I’ve been meaning to get around to this for some time now. The theme for ‘Elli Writes’ June contest is ‘A New Pair of Boots’ – writing in someone else’s shoes, and whilst I know the idea of the challenge is to force you to write from someone else’s perspective, the contest has inspired me to write a blog post on the subject of characters and perspectives.
For a start, I’ve discovered I write far quicker in the first person. Maybe that’s just because I’ve spent over half my life journalling. Or maybe it’s because you dwell less on description in the first person than you do in the third person (or at least I do!). The first person allows you to focus solely on one character’s thoughts and emotions, whilst the third person is obviously broader. There’s more to consider, both character-wise, and also from a lyrical standpoint. The reason third person writing takes longer, is because sentences written in the third person can normally include more elevated, creative description, and as such, every sentence requires careful thought. For me, first person writing often becomes a stream of thought. I don’t know if that means I write better in the first person, or that my writing is lazier in the first person, but that simple initial choice of perspective can completely and utterly change a book.
At the moment I’m writing a novel called ‘Mercury’s Child’, which I’ve now mentioned a couple of times. It’s my first stab at science fiction, and initially started as a far ‘younger’ project, as compared to my other novels. The two other ‘children’s’ works I’ve written are teenage fantasy novels. Teenagers with superpowers. However, because of the nature of the worlds, the timings of the characters lives, and the necessary naivete of the protagonist, Mercury’s Child is a book about an eleven year-old, and as such I decided to target the book at a younger audience – maybe 11-15 year-olds, as opposed to the 14-19 year-old bracket my other books has been designed primarily for.
Initially I decided to write the book in the first person. Because I find it easier, quicker … and possibly the lazy option 😉 However, the problem with writing about an 11 year-old in the first person, is that you then need to think like I’m an 11 year-old. Now, I like to think of myself as a bit of a big kid at heart, and I don’t think I have problems empathizing with teenagers, in fact, in a number of ways I probably still lead a rather teenage life. I live with my (friend’s) parents, drive someone else’s car, and a mortgage and marriage are both things which are still a long way off! For those reasons I enjoy writing teenage fiction, because in a lot of ways I simply write how I think.
And whilst I was obviously 11 years old at some point, if I’m honest, I don’t really remember it all too well! I definitely don’t think like an eleven year-old. And for that reason, I eventually decided to write the book in the third person. Because, whilst this perspective might require more careful crafting, and doesn’t allow for stream of thought writing, it also doesn’t require a detailed insight into the mind of your protagonist. It requires some, but not total empathy.
So, I began writing a book for 11 to 15 year-olds in the third person. And within a few chapters I noticed something else. I write way too old for that age-group! As an author, I genuinely think it’s hard to hide your own voice. Some might argue that’s all part of the craft, and obviously it is to some degree. You don’t want to write an autobiography, you want to write fiction. But fiction, as I’ve said before, is also writing about what you know. Writing about what you understand. And as Mercury’s Child took shape in the third person, I realised I wasn’t writing a book for 11 to 15 year-olds. I was writing about an eleven year old girl and her family, for readers in their late teens and adulthood. And whilst that might seem like a failure for some, for me, I think it just means I know my target audience. I know where my talents lie. And rather than try to force a story into a form I think it ought to take, I’d prefer to leave it in its natural form, and see if it works that way.
Because this is the thing I’ve found about walking in someone else’s shoes … it only really works within certain parameters. The shoes don’t necessarily have to be your own, but they have to be a reasonably good fit! Whether you’re writing in the third person, or even more specifically in the first person, you need to know your character. You need to understand your character. And you need to understand your reader. And whilst no one wants to read an autobiography where the names have simply been changed to call it fiction (apart from maybe The Devil Reads Prada!) that doesnt mean people want to read something completely foreign to a writer. Good writing comes from the heart. Your heart. Not someone else’s. And so you need to understand your own story. You need to live your own story.
That’s why Mercury’s Child, in my opinion, works best pitched at older children and adults, and in the third person. Because, whilst I understand my characters and the worlds I’ve created, I best represent those characters and those worlds in the voice of a teenager/adult. In a voice rather similar to my own. That isn’t to say adults can’t write for younger children – as is obvious from almost all children’s literature! – I just know where my voice is strongest.
Following on from this idea of knowledge and understanding, I really struggle with the idea, as a female writer, of writing about a male protagonist. Ok, from a distanced third person perspective, I might be able to do it. (It’s something J.K. Rowling obviously nailed!). But it’s not something I would choose, because I understand girls. I know them, because I am one! I don’t think I would ever excel at writing from a male first person standpoint, because, quite simply I don’t know how men think! Men and women are really different creatures, and I don’t think I could ever be confident enough to establish a credible enough male voice. Even in the third person, I’ve struggled to write male dialogue, and had male friends criticise the realism of my male-on-male conversations, because quite simply, I don’t know how men converse with one another when they’re on their own.
And so for that reason, whilst obviously, as fiction writers, we are always walking in someone else’s shoes, I think those shoes have to be a reasonable fit. For me, I’d say my current literary fit is a woman’s shoe, aged 15 to 35 years-old in the first person protagonist. Where the third person is concerned, those requirements are a little bit looser.
What do you guys think? Can male writers write in a convincing female voice, and vice-versa? How big are the writing shoes you feel confident filling? Or am I being too conservative with my writing? Should I step into less comfortable shoes?