements, and the whole thing played out in black and white with that growly voice over narration that was ever present in those early detective films of classic Hollywood. One Fate for Failure’s first person perspective was driven by my desire to round out my central character. There was a central motivation there. It didn’t so much have to do with convention, seeing as it was a take-off of Fleming and his progeny.
So how do you make that final decision as to what perspective to write from? What is the best way to tell your story?
The truth is that it depends on authorial purpose. As a teacher I try to explain authorial purpose to my students and some of them rebel at the idea because they say “well how the hell would I know what he was thinking?” But as a writer your purpose should be clear in your head before you ever sit down to write. I knew when I began outlining One Fate for Failure that I wanted to subvert tropes found in the spy genre and make a comment on those same conventions. I knew that I would want to throw some winks at the audience and the best way to do that was to have the narrator make them for me. That only works within the context of the genre if the narration is first person. Add that to the fact that I wanted my prose to have the rich, layered delivery of information that I mentioned earlier and the choice was practically made for me.
Ask yourself why you want to write and what you are seeking to accomplish. Then you can make the decision as to what perspective to write from. If you can answer those questions, it should be a fairly easy process. If you can’t answer those questions, your story probably isn’t ready to be written yet. I’m already prepping my next project. It’s outlined and ready to go. I know that I want to tell a story that, again, subverts a particular genre, but I want to play within those conventions and as such I know that this time around I will be utilizing an omnipotent third-person narrator. My aim with this is to give the proceedings a feel akin to a folk-tale, as if the story is being related years down the line from someone who heard it from someone else.
A writer needs to be self-analytical to be worth a damn. It is a primal urge to get our stories onto the page but we also have to resist the urge to let the story control us as writers. The story works in service of your own authorial intent. Never lose sight of that.