If you’ve read my novels, Four Wives and Social Lives, you know that I like to write within a specific structure. Multiple characters, alternating chapters, different voices. This enables me to keep the plot moving, connect readers with each of the characters, and intertwine several plot lines within one master story. It’s also a lot of fun! For one chapter, I can be scandalous and dramatic. In the next, I can be brainy and complicated. I can be a woman on the brink of an affair, a man lost within his own fabulous life, or a teenager caught in a dangerous cycle of self-destruction.
As I write this new novel, I am keeping much of this structure, but making one significant change. In this novel, I have a dominant character, Melanie Thomas, and I am writing her in first person.
Writing in first person is actually quite liberating for an author. By providing a direct line of communication between the reader and character, first person narrative can be a powerful tool. Alternating between first and third person is also very useful, because it adds additional avenues for suspense. For example, an action sequence can occur in one chapter with secondary characters. In the next chapter, when the reader returns to the main character, she is desperate for this character to know what just happened because it (a) solves her problem, (b) saves her life, (c) threatens her life, etc. Wanting her to uncover the action that the reader already knows about provides a huge incentive to turn the page! Please, for the love of God, let her find out!
But alternating between first person with the readers’ favorite character and third person with the supporting characters can be tricky. It requires the reader to shift gears, to leave the head of the main character and process the new information that is being delivered through the others. The change in voice can also be tricky because it completely alters the tone of the book.
In this novel, Melanie (Mel) is a little flip at times, sarcastic, sharp-witted and discerning of those around her. Though she is a victims’ rights advocate with a lot of serious issues on her mind, she has a quirky suburban family. Sandwiched between two sisters, young, hip Belle and minivan-driving conservative Claire, she finds humor in the family interactions. Their mother, Judy, is also a colorful character. Having rediscovered feminism later in her life, she is outspoken and determined to influence her daughters’ decisions.
The chapters with Mel’s family are a joy to write because that’s what I’ve done for most of my writing career – pulled apart the relationships between women. The challenge for me is to not go so far into what could be considered traditional women’s fiction that I derail the reader from the main plot, which is the drama of Mel’s newest case involving the assault of a teenage girl.
I am 50 pages in now, and at a crucial juncture. Mel and George, who have been working the same story from two different angles (George is a reporter), finally cross paths. Here is my dilemma as I sit down (hopefully today if my kids stay put at their camps) to write the next chapter. Is Mel’s first encounter with her true love after 13 years written in first person, or third? Is it more effective to focus on Mel’s point of view, or is it better to have both of their reactions conveyed equally? If I write in Mel’s voice, George’s feelings will have to be disclosed through his actions and then in a subsequent chapter when we can get into his head through third person narrative. If I don’t write in Mel’s voice, or first person, then we will see Mel in a different light – through the eyes of the narrator (me).
I am going to face this same dilemma in every chapter where Mel meets new characters who have been in third person chapters. I’m not sure what I’ll end up doing, but I will keep you posted!