I'm in the middle of a fight with my leading female characters. I want to tell their stories, but it seems they're not happy with the way I'm telling it. They want their side to be told. I'm writing my fourth novel manuscript, so one would think I'd have gotten my characters under control by now. One would think that point of view—that old Creative Writing 101 seminar—would be something I am competent enough to select. But here I am, wrangling again with Brenda and Angel.
Don't ever let your characters boss you around, my old fiction writing professor told us in graduate school. I repeated his dictum in my own first Creative Writing classes, although I didn't know what it really meant or why. Back then, I was writing only short stories, which didn't give the characters much time or space to get surly or unruly. But novels—those are wide open spaces that give characters acres to grow. They gain independence, dignity, and a sense of justice that I don't think is all bad, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me. When characters put up a resistance that stalls the plot, it's a sure sign that I need to re-examine my characters. What do they want to say that I cannot capably say in third person?
I'm learning to be more respectful toward my characters. It's not easy, and I think there are a lot of writers out there who'd say poppycock to my conviction that writers need to listen to their characters. I'm not saying be nice to your characters—far from it. Writers have to be willing to cut off the toes of Gumshoe Joe, to shoot Granny in the back, to leave a paraplegic alone at the altar. Awful things. Conflicts are what create a story in the first place, and those problems have to happen to someone we care about. What I'm talking about is the practice of sustaining the magical distance via point of view between you, your characters and your readers.
Many writers are familiar with the advantages and disadvantages of first and third person narration. First person can depict a character too closely and limit your character's knowledge of the world outside her sphere of perception, but third person can create too much distance between your character and your reader, resulting in emotional dearth, a soulless story. With first person, writers must deal with unreliable characters (whom I love, but whose unreliable actions and thoughts are not always transparent). Third person has always felt too "storybook" for my keyboard. I love reading it, but have a hard time writing it well. That's why I resolved to write this fourth novel in third person: I'm doing it, by gosh, and no one can stop me. No one, it seems, except my characters, who are fighting tooth and nail to have their say.
I'm more sensitive to point of view in this fourth novel, but that only means I stall sooner, not that I get it right the first or even third draft. I'm a hundred pages into my current manuscript, and for the last several weeks, I've been trying to decide if I should scrap the entire third person narration and let Brenda and Angel narrate their own chapters. The jury is still out. I've had this argument before with characters. I wrote my debut novel, Song of the Orange Moons (October 2010), in first person. The manuscript took several years to write and revise. It wasn't until I read some particularly detailed rejection letters that I finally fixed the ending that had been plaguing me like poison ivy. I'd been scratching at it for years, but never eased the itch in the storyline.
The novel is divided into six chapters and narrated alternately by the three main characters. The sixth chapter broke the format and shifted from first to third person. I justified this shift by saying I needed to get outside of the characters, to provide a different perspective. These women were too close to their situation to appreciate the beauty of their predicaments. In truth, I'd recently finished my dissertation that paid ample devotion to William Faulkner, and, still steeping in the bliss of Sound and the Fury, I wanted to do my own final Dilsey chapter, third-person-style. That was a naïve error on many levels.
The problem was my last chapter made the narrative chain even more disconnected, just at the point when the three estranged females are supposed to physically and spiritually reconnect. I needed that last chapter to be narrated by Adelle, the crotchety old widow, to maintain the structural balance of the novel, so I decided to let her narrate it from beyond the grave. (Hey, Addie Bundren did it—why not Adelle?) With first person narrative, Adelle experienced a rebirth that invigorated the end of the novel, and I respected her more in the telling of it.
But relenting to Adelle's need to be heard doesn't make giving in to later characters any easier. I have to decide what's more important: sticking to my third person agenda, or overhauling the POV mid-plot to see if Brenda's and Angel's thought mechanisms and perceptions add the necessary complexity and fairness to their portrayal. I have the feeling I know who's going to win this round.
Song of the Orange Moons is a mosaic of stories that follow the intertwined lives of three girls coming of age. Two young girls and an elderly widow try to find happiness in a seemingly cruel world. In spite of their different cultural and economic backgrounds, Rebecka, Helen, and Adelle all share the delicate, self-conscious journey to womanhood. All three search for love and meaning in a variety of places-- a charismatic church, a Depression-era orphanage, a moonlit Savannah park, an orthodox Jewish boarding school—and end up finding lasting strength in the power of their friendships. www.loriannstephens.com