The Right Point of View
by Trisha Ashley
Wish Upon a Star will be my next new novel, to be published later this year and, like all my other contemporary romances (I think there are about fourteen, depending on whether you count the rewrite of an earlier novel as a new one, or not) they are always in first-person. I find I can slip inside the heroine’s skin so much easier that way, becoming quite a different character to my usual self by seeing things through their eyes. So basically I’m a shape-shifter, even if I don’t have to put myself to bed in a bucket.
But when writing in first person, you have to remember that the main protagonist can only know what she sees, hears, or is told about – you can’t just shift to someone else’s viewpoint in a scene. This can be challenging when you have, say, a historic parallel story to weave in, but I quite often introduce someone else’s first person viewpoint in the form of diary entries, letters or, in Chocolate Shoes and Wedding Blues, in a recorded family memoir. Occasionally, I introduce that second first person voice more directly, for example, in the sections from Fergal’s viewpoint in Good Husband Material and, as you will see later in the year, in Wish Upon a Star.
Sometimes, too, I’ll write a third person prologue, set back in time. This gives me the freedom to outline a situation which will have later repercussions in the contemporary story, or show a point in my main protagonist’s life that throws up the premise of the novel, by which I mean the main question, or questions, that must be answered, resolved or satisfied by the end of the book.
To a first-time novelist I would say: write in third person past tense and severely limit the number of your viewpoints. But if you must write first person, then don’t yet attempt to do it in present tense. Sophie Kinsella makes it looks so easy, because she is an excellent and experienced author, but it’s actually terribly hard to pull off successfully, so save it for a later novel. (It’s a common fallacy that a book that’s easy to read, is also easy to write.) And multiple first-person viewpoint novels need a master storyteller, like Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.
But if you must write your very first novel in first person, then do it in past tense. Let your main protagonist find his or her own voice and tell the story for you: it will not be your story – they won’t think in situations the way you would, speak as you would, or act as you would …. and I think that’s really what I like best about it.
Oh, and one final warning if you’re writing in first person: avoid starting every single sentence with ‘I….’
Trisha Ashley is the author of novels including Sweet Nothings, Chocolate Wishes and A Winter’s Tale. Her next book, Wish Upon a Star, is out in October. She lives in North Wales.