I, She and Two Tenses

Some people hate books written in the first person. Some don’t, including me. As a reader, I am not bothered one way or the other, as long as it reads appropriately. Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë are both fine by me. So, as an author, I will choose to write in either, but which I choose is entirely dependent on what I am trying to do.

Writing in the third person is the normal option, and the simplest, allowing the author to act as a detached narrator, preferably with an all-knowing, all-powerful God complex. The protagonist becomes a character operating in a spotlight on a stage that you, the reader, are being invited to watch.

Books written in the first person are more intensely personal. The author takes the reader inside the protagonist’s head and sees everything through their eyes, a completely different view point, looking out from the stage. Of course, Hilary Mantel manages to do this using the third person, with he Cromwell, but we are not all Hilary Mantel.

The real benefit of writing in the first person is that you immediate create an unreliable narrator, one who is subjective, liable to misread situations or misunderstand what they are seeing. Or even one who is deliberately trying to deceive the reader, to miss out details, or interpret actions for their own benefit.

Some people also feel strongly about tenses. They hate books written in the present tense. Maybe not “hate” to the point of foaming at the mouth, but they don’t like them. Sorry, but I write in past or present tense, again to achieve different ends. Past tense tells a story already complete. It is leading to an end point that has already happened. The present tense puts the reader in the moment. Whatever happens next is not yet set in stone.

It is a conceit, I know. The author always knows precisely what is going to happen next – or at least, that’s the theory, and it’s probably the reality for authors who plot meticulously (not me). But the present tense still feels as if every action, every word spoken, every decision could yet lead in an infinite number of directions. Nothing is predestined, as it appears to be with the past tense.

In my first published novel, A Time For Silence, I toyed with various combinations of person and tense, before settling on the only choice that sat comfortably for me. Sarah is a contemporary woman who comes upon the cottage where her grandparents lived and she sets out to discover the truth about a murder that happened there. Her investigations are interwoven with the reality of events, in the story of her grandmother Gwen, in the 1930s and 40s.

Sarah’s tale is written in the first person, because she is an unintentionally unreliable narrator, failing to grasp what the reader might very well see quite quickly, because her judgement in skewed by her own feelings. She is also keen to share her thoughts and feelings, so it is perfectly reasonable to be in her head. However, her investigation is complete – this is her account of it – so it seemed most appropriate to write it in the past tense.

Gwen’s tale, on the other hand, is intended as an “in the moment” revelation of the truth as it happened, so although it is set in the past, it felt far more imminent when written in the present tense. But I also wrote her in the third person, partly to invite the reader to be a witness, not participant in the action, but also because, unlike Sarah, Gwen would never invite anyone into her head. She is private. She sees, she acts, she feels, but she doesn’t say.

The choice of person, first or third, really depends on whether I want my protagonist to be hiding something, missing something, or just getting on with the story. In Motherlove, I follow five women, all third person, all past tense, with five stories that had to be woven together. In The Unravelling, my protagonist Karen is an unreliable narrator for what becomes obvious reasons, so first person and past tense, except for flashbacks that are present tense. How I write, what person, what tense, depends entirely on what feels right for each book, not because I have a personal preference. The book will tell me what I need to do.

Of course, the next challenge is to write a book in the future tense. Perhaps I should have tried that with my science fictions books, Inside Out and Making Waves, since they are set about 250 years in the future, but perversely I chose the past tense instead. Whatever the tense or person I used, Reader, I wrote it.

7 thoughts on “I, She and Two Tenses

  1. I’ve seen reviews from people who comment on books written in the first person, the present tense or both, and they are often quite adamant that books shouldn’t be written this way. I love first person present for immediacy and for that insight into the protagonist’s head. I agree with you – if the writing’s good, I’m not aware of the tools used and simply enjoy the story.

    Liked by 1 person

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