Whose Story Is it? Character and Perspective

web_KrissToday we have a guest post from novelist and poet, Kriss Nichol, who is going to demonstrate why, when writing any prose, be it a novel, short story, biography or whatever, how you tell is as important as what you tell, and from what perspective.  Kriss is the author of the novel ‘In Desolate Corners, Shadows Crouch’, published last year and available from Amazon or FeedaRead. Her second novel ‘Monsoons and Marigolds’ is now nearing completion. Kriss has also had poems published in several small press magazines and anthologies, self published a poetry pamphlet, ‘The Language of Crows’ and recently produced a stunning book of her poems alongside the work of fine art photographer Elliot Nichol, called ‘Between Lands’ (see photo below). One of her short stories was short-listed by Radio 4 and another won 3rd prize in a Scottish Writers’ Centre competition for short stories from writers’ groups.You may also want to take a look at her blog: ‘diary of an invisible woman.’
(photo of Kris above by Kim Ayers at http://www.kimayers.co.uk)

Hi everyone, I’m Kriss Nicol –
When I was writing my first novel In Desolate Corners, Shadows Crouch I changed the narrative several times. At first it was written in third person, past tense, then it became third person present tense, but neither of these approaches seemed suitable to tell the story of a family in conflict and make it clear whose story it actually was.
The main characters are GRACE, a woman damaged by her past who also has undiagnosed schizophrenia and her daughter JAYNE with whom Grace has a difficult relationship. Jayne has two children ADAM, aged 8 and CLAIRE aged almost 3. Another important player in the drama is JOHNNY, a Falklands survivor who is living rough on the moors, and SUE, a psychiatric nurse who looks after Grace when she is sectioned. Grace has been left in charge of the children whilst Jayne has gone away to Paris with her boyfriend to celebrate her birthday. There is an accident during which Grace has a catatonic spell and is unable to save Claire.  Desolate Corners Photo

What I wanted to do is to tell the story from inside Grace and Jayne’s heads and to do this I settled on second person narrative for Grace, to show her disconnection with herself as well as the world, and first person narrative for Jayne in the form of a journal, to allow her to expose her innermost thoughts. The rest of the narrative is in third person. This extract is from the beginning of the novel where Grace is struggling with the voices in her head.

Monday 5 May
11.00 a.m. The Shambles, near Druridge Bay, Northumberland.
Good. Nothing’s moved. Nothing’s been touched.
After this morning’s shopping you’re tired and anxious. The log cabin is quiet so you relax your shoulders a little but keep your ears cocked, ready to detect any sound, any indication of another presence. Quietly removing a roll of red ribbon from one of the kitchen drawers, you go back into the utility room. Your senses are still on alert, but experience has taught you that you need to keep up the appearance of normality, going about your everyday business.
—Now, where to put it? Round the handlebars? The saddle? Through a wheel? No. It needs something else—
Your temples are still throbbing, still alert, as you go back into the kitchen and put the kettle on. Green tea helps you relax. You shake your head trying to get the thoughts and voices to unscramble, but they whizz around regardless. You sit down, put your hands on your brow and try to concentrate.
—What were you doing? What were you looking for? It doesn’t matter. Don’t force it, it’ll come…—

11.20 a.m.
Looking at the clock on the kitchen wall you realize how long you’ve been sitting here. The tea’s cold.
—What had you been doing?—
Oh, yes, the bike. Looking for one of those bows you saved. You save everything, whether you want to or not.
A little dizzy and disorientated you struggle to your feet. Using the bench tops for support, you make your way across the kitchen to the hallway where the dizziness ebbs and flows as the pressure in your temples and the back of your head pulsates, finally evaporating, leaving your head an echo chamber. You listen to the screaming silence around you and feel again the subliminal tap on your shoulder.
—You’re being watched—
Your mouth opens and closes but nothing falls out for several minutes, until you hear your chest grinding. Gasps and sobs erode your ribs, there is a churning, then screeches and shrieks vomit upwards, spilling onto your feet and the wooden floor…

The narrative is working for me in several ways. First, it conveys the surreal world inhabited by Grace, and second, it allows the reader access to her innermost thoughts, like first person narrative, but with a subtle difference. There is an edginess to her story that the reader does not entirely trust and as the story develops the reader has to make judgements about whether Grace’s versions can be trusted. Jayne’s narrative has a very different purpose –

I had to identify her body. She was cold, like the ice needles inside me. Her hair looked waxen and the skin had been rubbed off her left cheek, just below the eye. I wonder how that happened. Was it the sand? Or perhaps she hit the bike or the pier? It’s important to know so I tried to ask someone, but my mouth kept opening and closing like some stupid fish out of water and the words swam away. Everything was unreal. I felt lost inside and needed to get out. My bones had melted and the skin, which had held everything in so far, suddenly split and frayed, spilling everything on the floor.I didn’t care; someone else would have to clean it up.
They told me they were bringing Adam and I remembered I had to take him home with me. I’d forgotten about him until then. They wanted to know if I needed them to contact anyone to pick us up, or if there was someone to stay the night and I told them about Gary. Then I panicked about my luggage until I remembered Gary was bringing it back. I hoped he’d remembered to put my make-up bag in the case. It was a birthday present from Lizzie and I couldn’t bear the thought of losing that too. I started crying then and didn’t think I’d ever be able to stop.

