One of the most difficult things to master for me (and many other writers) is VOICE. This challenge trudges through the morass of other subjects like past tense vs. present tense, or past perfect tense, flashbacks, omniscience. . .
Which Person? In fiction, the overwhelming majority of books are written in Third-Person. There are cogent reasons for this. One pertinent reason is that when you use First-Person, you are restricted to only what your main character is privy too. So if you need some clandestine goings-on, this wouldn’t serve you. In First-Person, your main character has to be present all the times. It can work if the story follows that character and you need the reader to align with them in a certain way. For instance, I knew that science fiction was not a genre I was used to writing in, nor do I feel qualified to do it very often. But of course, i had to write something in this genre because I have an overwhelming need to say one day that I’ve tackled all of them. You have to be a bit of science geek to pull it off, though. But, if you have a character who is like you, in that he or she is also not all that knowledgeable, but is getting pulled along by events, then this can be an effective voice in which to write. I used this voice for Quintessence, the science fiction novella I am currently writing. I knew that the only way I could pull it off is if my character was just as much an amateur as I am with most of the scientific subject matter surrounding Quantum Physics. For example, When my character Jason Beasely finds himself in an unusual predicament, Professor Pritchard tries to explain it to him:
“Can you just give me some kind of layman’s explanation?”
“Well. . .the antecedent of the process is based upon the DNA Phantom Effect, which was developed by a Russian researcher named Poponin. He provided the best evidence that our genetic makeup possessed a subtle energy on the quantum level. . .”
“Okay. . .” Barely making sense of that�
“In one of his experiments he placed light in a vacuum, and found that its distribution was random. When he added DNA material into the vacuum with the light, the light particles shifted into wave patterns, and then when he removed the DNA, the light particles didn’t return to the previous random pattern, but were actually changed into another form.”
“That’s interesting.” What a crock. The guy had a brain tumor for God’s sake. He really WAS a mad scientist. I just came along, this bored Alabama country boy with two years of college, and wanted it to be more than it was. I couldn’t explain the letter, or the synchronicities that had occurred. But even if this guy knew my father, they were both gone, both dead. I couldn’t spend the rest of my life chasing ghosts. I had places to go, things to do, women to pleasure.
So, using First-Person, the character of Jason doesn’t really get half of what the professor is saying, but neither will most readers. So this creates an immediate sympathy with that character, while allowing me (the writer) to avoid knowing a bunch of details that would take a lifetime to learn. It still allows me to tell the story, which isn’t so much about the scientific details, as about the people. Now obviously, if you are not a quantum physicist, or at least intimately familiar with the concepts and information surrounding this discipline, you shouldn’t take on a project like this unless your focus is to be on the characters. You will be blasted out of the water by any geek who reads your story.
First-Person is also more immediate, and the reader can feel like she is going along for the ride. Just make sure your character and the events that character experiences, is enough to keep the story moving forward, or you might have to change the tense to Third-Person, just for the quality of the story itself. It’s a judgment call, and one which will become more an more natural to you the more you write.
Early on, when I was honing my craft, (a process that should continue, no matter how many books you write) I would have many different readers read my work and then fill out a form about what they liked and didn’t like, and anything that was confusing, or anything they felt was missing. This gave me insight into what it was to be an objective reader of my stories, since it’s hard to get yourself out of the way and do it in your own head.
In the Third-Person Omniscient Voice, you can move around between characters and tell a story that has both past, present and future, even if your main character doesn’t know about all of it. As the Narrative voice, especially an Omniscient Narrator, you can fill in the gaps. There is much more autonomy in this voice, especially if the plot is complicated, or the story can only be told with information belonging to several characters. That’s why it gets used as the primary mode of storytelling in fiction, though First-Person is enjoying a bit of a resurgence in popularity. But along with the benefits of Third-Person, there come inherent stumbling blocks. Tenses can begin to make you…tense.
This is no more apparent than when you must use a flashback to tell your story. There’s the past tense of the narrator telling the story and the the past tense of the narrator telling an older story.
“She was thinking about that time long ago, when things began to change. It was on a Friday, and she remembered that, because Friday was pay day.”
Now, is this character talking about payday being on Fridays now, or just then? A reader will probably understand, but this can get hairy. For me, using past perfect tense can get so complicated that I avoid it altogether. If, in the case of a flashback, I need to relate something that happened before the story that is currently being retold (did you get that?) then I will delineate this by saying something like,
“I remember when everything changed on that cold September day.”
…and then I start a new chapter and head it “September, 1994”. This, after establishing that the main story being told happened after that longer-ago time. Did I just confuse you more?
Basically, you must make it clear to the reader when you are jumping far back in time and then let them know when you are again in current time, by saying in the chapter or paragraph following the flashback, something like,
“Now, she wondered why all that seemed so important at the time.”
…and then giving some clue as to the current setting you had previously departed from, so the reader can come back to your storyline, now. To use past perfect by saying,
“She remembered how everything had changed on that cold September day. She had been washing her car, when an old man had approached her wearing clothes she had not seen since the seventies.”
The “hads” in these sentences are not only cumbersome stylistically, but they serve only to confuse the reader, so if you make some kind of indication that you’re telling something farther back in time, and then leap into that time to tell it in past tense, then come back and draw your reader to the current storyline with clues of settings and objects and people, then it will be clear what you are doing.
So, as a rule of thumb, about 80% or more of novels are written in Third-Person. Mostly, I believe this stems from our own ancestry, where oral tradition was about telling others what happened in the past. It is the most comfortable voice for readers to understand, and always a good idea to keep your style from obstructing the reader’s Suspension of Disbelief.