Cat’s Voice & Deciding What Point of View to Use (Spiritwalker Monday 34)

I once flippantly said that I would never ever write a novel in first person.

As a narrative style, first person is heavily and primarily dependent on voice. The narrator is right there, talking to the reader directly, and it has always seemed to me that there must be something distinctive in the voice which necessitates it being told in first person rather than third. That distinctiveness is there in addition to whatever unique circumstances within the narrative make it a story best told in first person.

I interrupt this discussion to give a quick and simplistic definition of different types of point of view:

  • First person I walked down the street. When I turned around, I saw a tiger walking behind me.
  • Second person: You walk down the street and when you turn, you see the tiger walking behind you.
  • Third person limited point of view: She walked down the street. When she turned to look behind, she saw a tiger following her.
  • Third omniscient. She walked down the street and a tiger was walking behind her. (she hasn’t turned to see it yet, but the narrator can see it)

In first person, the “I” is the narrator. In second, the narrator is speaking to the “you.” In third person limited there is a (usually hidden) narrator but the story is being told solely through the eyes of the point of view character, who can only see and observe what she would naturally see and observe. In third omniscient, the narrator can see all.

When I wrote the very first pieces of narrative that would eventually become the Spiritwalker Trilogy, I had trouble finding a voice that worked. My first attempts, all in third person, didn’t catch; they did not feel right.

I finally tried first person. The voice flowed far more smoothly in first than it had in third.

Here is the original first page of the novel. This is from the earliest draft, unrevised and (you’ll note) a different opening point than the novel has now. Also, notably, I changed Bee’s name from Bianca to Beatrice.

Bee and I sat in the window-seat with a blanket tucked over us to keep off the chill and the heavy curtains closed over our backs to hide us from anyone who might wander into the sitting room.  Our breath made steam flowers on the windowpanes.  Winter’s cold had come early; it was still a week away from year’s end.  Outside, snow glittered in the square and on the crowns of trees, although the streets had been swept clean.

“What did he say?” Bee whispered.  By the light of the street lamps lining the square outside, I could see her bat her eyelashes in that truly obnoxious way she had, the one that never failed to demolish the objections and reproaches of any adult caught in the beat of those dark wings.  “Cat,” she added breathlessly, “you have to tell me.”

“I swore I wouldn’t tell.”

She punched me on the shoulder.  Though she might look like a dainty little thing, Bee was a bruiser, really mean when she got roused.

“Ouch!”

“You earned it!  I’ve been in love with him forever – ”

“Two weeks!”

“Two months!”  She pressed a hand to her ample bosom, which was heaving under her tightly-laced, high-collared dress.  “I kept the truth of my desperate feelings to myself for fear – ”

“For fear we’d wonder why you’d so suddenly left off being in love with and destined to wed Maester Lukas of the lovely dark curly hair and turned your stalwart heart to the beauty of Maester David of the handsome black eyes.”

“Which you yourself admit are handsome.”

“Yes, he’s almost as pretty as you are, and well aware of it.  He’s the vainest boy I’ve ever met.”

“How can you say so?  The story of how his family escaped from the assault on Sawili by murderous ghouls is heart-breaking.”

“If it’s true.  Anyone can say what they like when there are no witnesses.“

“You just have no heart, Cat.  You’re heartless.”

“Thank the Lady!  The family is well-to-do, that’s certain.  A point in his favor.”

“You’re going to tell me what he said because otherwise I will pour a handful of salt into your breakfast porridge for the next month – ”

“Hush.”

I have good hearing.  I could hear footsteps coming from a mile away, or at least from the landing.  Bee froze with the hand to her chest and face raised – she was still glowering at me – posed unmoving like one of the living re-creations of the honored ancestors in a tableaux at the New Year’s Festival.

“Bianca?  Catherine?”  The voice of Servestra Artistina rose in volume as she entered the room behind us.  We had carefully turned down all the lamps to make it gloomy.  “Darlings?  It’s time to leave for the lecture.”

