Past, Present, First, Third…
One of the hardest decisions you have to make whenever you start writing a book is choosing your voice. Do you write it in the first person or the third? (A handful of books have been written in the second person but they’re awkwardly self-conscious to read.)
If you choose the third person, you get to write stylistically. The whole panoply of English language becomes yours. You can fly above landscapes, dip into characters’ heads, be objective, move off-topic and basically do whatever you like. A five page digression on the dodo? A ten-year study of the sexual history of the leading character, as seen by her lovers? It’s all yours.
If you pick first person everything must be seen through the mind of your main character. That means all conversations that happen away from her/him are out of bounds to you. Your observations and your language are reduced to the mentality and vocabulary of your lead. When their friends are out of the room, so is their conversation. Now, this can work in your favour; you can have an unreliable narrator or leave gaps in the story for the reader to fill in. Alan Ayckbourn famously wrote ‘The Norman Conquests’, three plays involving the main character Norman that unfold over the same weekend, seen from three different rooms. This staggering feat works as three separate plays but also as one that’s very complex and richer seen in overview.
A lot of not-very-good crime and chick-lit writers pick the first person because you can run off at the mouth in simple language, making the prose light and gossipy. But it’s hard to get right; On reflection I think I made the mistake of making my lead character, June, too witty in ‘Plastic’. As a consequence her dialogue was hilarious but too many readers found her unrealistic. Different genres of novel attract different readers. Usually – not always – someone reading chick-lit does not want to think too hard. The last thing they expect is stream-of-conscious smart talk. So you should choose according to your main character.
If you are Charles Dickens, you would not consider writing ‘Bleak House’ in anything but the third person because it allows you to reveal an entire cross-section of society from a single over-arching point of view. Imagine how dull the book would be if it was only narrated by Joe the Crossing Sweeper.
Your other main decision is whether to write in the present or past tense. Obviously the present tense is more immediate, but for some reason I can’t fathom it also makes your prose sound hokier and more prone to cliché. You can also tangle yourself up quite spectacularly with conditional and intransitive verbs.
Using past tenses sets it in proper storyteller mode, and opens up the story to allow for wider observations. Many times I’ve switched from present to past halfway through a novel because I realise I’ve picked the wrong tense and it’s limiting me – so I then have to go back and rewrite the novel.
If you’re unsure which voice to use – past, present, first person, third person – try them out for a few paragraphs and discard the ones you find limiting.