The novel I have just finished writing is narrated exclusively from one point of view. It’s not in first person, it’s in third, but I tell the story entirely via the perspective of my main character, Catherine. This is the first time I’ve tried this approach, having always previously narrated events from a variety of viewpoints.
Catherine and I have been together for nine months now and we have come to know each other pretty well. So well, in fact, that we are now almost inseparable: she’s there in my head when I’m walking the dog, when I’m chopping vegetables for the kids’ tea and even (see how intimate we are!) when I’m lying in the bath.
Fair enough, you might say. Good characterisation is premised on our ability to know our characters inside out. My problem, though, is that we are almost too close. I have begun to lose my ability to tell where my thoughts end and Catherine’s begin.
The key to writing good fiction, we are told, is ‘voice’. We have to develop our own individual style of expression, because that’s what will make our work fresh and original and distinct. But our characters, we are warned, need voices of their own, too: also distinctive, also unique. For me, with this book, the two have begun to blur in my mind. My voice and Catherine’s – which is which?
It ought to be easiest to tell us apart when I’m writing dialogue. If Catherine is speaking, using her own words, then that’s her own voice, right? But even then it’s probably 2 or 5 or 10% me. Across characters and across novels, it should still read like my writing, shouldn’t it? Mr Darcy doesn’t talk like Colonel Brandon, nor Emma Wodehouse like Anne Elliot, but in the speech patterns of all four we nevertheless recognise a unique Jane Austen style of dialogue.
Then there’s the narrative – all that undifferentiated other stuff that’s not in inverted commas. That should be in my voice, yes? Or should it? Because if I’m in Catherine’s viewpoint, and seeing events with her eyes, shouldn’t the narrative be partly her as well as partly me?
I think the percentage of each of our voices present in the mix varies across different parts of the narrative.
Sometimes I’m absolutely inside Catherine’s head, and what I am saying about events is more less entirely in Catherine’s own words, just as if it were external dialogue. (Some authors use italics or even tags – ‘she thought’, etc. – at such points, to indicate it’s the character’s own internal musings. But in ‘free indirect style’ which most of us now adopt, we don’t need to bother, right?)
At other times, although I’m telling the story from Catherine’s point of view, I’m more detached from her immediate thoughts, telling them from the outside. Here I use my own narrative voice far more, my own choice of words and patterns of construction more than hers.
Those are just the two extremes, however, and there is a whole muddled spectrum of shades in between, where the me-to-Catherine ratio swings to and fro, often with bits of me and bits of her thrown in cheek by jowl without any tidy separation. Small wonder if she and I suffer an occasional confusion of identities!
How about this little exchange, as an example? Catherine is talking to her ex-husband, Graeme, who has just split up with his second wife, Suzannah.
Catherine laid her hand on top of his, where it still rested on her arm. ‘And how about you? How are you doing?’
Without Suzannah. She genuinely wanted to know, and she knew he knew it.
‘Not too bad. I guess we both saw it coming, but it didn’t make it any easier.’
Is this what remained, eight years after a marriage? A residual loyal watchfulness; a fearfulness for each other’s hurts.
Some snippets of the commentary which frames the conversation are 95% Catherine. ‘Without Suzannah’, for example. Or the two sentences beginning ‘Is this what remained…?’ Those are her reflections, not mine.
But when I say ‘Catherine laid her hand on top of his’, that’s pretty well 100% me. Similarly, ‘She genuinely wanted to know’ – although it’s still from her viewpoint in that I am giving the reader access to her thoughts – is probably 80% me, because those are my words. She wants to know, but she isn’t thinking with her conscious mind, ‘Ooo, I genuinely want to know.’
Whereas that phrase ‘she knew he knew it’ is, I’d say, close to 50:50. On one level it’s me saying to the reader that he knew she knew, but it’s also a characteristically Catherine-like phrase – and actually, because we’re in her viewpoint, I’m also indirectly letting the reader know that Catherine knows that he knows she knows…
Confused yet? I thought so. And if you’re confused about what’s what and who’s who, then you are coming somewhere close to understanding my chronic identity crisis!