[BS: Yesterday, we talked about genre and reaching readers. Today, we have one of the authors discussed in the post. Please welcome Nicola Griffith, author of Always as she talks about the challenges — and then some — of living with a single character over the course of many books. Needless to say, this is a book you have to read.]
I’ve been writing about Aud (rhymes with cloud) Torvingen for ten years. In The Blue Place she was someone I would have run from, a woman *this* close to being a sociopath. In Stay she was grieving, tentative and open to the world for the first time. In Always she is finally learning the balance between strength and vulnerability. In other words, Aud grows and changes; she is different in each novel.
The books are narrated by Aud in first person, which means the narrative tone and style has to change as Aud does.
It’s embarrassing to admit how long it took me to figure that out.
I was used to reading series books about people like Travis McGee and V.I. Warshawski, Spenser and Robicheaux; they stayed pretty much the same, book after book. They appeared to react to the same kinds of events with the same kind of action and emotion; the authors used the same kind of narrative structure, the same metaphors and vocabularies to tell their stories: the sandy-rumped girls, the cypress house with its gallery and bass jumping in the lake, how a guy with a size 16 neck can still cook. Over and over again.
I hadn’t set out to write a series character (I was halfway through The Blue Place before I understood the novel was merely the first act of the play that was Aud); I’d never really considered how it might be to write more than one book from first person. I wasn’t ready. So when I sat down to write Stay in the same bullet-train, cold-edged, urban-metaphored style as The Blue Place, I was shocked that it wouldn’t work. Aud was not only in a different geographic and emotional place, she persisted in seeing and responding differently. I kept writing then throwing away chapters, and then one day, duh, it hit me: change the metaphor systems, change the focal length, change the expectations. That is, change the voice. Just don’t change it too much.
That evening I sat on the porch with a beer and wondered what on earth I’d got myself into. I searched my library for novels that did what I knew I had to do: change the first person voice of a series character. I couldn’t find any. I was on my own.
Eventually I found the voice. In Stay Aud’s focal length is just a little longer, her responses are just a little more considered, her metaphors are more pastoral than urban. I knew that with Always I’d have to change it again.
For the third novel–the third act, which pulls together, illuminates, and then alters the first two–I knew the difference would have to be radical. Through iteration after iteration, I messed with Aud’s voice, and finally hit the right note–Aud’s focus is now wide-ranging, her metaphors are historical, her reactions are reluctant, even hesitant; she’s a teacher as well as destroyer; she is protected as well as protective; her sentences are longer; she can tell jokes (sort of). But that wasn’t enough. I also had to play with structure. I found a way to show Aud actually integrating change by alternating two narrative styles: a series of closed-room self-defense lessons in Atlanta, in the narrative past, and chapters exploring in Seattle, mostly outdoors, in the narrative present.
This naturally led to further challenges–slightly different voices in both sections, different plots, different casts of characters, but the emotional arcs had to resonate and build–but I didn’t care, I was having a blast. Here was a character I was utterly familiar with doing new things, playing with new people in a new city and with a new perspective. We learn how she became the Aud of The Blue Place; we learn what she thinks of her own change; we even meet her mother. It excited me. I love change (–in fiction. In real life I sigh and accept it. I remember watching Thunderbirds, years ago, and a character saying ‘Change is, of course, to be deplored,’ and leaping off the sofa shouting, ‘Yes! Yes! Curse all learning experiences.’ Or as a Deadwood character might say, ‘Well f*ck the f*cking new.’) The books that have always appealed to me have been the ones with real consequence for the characters, the ones in which they understand you can’t step in the same river twice. If you go on that journey and are lucky enough to come home, home looks different: it’s changed, you’ve changed.
Aud, though, has been changing me, too. She has been the ‘I’ in my head for ten years. I wonder how long a writer can do that and stay flexible. Is it possible to keep growing and changing as a writer with a first person narrator?