When Melville wrote the words, “Call me Ishmael,” his friends didn’t assume that he was changing his name from Herman. While I always assumed that since every Melville epic I slogged through took place on or near the ocean the author has some experience at sea, I didn’t assume that he was the sole surviving member of a doomed whaling voyage (and he wasn’t).
Yet I have been guilty of reading more current first-person works and wondering, “Did that happen to the author? Is that why she writes about…?”
This tendency to conflate authors with characters, and to wonder about the boundary between “write what you know” and “this is not autobiography!” has been much on my my since I published Live Free or Die. When I started writing the book I was a forty-something woman of fluid sexuality living on an island in Southern New Hampshire, as is my fictional protagonist, Katherine “Kit” McCormick. No one was ever murdered (to my knowledge) in my small town, yet certain real-life events did occur that sparked my interest in writing the book. Readers who know me personally and who visited my home on the island read the book with a certain ache of nostalgia, and they are the ones most apt so far to ask, “Did that really happen?” or “Who was that?”
Obviously, I am gratified that they believe so readily in the book’s people and places that they cannot tell where fact and fiction diverge. But they do diverge: I am not Kit, and she is not me. Which brings me to my real focus here, which is writing in the first-person point of view (POV).
I admit to being a POV purist and snob. I love a good first-person or third-person narrative, and will even become happily engrossed in a book with multiple narrators if their POVs (technically PsOV, but that looks so wrong) are separated by chapter or section (I.e., alternating person POV).
Too many third-person books written in a supposed omniscient narrative POV are often just badly written third-person books. These leave me feeling as though I have just had a few beers and a huge meal, then taken a ride on a Tilt-a-Whirl. Gack.
When I started Live Free or Die, I used the third-person POV. But as I kept going, I realized that I needed to rewrite it using a first-person POV, for two reasons. First, I wanted the immediacy that the first-person POV confers. The second, and more important, reason was that I wanted the limitation that it gives. As a strict POV purist, I know that restricting what my readers know to only what Kit McCormick knows will be more effective for the kind of story(s) I want to tell. I want readers to be feeling their way around in the dark just as she is.
My writing is always character-driven, even when I’m writing a murder mystery, where the genre would seem to depend primarily on plot. Plot is important, but I’m more interested in the story—the setting, the people, the situations, the conflicts. As Stephen King wrote in his superb book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, “Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.”
More on POV another time. Right now, it’s time to get to work.