Six weeks from the deadline for The Midwife’s Confession, I’m doing some deep thinking about whose head I’m in. One of the most important things a writer must decide when starting a novel is point-of-view. Will the story be told from an ominiscient perspective in which the narrator knows everything? Or will one character alone tell the story? Perhaps several characters will share what they know with the reader. Will the character tell her tale in first person (“I spotted the owl as I stepped onto the deck”) or third person (“She spotted the owl as she stepped onto the deck”)? Or will the writer mix and match these narrative voices, something that must be done with extraordinary care to avoid jarring or worse–confusing–the reader.
I just finished reading a book in which the author head hopped from character to character within the same paragraph. There’s no law that says you can’t do this, and I’ve read the rare book in which it worked. By that I mean, I barely noticed. But in this particular book, I found myself thinking, Huh? Whose head am I in?? I don’t want my readers ever to ask that question. Still, I often use some challenging approaches to point-of-view when I think the story will be best served through my choice.
In two of my most recent books, Before the Storm and Secrets She Left Behind, I wrote from four first-person points-of-view. Let me tell you, that wasn’t easy! It was crucial that each voice was unique to that particular character. In The Lies We Told, coming out in late May, I do something a little different. The story is told from the points of view of two sisters, Maya and Rebecca. Maya’s chapters are told in first person and Rebecca’s in third. I did that because I felt that Maya’s story was more significant and I wanted the reader to feel closer to her.
I liked that approach so much that I decided to use it as I wrote The Midwife’s Confession as well. I gave one of the characters, Tara, the first person role and three other characters third person. I wrote the entire first draft that way . . . but I had a lot of trouble doing so for two reasons: the other characters kept slipping into first person as I wrote, and as the story unfolded, it became clear that Tara’s story was not more important than those of the other characters. So I am now giving them a more equal voice in the rewrite. I won’t pretend that changing several hundred pages of first person to third is fun (it’s not!), but it’s the right thing to do for the story. By the way, making that switch is far more complex than changing “she” to “I” and “her” to “my”. When I write in first person, I feel instantly closer to the character and that closeness is reflected in how the character thinks and feels. Changing point of view changes everything.
The challenge of maintaining separate voices that I dealt with in Before the Storm and Secrets She Left Behind is even bigger in The Midwife’s Confession because all four points of view are female and three of those women are around forty years old. Think of three middle class women you know of a similar age. They probably “sound” very much alike. Giving them their true and separate voices is tough. I see the differences in them because I know them so well, but I want my reader to be able to open the book to one of the chapters and know whose head she’s in. Not easy. And that’s why I’m going to end this blog post here and get back to work!