I have always preferred writing in first person. I find it far more natural to adopt the voice of a character and explore the narrative through their worldview than to take on the role of omniscient narrator. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t tried the alternative, to varying degrees of success.
I think the challenge I find when it comes to writing in third person is that it’s so much harder to explore what is going through a character’s head. In first person you essentially become the character and so articulating their experience is fairly straightforward but to do third person well you have to show rather than tell, and this is much harder, especially when you’re still trying to make the audience empathise.
It’s no coincidence that Windmills and Boone Shepard, the two of my stories that have persisted the longest, were both written in first person. Boone’s wry, exasperated, self deprecating approach to his adventures is fundamental to the style of his stories while one of Windmills’ biggest strengths was always the contrasting perspectives of its three central characters. First person allowed me to dig deep and I think was an inherent part of the reason those stories have always been so important to me.
And yet the time seems to have come where I have no choice but to kill that particular darling, at least as far as Windmills is concerned. I’ve been writing a fair bit in blogs lately about the current iteration of that novel, which I’ve been slowly working on over the last year, but one thing I haven’t mentioned is that, unlike previous versions, this one is in third person.
Part of the reason for this is the condensation of the narrative. Originally Windmills took place in four distinct parts over several years, each told from the perspective of a different character. The current version essentially tells the same stories in a much smaller time frame, meaning they largely occur parallel to each other, and this made writing in first person much more challenging. I briefly considered pulling a George R.R. Martin and having the story alternate between the perspectives of three viewpoint characters, but it doesn’t really suit Windmills; certain extended parts have to be told from one character’s point of view while others require more jumping between perspectives. Some of this structure is due to the fact that this particular iteration of Windmills was originally designed for television, where I could be far looser about whose eyes we saw events unfold through, but in a first person novel that has as much going on as Windmills does that becomes an impossible task and so, to tell this story the way I felt I needed to, my only choice was to bite the bullet and shift to third person.
It’s been a weird experience, to say the least. The writing hasn’t felt nearly as natural as previous versions, and yet reading back over it I think it’s significantly better than any of them. Third person has certainly given me the narrative flexibility I needed but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m so used to telling this story through the eyes of specific characters that taking a step back makes me feel oddly disconnected, like I’m not as invested as I have been in previous attempts. Of course part of this is certainly due to the fact that I’ve been working on various reworkings of Windmills for so long that it’s a legitimate surprise that I have any passion left for the story at all, but being unable to relay events in the unique voices of Leo, Lucy and Ed is weird.
That said, I think it’s largely been a benefit. I mentioned above that third person requires you to show more than you tell and so I’ve taken this as an opportunity to introduce more subtlety and ambiguity to the narrative. I can depict the actions of the characters with the barest glimpse of their thoughts and let the audience put two and two together regarding the whys of their choices. It gives a slight detachment to proceedings, but I think it makes for a more interesting novel on the whole. I’ve always had a tendency to over-explain in my writing and telling the story this way kind of forces me to do the opposite in order to make it compelling. It’s a weird, uncomfortable step into new and different territory for me, but reading over the novel so far makes me think it’s working. When you’ve written a story as many times as I’ve written Windmills it’s easy to become set in your ways but important to be willing to break said ways to break new ground and give yet another version of the same story a valid reason to exist.
If you want to progress as a writer you have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone in more than just the territory you explore. Even if it seems scary or like you have to say goodbye to something you loved, the results may just surprise you.
Writing words about writing words.