I know I promised to talk about world building, but I have another crisis to address first. I’m hung up on point of view again. I don’t know if other writers struggle with this choice as much as I do. I just know I really don’t want to get 80,000 words into the first draft and realize I picked the wrong narrator.
Here’s what I had in mind initially. Given that Sophie is the only human on an alien planet where just about everyone wants to kill her, I thought this would be a great opportunity for first person narration. There are a lot of reasons for this. It gives the reader an easier, closer connection to the protagonist. It reinforces Sophie’s isolation and the alienness of the Sendeni since we’d never see any viewpoint other than hers. And it would give the story a nice noir feel that I really enjoy. (I wish I could say my fondness for first person narration stems from classical noir like the works of Dashiell Hammett, or heck, even Mickey Spillane, but sadly, it really goes back to Chris Claremont’s work with Wolverine.) I also like that a first person narrator can editorialize about the action, giving me both a more active, entertaining narrative and an easy way to slip in exposition, of which there will be quite a bit.
I know that first person is technically harder to pull off than third person limited, the only other POV seriously used in American fiction (I was surprised to find out that Europeans, Aussies and Kiwis tend to use a lot more third person omniscient, which has fallen out of style here.), and I know that’s a risk. The same things that make me like first person for this particular story also make it hard to do well: extremely limited scope, the tendency for the narrator to ramble. To me, the benefits outweighed the disadvantages.
I was getting caught up on podcasts from the Dead Robots Society and they had a topic about the differences between comedy and tragedy, in the classical sense. Happy endings vs downer endings. One of the things they pointed out is that you can have a bittersweet mix of the two, where overall the good guys win, whatever that means for your story, but pay a high price. The Firefly movie “Serenity” pulled this off particularly well. And that got me thinking about my main character.
Early drafts of Mistaken Identity, the first book of the Nemesis War, began with an argument between two historians looking back on these events from much further downstream in time (a trope I believe I came up with before the Babylon 5 episode “Deconstruction of Falling Stars” but I don’t remember now). The idea was to lend the weight of history to the story, to drive home that however they appear at first, these are Important People, doing Things That Change The Course Of History. That people in this universe will look back and remember people like Jack Killian, the human commander who formed the Alliance, found the Last Guardian and ultimately destroyed the Nemesis, sacrificing himself, Earth and the rest of the Sol system to do it.
And it occurred to me that history would similarly look back on Sophronia Mukta Leelavathi. She would be remembered as the human telepath who led the Sendeni revolution. And then my brain, causing trouble for me as it is often wont to do, pointed out that a lot of revolutionary leaders are martyrs. What if Sophie doesn’t survive to see the end of the war? What if the males she’s led and inspired and taught to think for themselves rise up and finish the job without her, in memorial to her?
That’s a better ending. I like better endings.
But if Sophie dies before the end of the story, how is she the gorram narrator?
So now I’m reconsidering third person. And I have to admit, there are advantages to this as well. I can hold my third person camera tight on Sophie for most of the book, still get into her thoughts and reactions, but I can also, when needed, show other characters and how they’re reacting to what she’s doing. I’m thinking mainly of her opposite numbers in the Sendeni High Council and Military Officer Corps. I can slowly transition from her perspective to showing more and more scenes from the point of view of her lieutenants, who will carry on without her later. I lose some of the intimacy of first person, but gain other benefits to compensate.
The one sticking point I’m still having trouble with is the narrative voice. With first person, I get to tell the story with Sophie’s personality coming through in the narrative. In third, I’m going to have to fall back to what I call my “Asimov” voice, a nearly invisible narrator that stays out of the way and just tells the story. This frictionless narration served Asimov well, as it did Hemingway before him, and it’s really the only way I can tell stories in third person. I’d love to have a stylish, in-your-face narrator like Neal Stephenson used for Snow Crash, but I just can’t pull it off. So moving to third person means losing a big chunk of the personality I had in mind for the piece. But the alternative means writing it in first person anyway and then trying to figure out how to switch narrators after Sophie dies without it feeling like a cop out.
So what would you do? Should I just suck it up and deal with third person? Or is there way to salvage a first person narrative with the ending I want that I’m not seeing?