She’s the one: Five reasons I write in the third person
‘I had not intended to love him; the reader knows I had wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the germs of love there detected; and now, at the first renewed view of him, they spontaneously revived, great and strong! He made me love him without looking at me.’
So declares Jane Eyre in the eponymous novel by Charlotte Brontë. It is my favourite work of English literature, and in my teenage years, when I first began reading literature, it was one of the books that inspired me to want to be a novelist myself someday.
Yet, there is one aspect of Jane Eyre with which I never connected well: the first-person narration: ‘I had not intended… I had wrought… He made me love’. When I came to read French literature at university, I found I was entirely more comfortable reading novels like Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, in which Emma’s story is narrated in the third person.
I was stirred to consider this preference by a recent article in the Times Literary Supplement entitled ‘A brief history of the first person’ (http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/brief-history-first-person/). The author charts her personal journey from writing only in the first person, because the alternative felt ‘remote, false, a performance’, to struggling to so much as read a book written in the first person, let alone write in it. Interestingly, she describes the turning point as being when she became a mother and began telling stories to her child.
All of the books I have written are in the third person: I write ‘She entered the room’, not ‘I entered the room’. Here are the reasons I believe third-person narration works for my romance fiction:
1. I draw on a heritage of oral storytelling.
The third-person narrative is as old as time. Imagine ancestors at the fireside telling stories – fairy tales like Cinderella, Aladdin; the storyteller told the story in the third person. As a result, there is an intrinsic sense of comfort in being told (or reading) a story in which the narrator is not a part of the story.
As a little girl, I lived for story time, and for me that meant listening to stories. My governess would challenge me to come up with my own stories, and I did: so my first steps into storytelling were in the third person, and when I write now, it feels right and natural to tell a story in that way.
2. I like to explore multiple perspectives.
The first-person narrative allows the reader to get very close to the protagonist, to see the fictional world through her eyes. There is a limitation, however: the reader can only see through the heroine’s eyes.
In my fiction, I like to move occasionally into the hero’s point of view. It is important to me that he have a voice, a perspective on the story – and it allows the reader to see the heroine from another angle. Using an omniscient (all-seeing) narrator allows me to move about as I wish.
3. I want to have a bird’s eye view.
Readers of my fiction know that settings are very important in my novels. I like to set a scene and really transport my reader there. A heroine can’t achieve that; I need a narrator who knows all about the scene and can stand back and describe it.
4. My heroines are not extensions of myself.
When a writer writes ‘I’, the reader can quite naturally infer that ‘I’ means ‘I’! That is to say, if I write ‘I’ for my heroine, the reader assumes there is something (a lot, even) of myself, the writer, in that heroine; she is more personal.
In addition, over time heroines could blend together. To date, I have published five novels, each with a different heroine. I think had I written each of these books in the first person, it would have been harder to differentiate between the heroines. A reader working through all my novels may start to wonder, ‘Who is this “I”?’
5. A little emotional distance allows for breathing space.
I write epic, romantic fiction in which characters go on emotional journeys. Were I to write in the first person, I think my fiction could become claustrophobic; my reader could get quite overwhelmed by the strong emotions of the heroine. The third-person narration allows me to create just a little breathing space. Having said that, you may still need a fan to hand for the passionate scenes!
Meet the heroines of my novels:
Burning Embers: Coral, 25. At the age of nine her parents, expatriate settlers in Kenya, divorced, and Coral’s mother took her back to England, forcing her to separate from her father. She spent her whole childhood missing him, and their home in Mombasa, from the lonely rooms of her boarding school. Even at home, she was lonely, as her mother remarried and started a new family with her husband. All Coral wants is to return ‘home’. But her father dies shortly before she does so, and the story opens with Coral returning to Mpingo, the plantation she has now inherited, alone.
The Echoes of Love: Venetia, 28. She grew up in England, the daughter of an overbearing, old-fashioned father, Sir William, and a lovely but passive mother. A romance in her late teens had seen her fall out with her parents; her father was vehemently against the match, because the man, Judd, was ‘not of their class’. While Venetia had, eventually, reconciled with her parents, she had then lost her mother, and she decided to remove herself from her father’s dominance by moving to Venice, Italy, to work for her godmother’s architect firm.
Indiscretion: Alexandra, 25. She was born in Andalucía, Spain, to a Spaniard and an Englishwoman, but at the age of three they split up and her mother brought her back to England. Two years later, her mother left Alexandra with her Aunt Geraldine to pursue a new love affair – and was killed in a car accident. Alonso, Alexandra’s father, did not send for her; subsequently, she grew up in England with her well-meaning but dour and dry maiden aunt. The story begins with Alonso finally asking Alexandra to travel to Andalucía and meet her Spanish family there.
