By Alex Raley
Just when I think my brain has finally gotten a grip on writing, something jars the hold. Early in my writing attempts I heard repeatedly that writing in the first person, especially long pieces like a novel, was so difficult as to be avoided at all costs. You know the problems – how do we avoid portraying only one dimension of a situation? whose head are we in? how do we give the reader a glimpse into the feelings of the various characters?
While on vacation recently, I read five novels which were published within the last five years. All of them used the first person singular. In each case, there was a hint of memoir, but you knew that this was not the recounting of facts from someone’s life. There was a compelling story to be told and enjoyed. The story was filled with interesting descriptions of places and events. Most remarkably, “I” appeared just often enough to remind you of who was telling the story and, in at least one case, a principal character was not the narrating “I”.
At our state conference last year a reviewer told me that my short story was about the male character and not the female character. I had tried to make the female the main character. While the reviewer did not specifically tell me to let the male tell the story in first person, I said, “Umm.” The rewriting is going smoothly with the fearsome “I” occasionally presenting problems. Now if I can just write with a minimum of “I’s”, I may be able to make the story what I want it to be.
Another dictum for us as writers is to make sure that the reader knows who is your main character. That does not seem too complicated, but I have found myself trying to write a novel in which several characters are “main.” It was important to me that the reader know the feelings and thoughts of several people who were affected by the story. Letting the principals each have a section of the book in which they were portrayed seemed like a reasonable solution. I was well into the process of redirecting the novel, when I read Orpheus Lost by Janette Turner Hospital. In that wonderful book, Hospital even helps the reader by giving chapters the names of characters so that we know the seminal person or event.
We are always told that writers learn by reading. This summer I have reaffirmed that notion. Looking for help? Read, read, read.