Although first person felt like a better fit for the story, I nevertheless I worried that first person wouldn’t be effective, that I couldn’t keep it up for an entire novel much less a trilogy, that the “voice” would become tired. I hadn’t yet learned that Cat, in fact, never gets tired of talking.

So I rewrote the scene in third person limited past tense because all my novels until then had been in third person limited past and thus it is the point of view I’m most comfortable with.

Cat and Bee sat in the window-seat with a blanket tucked over their skirts to keep off the chill and the heavy curtains closed over their backs to hide them from anyone who might wander into the sitting room.  Cat’s breath made steam flowers on the windowpanes.  Winter’s cold had come early; it was still a week away from year’s end.  Outside, snow glittered in the square and on the crowns of trees, although the streets had been swept clean.

“What did he say?” Bee whispered.

By the light of the street lamps lining the square outside, Cat could see her cousin flutter her eyelashes in that truly obnoxious way she had, the one that never failed to demolish the objections and reproaches of any adult caught in the beat of those dark wings.  “Cat,” she added breathlessly, “you have to tell me.”

“I swore I wouldn’t tell.”

Bee punched Cat on the shoulder.

“Ouch!”

Though she might look like a dainty little thing, Bee was a bruiser, really mean when she got roused.  “You earned it!  I’ve been in love with him forever – ”

“Two weeks!”

“Two months!  Ever since I had that dream of walking with him through the golden palace undersea – ”  She pressed a hand to her ample bosom, which was heaving under her tightly-laced, high-collared dress.  “ – I have kept the truth of my desperate feelings to myself for fear – ”

“For fear we’d wonder why you’d so suddenly left off being in love with and destined to wed Maester Lukas of the lovely dark hair and turned your stalwart heart to the beauty of Maester David of the handsome black eyes.”

“Which you yourself admit are handsome.”

“Yes, he’s prettier than you are, and well aware of it.  He’s the vainest boy I ever met.”

“How can you say so?  The story of how his family escaped from the assault on Sawili by murderous ghouls is heart-breaking.”

“If it’s true.  Anyone can say what they like when there are no witnesses.“

“You just have no heart, Cat.  You’re heartless.”

“Thank the Lady!  The family is well-to-do, that’s certain.  And his sisters are known to be very clever and maybe touched with a breath of magery .  All points in his favor.”

“You’re going to tell me what he said because otherwise I will pour a handful of salt into your breakfast porridge every morning for the next month – ”

“Hush.”

Cat had good hearing.  She could hear footsteps coming from a mile away, or at least from the landing.  Bee froze with the hand to her chest and face raised – still glowering at Cat – posed unmoving like one of the living re-creations of the honored ancestors in a tableaux at the New Year’s Festival.

“Bianca?  Catherine?”  The voice of Servestra Artistina rose in volume as she entered the dark room. “Darlings?  It’s time to leave for the lecture.”

Two things jumped out at me when I switched point of view.

First, third person had no “pop.” For me, it read flat.

Second, and more importantly, my attempt to write in third person limited felt and read (to me) as if I was instead writing in third person omniscient. I couldn’t get the voice into third person limited because, as I realized, the story had a narrator who was speaking, and that narrator is Cat. So I had to switch back to first person and trust that I would be able to fully “get” her voice right and hold on to it for three volumes.

In the end, writing a trilogy in Cat’s voice proved easy, especially as I discovered the “sound” of her voice. The rhythm of her speech is distinctive, she observes and speaks with a flavor all her own, and she is funny, often on purpose and sometimes inadvertently. That she loves to talk matters to the plot. Better yet, I enjoyed the challenge of filtering the story through her eyes and her words while leaving a little space for the reader to maybe see some things and some characters a little differently than Cat does.

The other thing I learned? Never say never.

11 thoughts on “Cat’s Voice & Deciding What Point of View to Use (Spiritwalker Monday 34)

  1. “I enjoyed the challenge of filtering the story through her eyes and her words while leaving a little space for the reader to maybe see some things and some characters a little differently than Cat does.” HOW did you do this??? I’m writing in first and am finding this very challenging (headache inducing).

    I’m so glad you gave first a try with Cat, she’s SO FUN to read!