The intimacy of first person here allows the reader to trust Jayne’s accounts. Even the line:

My bones had melted and the skin, which had held everything in so far, suddenly split and frayed, spilling everything on the floor…

doesn’t prevent the reader believing her. It is metaphorical but is also there to show that Jayne is very like her mother in a lot of ways even though in the novel she tries to deny this similarity.

For Johnny and Sue’s narratives I use third person. They are minor characters and though important to the plot, are incidental to Jayne and Grace. This is because the real story, that of the loss of Claire and how it drives the family apart belongs to Jayne and Grace. Third person narratives can still allow me to get into Sue and Johnny’s heads but the characters do not need to be intimate with the reader. Here are a couple of extracts. The first is from Johnny :

8.45 p.m. Garrick’s Fell
The sky has turned a magnificent shade of fiery red and burnt orange laced through with crimson clouds as Johnny makes his way back home with his catch. He takes time out to watch the sky change, the backlight subtly shifting intensity and colour, catching the clouds and holding them hostage to its death throes. It’s mild for the time of year and Johnny is soaked in sweat from cutting through heather and bracken. A good job he’s not hunting as his prey would easily be able to smell him as well as pinpoint his position from the noise he’s making. He sighs. Sunset complete, he resumes his journey home.
Some of the gamekeepers must be aware of his existence by now but he’s safe as long as he’s not caught off the Major’s land. He never bothers the Major. The two men haven’t exchanged more than a dozen words since he left the cottage, but he knows the Major understands why and why he refused help from ex-service organizations like Combat Stress and the British Legion. The Major come across one of Johnny’s traps one night, a few years ago, when Johnny was hiding amongst the undergrowth. He’d looked hard and long at the trap, snorted, nodded his head and left. After that Johnny saw him on two occasions out in the woods but Johnny doesn’t like being around people, in case he goes out of control again.

This is an extract from Sue:

Back on the ward Sue pushes the medicine trolley into the corridor and begins to dispense the drugs into containers, which she then gives to the patients. That done, she locks the trolley away and checks on Grace. She changes the urine bottle and checks the bottle of clear liquid suspended by Grace’s bed. After that it’s blood pressure and pulse, which she writes down on Grace’s chart. As she clips it to the bottom of the bed Grace stretches and rolls onto her back, assuming a star position. Sue hurriedly notes this on Grace’s file, then watches for any more movement, but there is none. After a couple more minutes she strokes Grace’s forehead and leaves the room.

There is a subtle difference between the above narratives – Johnny has time to reflect and lives within the beauty of his surrounds, Sue is busy, controlled and efficient, not given to fancies. It is important to give your character the narrative that is in keeping with their personality and situation; word choice and sentence length convey such a lot to the reader.

Choice of tense is also a great consideration. I wanted to convey the events as they were happening, to create an immediacy that I feel is important to the plot. Adam runs away and there is a massive manhunt on the moors. He is believed abducted, so the action is a race against time and present tense assists this sense of urgency. Like my use of different narratives, I also use different tenses in the novel. When characters have flashbacks or memories, as in Jayne’s extract above, or when I use connective passages to explain rather than ‘show’ and move the action along I use past tense, keeping present tense for the revealing and disclosure of events in the plot as they happen.

bookcoverOf course there are a lot of other considerations in writing a novel but I hope this has demonstrated some of the choices I made for the narrative and why I made them.

Try this:
As a writer it’s important to practise your skills and experiment with different ways of telling your stories. Here’s an exercise that gives you the basics to play around with that you can then apply to your own writing.

1. Take a familiar fairy story as your starting point. This is so you don’t have to worry about plot or whose story it is and can just concentrate on the telling of it and it’s often easier to see differences in other people’s stories than your own work.
2. Now, think about the plot and storyline then write it out using  first person narrative.
3. Repeat the exercise with second person, and again with third person narratives.
4. Compare them to see how each gives a different slant to the tale and note what that does to the overall story. Which do you prefer? Why?
5. Take a paragraph or section of one of your own stories and do the same exercise using the three different narratives. This will give you a sense of which best suits your character and plot. There’s nothing quite like seeing and hearing the differences to help you decide on which is right for you and for that story.

I hope this helps.

Thanks so much for this post, Kriss.

Next Post:  Help! I think I have too many characters. How many is too many?

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