Legacy: Luna, 25. Daughter of Montgomery Ward, a well-known American business tycoon, and Adalia Herrera, a beautiful Spanish socialite. Her parents split up when she was seven. Adalia took the daughter from her first marriage, Luna’s half-sister Juliet, with her to Spain, while Montgomery kept Luna in California – and immediately packed her off to boarding school. Luna never saw her mother or sister again: when she was twelve, news came that Juliet had died in a car accident, and her mother, already an alcoholic by then, drank herself to death shortly afterwards.
Each of my heroines, then, is admirably strong-willed and determined to choose their own path in life, whether that leads away from family or toward it.
Each is also alone. Of course, were you to ask Coral and Venetia and Alexandra and Luna, they would no doubt strongly deny being lonely. These are, after all, women who pride themselves on being independent. But deep down, they are achingly alone, and have been for many years.
Why write lonely heroines? Because it brings so much more emotional need to the story. Take Coral, for example, who is alone on her plantation, the mistress of all. Were she part of a big, happy family, an extensive support network, the whole mood of the story would shift; it would be less poignant, I feel, when she and Rafe come together.
Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed a book missing from the list above. Masquerade, the second book in my Andalucían Nights trilogy, is a little different, because the heroine, Luz, is not alone. She is the daughter of Alexandra and Salvador (from Indiscretion). It was essential for the series that the heroine be their daughter, and because they are wonderful, attentive, loving parents, it follows that Luz is a different kind of heroine: bolder, more secure. The loneliness wrought by a difficult childhood is still a theme in the book, however. In Masquerade, I turn the tables: I would love to explain how, but that would spoil the twist…
For me, in any story I write, the antidote to a character’s loneliness is family. So my ultimate aim in writing a love story is not merely to tell a story of romance, of the early days of flirting and dates and stolen kisses, but to tell a story of a family being created – a family that will not break apart, but will endure. That is true love.
When you think of Spain, what springs to mind? Whatever mental image you conjure, it is bound to include at least one of this trio:
* Bullfighting: the fever of the crowds at the corrida, the toreros in their costumes, the furious bull. (See my blog post ‘The Running of the Bulls’: http://hannahfielding.net/the-running-of-the-bulls/)
* Flamenco: the beautiful attire, the sensual dancing, the soulful music and vocals. (See my blog post ‘Duende: the artistic flamenco spirit’: http://hannahfielding.net/duende/)
* Hispano-Moorish architecture: nowhere is this more stunning than at the Alcázar of Seville and the Alhambra, Granada. (See my blog posts ‘The Alcázar, Seville: a setting for indiscretion’: http://hannahfielding.net/the-alcazar-seville-a-setting-for-indiscretion; and ‘The Hall of the Abencerrages’: http://hannahfielding.net/the-hall-of-the-abencerrages/)
Did you know that each of these three important parts of Spanish culture originated either wholly or in large part in Andalucía? For me, Andalucía is the most inspiring cultural and historical hub in Spain, which is why I chose to set my trilogy – Indiscretion, Masquerade and Legacy – there.
Omne trium perfectum: a Latin phrase which translates to ‘everything that comes in threes is perfect’ or ‘every set of three is complete’. Bullfighting, flamenco, Moorish-inspired architecture: a perfect three at the foundation of Andalucían culture.
One also finds omne trium perfectum in writing. According to ‘the rule of three’, writing that incorporates threes is more powerful, engaging, satisfying and memorable to the reader. There were three little pigs, not four. There was a lion, a witch and a wardrobe – not merely a lion and a witch. Julius Caesar came, saw and conquered. The cry of the French Republic was for liberté, égalité, fraternité.
Three is a magic number. There is a rhythm to it – one, two, three – and a pleasing feeling of wholeness, completion: the three form a neat set. It was the need for that rhythm and that sense of completion that drove me to write not one or two books set in Andalucía, but three, a trilogy.
In fact, when I began writing Indiscretion I did not have in mind that this would be the first of a three-book series; I was simply immersed in the story world. But when I completed the book, it did not feel complete: there was so much more to write. So I began plotting a second book, Masquerade – and as I did so, I realised very quickly that I could not merely write a sequel. Two, for me, is not a magic number, and it did not fit with the Andalucían setting. I needed three books, and hence Legacy would follow, the book that would complete the set and take the wheel full circle.
