Speaker and Actor; Perils of the First Person
I didn’t immediately realize what I was getting into when I started writing Skullsworn. I wanted to explore the life a secondary character from my original trilogy, a badass, life-loving, wise-cracking assassin named Pyrre. Readers enjoy her signature verbal style, so it seemed only natural to try telling the story in her voice. “How hard can it be?” I thought, never having written in first person before. “Just like writing dialogue, only more of it!”
As is not infrequently the case, I was an idiot.
One of the trickiest things about writing in the first person is deciding from what point in the narrator’s life the story is told. The most straightforward way around this is to set the story in the present tense, turning the narration into a kind of running inner monologue, but if the novel is cast in the past tense, a number of thorny questions immediately present themselves.
1. To whom is the narrator speaking?
2. In what context?
3. At what remove from the events described?
4. How is the narrative voice different from the voice of the character as it manifests in the events of the novel?
Writing first person in the past tense requires imagining two versions of your narrator: the one telling the story and the one living it. Those versions might be radically different.
For instance, if we’re reading a first-person novel in which an elderly grandmother reflects on a series of events that took place during her twenties, we’re going to want to know why she’s reflecting on it at this particular point. Why didn’t she tell the story when she was in her thirties? Forties? We’re also going to need to know the ways in which she is different as a character in her eighties versus her twenties.
All of this can be a real pain in the a**.
A lot of my early work on Skullsworn was devoted to grappling with this kind of question. I had a plot in mind, some characters I was excited to toss into the mix, some crocodile fights and human sacrifice, but I couldn’t decide from what perspective my assassin was telling her story, which meant I had no idea how to tell it at all. Were the tragic elements still fresh and raw in her mind? Was she relating them with philosophical detachment? Was she still healing from the wounds she takes in the novel, or had those wounds long ago turned to scar? How well did she actually remember the events, anyway? Was she even entirely reliable as a narrator? And perhaps most importantly, what was her motivation for telling the story?
The answers to all of these questions don’t necessarily need to be clear to the reader (although many of them probably should be), but I found myself unable to make any progress before I hunted them to ground one by one and answered them. It’s sort of astounding to me, now that the book is finished, how different the story would be—even keeping all the same crocodile fights and human sacrifice—if I had made different choices about the context in which the events are told, different decisions about “Narrator Pyrre” and her relationship to “Character Pyrre.”
Of course, as I write this, I realize that I’m writing a story about myself in the first person, “Blogging Brian” writing about “Writing Brian”. I like to think I have some greater understanding than that idiot who sat down to write the book in the first place, but the truth is I’m probably just as benighted as him.
Skullsworn is OUT NOW