Explorations in the First Person Voice

Drafting The Curse Merchant is proving to be quite an education!

Beyond a renewed and redefined outlining scheme, I am playing with the first person voice for the first time since some of my very early short story writings. I’m finding that all of the courses, books and solid advice from industry professionals is being wrapped up neatly, bundled tightly, and summarily tossed directly out the window!

The relentless search-and-destroy sorties for filler words? Suspended.

The dogged refusal of exposition in favor of dialogue? Commuted.

Straightforward narrative without ornaments and artifacts of idiom and parlance? Pre-empted.

This isn’t to say that I’m allowing for sloppy writing, leaden exposition, or purple prose. I still favor snappy dialogue to long paragraphs of internal monologue. But the monologue must happen, if the reader is ever going to identify (and hopefully cheer on) the protagonist/narrator.

Which makes the craft yet more difficult.

In the past, I have learned to keep the narrative lean and mean, forwarding the plot like a race car engine without inserting itself into the reader’s consciousness. Rather, I allow dialogue to pop into the ears of the reader, thereby keeping their eyes moving, and the plot humming.

The “lean and mean” narrative, however, must drop a gear or two when it adopts the first person voice. The narrative is now precisely that… narration from an individual. The character’s words are a kind a dialogue between the narrator and the reader (one in which the reader seldom gets a word in edgewise). Fostering this personal sense of connection with the protagonist requires deliberate suspension of the “rules of writing” from time to time. If I pruned every extraneous adverb or cliche from the prose, the result would be an antiseptic, robotic narrator with exactly zero enticement for the reader to continue.

The tricks are knowing when to “purple up” the narrative, and when to keep it lean. When to allow the monologue to sidetrack into the narrator’s mind, and when to keep him interacting with other characters. When to broaden the reader’s understanding of the supersetting, and when to remain loyal to the limited scope and assumption sets inherent in a first person voice.

The key is fully fleshing out the narrator in the mind, knowing his thought processes, his biases, his speech patterns, his history, and the precise shade of rose-colored glasses through which he views the world. The price I pay is in the pacing of the novel. The benefit, however, has been an intense investment in the emotional and relational complex of the central character. I chose the first person narrative specifically because I wanted The Curse Merchant to be character-driven, not plot driven. And I felt this character was sufficiently distinct and engaging for the reader… a character the reader would like to know.

This education is priceless! It’s slow-going, to be sure. But with any luck at all, it will render my most compelling narrative yet.

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