The More Things Change

August 7th, 2007 · 11 Comments
by Nicola Griffith

[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.]

Cover of AlwaysI’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?

File Under: Books/Mags/Blogs

11 responses so far ↓

  • Gillian Spraggs // Aug 7, 2007 at 10:51 am

    Hi, Nicola. I have been reading your books ever since I found ‘Slow River’ in London’s Forbidden Planet about ten years ago. I look forward very much to the new one.

  • Nicola Griffith // Aug 7, 2007 at 10:55 am

    Do let me know what you think of Always when you read it.

    Slow River–haven’t thought about that one for a while. That was my first big experiment with voice –and the last time I used third person. It’ll be good to get back to that (though what is probably next on my plate is a huge historical novel).

    Nicola

  • Bookdwarf » More Always Discussion // Aug 7, 2007 at 12:20 pm

    […] She also has a guest column at Booksquare. […]

  • Kassia Krozser // Aug 7, 2007 at 11:17 pm

    Two comments (so few for me!). First, of course, is that I’m fascinated by the way you considered the evolution of Aud’s voice. As a writer, I tend to think that this is an organic process. But of course the author and the character are living in different places. To carry this evolution across a single novel is amazing. To roll with the changes of a character over the course of multiple novels is beyond brilliant.

    Did you ever feel like you, the author, diverged from Aud? Did she ever move in a direction that made you sit back and say, “Whoa!”? Or maybe put another way, has Aud ever surprised you, the person who surely knows her best?

    Second thought (told you that I’m wordy). The first person versus third person is something I’ve thought a lot about. I find that each offers a certain level of intimacy and openness (getting back to the hardboiled versus noir idea we played with at the LBC). When it comes to first person, the narrator picks and chooses what to reveal and conceal while third persona narrators have different limitations. Which point-of-view do you find more challenging?

    Yeah, an essay question if ever one existed.

  • Nicola Griffith // Aug 8, 2007 at 12:26 pm

    I diverged from Aud right from the first, when I encountered her in a dream. I didn’t know it was her, of course: I dreamt of a woman fast asleep in an empty apartment who is woken by a man pointing a gun at her head. She surges off the floor and kills him with a flashlight. Bam. No hesitation. Zero to sixty in less than two seconds.

    I woke up thinking, Whoa! What kind of woman could do that? I’ve trained in various martial arts, I’ve studied and taught self-defense, but I know I’m not capable of that kind of instant action. I wondered how on earth this mystery dream woman got to be so capable. It’s taken me three books to find out. I think I’m really beginning to understand Aud.

    So, no, she doesn’t surprise me now. However, she can occasionally infuriate me; she can be so obtuse. (Dornan’s voice, in Always, is at times perilously close to mine: ‘Aud Torvingen you are deeply stupid.’) Some of the other characters, though–for example Kick, who is so new to me–do surprise me.

    As for voice, first person is, hands down, more challenging. For me. I found it easy enough at the beginner level (my first short story, more than twenty years ago, was in first person–you can read it for free on my website: nicolagriffith.com/sunpath.pdf), but through three novels with a protagonist who changes and grows yet remains an unreliable narrator, that’s hard. Part of me is definitely looking forward to playing with third person for a while. I feel the urge to experiment with a combination of epic and intimate. It should be enormously challenging (which in this context = fun, at least for me). But I don’t want to let go of Aud.

  • Norm // Aug 11, 2007 at 10:41 pm

    Who decides which books get press (Harry Potter) and which get censored? After all, censorship is becoming America’s favorite past-time. The US gov’t (and their corporate friends), already detain protesters, ban books like “America Deceived” from Amazon and Wikipedia, shut down Imus and fire 21-year tenured, BYU physics professor Steven Jones because he proved explosives, thermite in particular, took down the WTC buildings. Free Speech forever (especially for books).
    Last link (before Google Books caves to pressure and drops the title):
    http://www.iuniverse.com/bookstore/book_detail.asp?&isbn=0-595-38523-0

  • Mitzi // Aug 15, 2007 at 2:30 am

    Nicole,
    First – great post – and now I have more books to add to the TBR pile. Yeah, thanks a bunch! ;-)

    You ask if the first person narrator’s voice can change throughout a series – I certainly hope so. I’m writing such a series – where my protagonist has to grow as a person and learn who she really is.

  • Nicola Griffith // Aug 15, 2007 at 9:11 am

    Anything is possible, of course, it just depends how much work we’re prepared to put into it /grin/. Good luck with your books.

  • Ann // Aug 17, 2007 at 9:56 am

    You probably know where I’m going to be coming from where this is concerned. How far can you change the first person narrative voice and still have the reader recognise the ‘speaker’ as the same individual? This is something I’ve simply never thought about mainly because I don’t ever remember finding an example so now I’m going to have to go away and read your books (no hardship there, I suspect) and do some thinking. Thank you for this. What is there better than being stimulated in this way.

  • Ann // Aug 17, 2007 at 9:56 am

    You probably know where I’m going to be coming from where this is concerned. How far can you change the first person narrative voice and still have the reader recognise the ‘speaker’ as the same individual? This is something I’ve simply never thought about mainly because I don’t ever remember finding an example so now I’m going to have to go away and read your books (no hardship there, I suspect) and do some thinking. Thank you for this. What is there better than being stimulated in this way.

  • Nicola Griffith // Aug 17, 2007 at 4:20 pm

    If you do encounter any examples, please let me know. Let me know how you like the books, too, if you’re so inclined.