    I’ve always loved first because it makes me feel like I’m sitting at a campfire and someone is telling me the story of their life. When I write, I visualize my MC telling her story to a grandchild or a new friend.

    • Partly I think it’s the gap between Cat’s naivete and the reader’s understanding of how life works. Cat can be a bit naive and judgmental, so the reader can see between those gaps. And one way to create the gaps, I think, is by presenting other characters in ways that do not always quite match up to Cat’s feelings about them. I’m still trying to figure it out.

      Interestingly, first person can be hard for me to get into when I read it. But more than anything, it depends on how well I resonate with the voice.

  2. I don’t much like first person in general, but I love Cat’s voice. I think the best insight here is that first person shouldn’t be the default, it should be a device that’s used only where it’s really essential to the story. Too many authors seem to use first person just because they assume it means “greater intimacy with the reader”–and maybe some readers feel that way, but I’ve read what feels like hundreds of books about “I”, so for me it often makes those characters less memorable. It risks creating a generic narrator rather than an individual with a specific personality. In the Spiritwalker books, though, it works great because Cat’s voice is so strong and individual and so much of the story is about the way she sees the world!

    • Thank you.

      And, yes, I agree. There’s got to be a reason the story must be told in first person. Otherwise . . . why? Third is many ways is more versatile.

      One of the things I’ve most enjoyed writing books 2 and 3 in particular is that the more familiar I get with Cat’s voice, the more I enjoy the ways she describes things and reacts. Her ways of exaggerating help me as a writer push against my tendency to be more circumspect and less flashy, if that makes sense.

  3. That’s a very pithy insight about why a writer should use first person.

    Another reason to use first person is if the narrator is unreliable.

    I can think of three books written in second person, all of which I enjoyed. One was BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY, and I’m not sure why that worked. I think it has something to do with making the reader as disoriented as the protagonist is. He drinks and takes drugs and parties to forget, and he’s doing a pretty good job of it. He has forgotten himself — not in a psychological way, he doesn’t have amnesia, he knows his name and job and where he lives and stuff. But he has lost his identity.

    The other two are Charles Stross’s near-future sf novels HALTING STATE and RULE 34. Each of those novels has a reason for being written in the second person, and, interestingly, they are different reasons. HALTING STATE is a novel about a near-future Earth where gaming has become mainstream, and so it is written in second person, just like the early interactive fiction game.

    The reason why RULE 34 is written in the second person is … a spoiler. And I hope saying it’s a spoiler is not itself a spoilers.

    • Yes, first person is great for the unreliable narrator. Have you read Justine Larbalestier’s YA, Liar? It’s a great example of this.

      I really liked HALTING STATE, and indeed the use of second person in the interactive fiction game was is one of the main reasons why. I just worked, and second person is, I think, the toughest to pull off.

      • I haven’t read LIAR. I’ve been meaning to try out Larbalestier’s writing, because her blog is one of my favorites. Do you recommend LIAR as a good first novel for her?

        Also, her name is fun to say: Justine Larbalestier. Justine Larbalestier. Justine Larbalestier.

        • Her name is AWESOME to say. AWESOME.

          I think one can easily read LIAR without having read anything else by Larbalestier (although her academic work is also quite interesting, which is what I first read of hers).

          One of the great things about LIAR is that it is that rare sort of book in which few readers fall into the middle ground; I suspect people mostly love it or hate it.

  4. This is so intriguing to me; thank you so much for sharing! I too have said (and am now cringing about because you’re so right – never say never) that I wouldn’t write something in first person, much for similar reasons that you’ve mentioned here. But I’ve got a book I’m pounding my head on the wall about, so this is a great thought. I hadn’t considered this. Thank you!

    • From your description, I’m afraid I have to suggest you at least try writing a couple of chapters in first. :0

      I have also said I would never write in present tense. As an experiment I have for months now been trying to get a handle on a YA fantasy novel (writing on spec just to see how it goes), trying third, first, etc, but the voice just didn’t work. Then I tried first person present tense — and that was it, everything fell into place. I would never in a million years have thought I would ever write anything in present tense, much less a novel.

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