I am really thrilled to welcome Shelley Harris to the Literary Sofa following the recent release of her second novel Vigilante. Her first novel Jubilee (2012) was a critically acclaimed bestseller and her path to publication has been a genuine inspiration to me. I’ve also had the pleasure of getting to know Shelley in person and am always struck by her energy, commitment to what she believes in and her generosity towards new writers. Having just written a first person novel myself, I was impressed with this aspect of Vigilante and that’s what I invited Shelley to explore today (My mini-review follows):
Why is a first person narrative like banana flavouring? I will tell you.
When I wrote my debut Jubilee (multiple viewpoints, two timelines) it was clear I’d need to use third person to control what was going on. For my latest novel, Vigilante, it was equally clear I’d need to use first person. Vigilante is about a woman who copes with a midlife crisis by adopting the persona of a superhero. Jenny Pepper, my would-be crimefighter, is such an extraordinary combination of the familiar and the bizarre that I wanted to be completely inside her head, to track her transformation and feel exactly what she does, beat for beat.
I didn’t realise what a huge shift this would turn out to be, and how many technical challenges it would throw my way. First person feels so natural that it’s almost invisible to a reader. Of all narrative modes, it most closely mirrors our own subjective experience of the world (I’m doing it now!). It’s how we write emails and diary entries, how we talk about our day or confide in a friend. But when it comes to writing a novel, first person presents challenges all of its own.
Some of those challenges are obvious. The reader can only witness those things also witnessed by the protagonist. When I started Vigilante, I thought that would be the tough part. Vigilante is about someone at a turning point in her life, but there’s also a mystery plot snuck in there, and I wondered how hard that would be to control if the reader could see only what Jenny did. In the event though, I found it to be perfectly manageable. It fitted well with one of the guiding principles I set myself: this is no comic book, and Jenny is not a real superhero. Her life is as messy and haphazard as most of our lives are. She will only see part of the story (and she’ll read that wrongly, to boot). Having said that, I think successful first person writing relies on good exposition. I had a lot of fun finding inventive ways of telling the reader backstory without her realising that’s what was happening.
A trickier challenge is showing how a character is viewed by others, or encouraging a reader to see your protagonist as unreliable in some way. We are often blind to the truth about ourselves, and with first person there’s no external voice to illuminate those dark places. I found myself thinking about other people’s reactions to her with special care, working out what they’d say and what they’d imply – and how much she’d accept or resist their versions of reality.
Finally, the feelings. Ah! Always with the feelings. In the privacy of our own minds, we articulate emotions endlessly: I’m worried, I’m excited, that made me feel embarrassed… a constant torrent, things named as soon as they’re felt. Unless you’re writing in stream of consciousness, you already know you’ll be selective about what you hear from a character, but it’s not just about providing a manageable narrative. If you were really inside someone’s head, you’d have very little to work out about their mental state, but when we read fiction working things out is exactly what we most like to do (hence the endless exhortations to ‘show not tell’). It’s a paradox. So first person requires a certain sleight of hand: your protagonist has to feel real, and this is where banana flavouring comes in.
Years ago I heard a radio documentary about a factory that made e-numbers. One of the workers there explained that they never used bananas to make banana flavouring, because artificial flavouring tasted more like banana than banana did, once it had been through the industrial process. Other fruits were OK, the guy said, but not banana.
What I learned when I wrote Vigilante was this: for a first-person protagonist what you have to do is absolutely live in the centre of them, absolutely be them in as Method a way as you possibly can (I took to the streets in a superhero costume to do some of this, so I think I can be said to have committed). You do all that, and then you edit the experience very carefully, excising the things your readers will want to work out – and offering the clues they need to do it – all the while making the account your character’s giving of herself feel real and unedited. You may not be working entirely with artificial additives, but like that bloke in the e-numbers factory, you are making something less natural so that it ends up feeling more realistic. You can probably see why third person is easier in this respect: in third person, we’re outside the character right from the start. It never feels odd that things are withheld from the reader.
First person was a learning curve for me, but I’m really glad I did it. I’ve had the satisfaction of adding another skill to my author’s toolkit, and above all it was the right choice for Jenny. More than anything, I wanted to do her justice. I hope I’ve told her story with compassion, empathy – and more than a little of Jenny’s own kick-ass attitude.
Thank you to Shelley for this piece which is not only fascinating but gold dust for anyone contemplating writing a first person novel.
IN BRIEF: My View of Vigilante
As you’ll have gathered, I found the voice and character of protagonist Jenny to be very well handled with a nuanced blend of empathic, identifiable, exasperating and vulnerable traits. One of the things I love about this novel is the blow it delivers to the tired prejudices about fiction with a domestic and family setting when written by women. The strength of Vigilante lies precisely in the juxtaposition of the mundane and the extraordinary, the struggle to accept who we are and the raging desire to be someone or something else. It challenges gender stereotypes and both the unjustified limitations and unrealistic ideals placed on women and girls. Some of this is slightly at the expense of plausibility but that is easily forgiven in a novel that is this funny and entertaining and yet full of emotional insight.
Photo courtesy of Cath Harries.
ABOUT MY REVIEWS (if I ever get round to writing a blog policy I’ll include this):
I never write full-length critical reviews of books by writers I know in the interests of both credibility and diplomacy. But happily, I do know lots of my Sofa guests personally, or get to know them in the process. In that situation I include the usual mini-review on the basis that if anyone were to ask me what I think of the book, I see no reason not to tell them.
Next week Peter Nichols will be here with a Writers on Location piece about Mallorca, the setting for his outstanding novel THE ROCKS, which is one of my Hot Picks 2015.