Writing and publishing a trilogy has been a learning experience for me. Three individual books, and yet one entity, in a sense. Each of my books stands alone, and yet it is also intrinsically part of the three. The voice, the style, the tone, the artwork for the cover: all had to bind the three together.
I confess, I was only truly settled once Legacy was published and I had all three books, the set, on my shelf. But this month, I am even happier, because my publisher, London Wall, has brought out an all-in-one edition of the Andalucían Nights trilogy in ebook format: three books, one fluid read.
If you have not already discovered the Andalucían Nights trilogy, you can read a sample to see whether this epic, romantic family saga is up your street. Simply visit Amazon and click the book cover for the ‘Look Inside’ feature: https://www.amazon.com/Andalucian-Nights-Trilogy-Award-winning-Romantic-ebook/dp/B06XKZ2XKC/
‘La rue est un véritable musée pour tous.’ So wrote writer and artist Hergé, who is most famous for his comic book series The Adventures of Tintin. Translated into English, his aphorism reads: ‘The street is a veritable museum for everyone.’
What did Hergé mean by this? He was talking about people-watching. We go to museums to learn about the past. To learn about people, we can simply stand in a street and be observant.
I spend my summers in the south of France, and one of my favourite aspects of life in this part of the world is the cafe culture. By ‘cafe culture’ I do not mean visiting a chain coffee shop for a quick iced coffee and a cake, surrounded by people gossiping and tapping away on laptops and tablets. I mean the original and most wonderful cafe culture which is an intrinsic part of French life. I am talking about really good coffee, table service and an entirely unhurried pace. I am talking about sitting at a pavement table and having all the time in the world to people-watch – and most likely being surrounded by plenty of other people who are also taking time out not to chat or work, but to sit and breathe and observe.
Any good writer must also be a good observer. ‘Write about what you know’ is a popular adage, but of course we know very little unless we watch and absorb and consider and learn. For my latest novel series, Andalucían Nights, I did plenty of people-watching in Spain. The character of Leandro in Masquerade, in particular, was inspired by a very handsome gypsy man I saw on a beach in Andalucía.
For this series, I did not stop at being inspired by my observations of people, however; I infused into the writing this idea of learning through watching. Each of my heroines is a writer: Alexandra in Indiscretion writes romance novels; Luz in Masquerade writes biographies; Luna in Legacy is a science writer. Thus these women are naturally predisposed to being observers, and wherever they go the street is indeed their museum – they drink in the Spanish culture around them.
But my heroines do not merely passively take in sights they happen across, they seek out scenes that will interest and inspire them, and this is especially important when it comes to the gypsy communities in the books. Each heroine is fascinated by the gypsies, and her curiosity draws her to watch them at their camp, so that with each book there is the sense of history repeating itself.
First, in Indiscretion, Alexandra’s determination to find Salvador leads her right into the gypsy camp. What she finds there shocks her deeply:
It was then that she caught sight of a crowd of gypsies gathered at the wide entrance of one of the caves, a hundred yards away from where she was standing. Unlike the others, this one glowed with flickering light. Alexandra carefully weaved her way through the cluster of people, trying not to draw attention to herself. Several of the gypsies were carrying candles, the ends of which were wrapped in paper, careful not to let the wax drip onto their hands. Salvador stood at the entrance of the cave, his face pale and drawn. Beside him was Esmeralda, stiffly upright, her mouth grave, her beautiful blonde hair partially concealed by a large silk shawl.
Further inside the entrance, men were crouched on the ground, drinking wine from goatskin gourds. One tall, hawk-eyed gitano, a scar deeply etched down the side of his face, was perched on a rock, sharpening a short-bladed knife with a stone, and taking rough swigs of wine. Suddenly, the gypsies got up and started to dance. Their singing was a sort of raucous chant on a monotone, accompanied by castanets, hand-clapping and the rhythmic tapping together of two stones. Then, as the men drew back into the shadows, the women came forward, forming a wild circle around an open coffin. Their sinuous bodies, wrapped in flowing loose dresses, wriggled in the eerie glow of the flames. They were swaying their hips like witches at in incantation, and Alexandra half expected to see black cats appear at any minute, clinging to their backs with raised fur.
Alexandra has stumbled into the funeral of a child, and the gypsies’ customs for this sad event – in particular, the rhythmic ‘bee dance’ – are very unsettling for her. She feels she is ‘in the midst of some hellish nightmare’.
Alexandra does not find affinity with the gypsies, but her daughter certainly does: Luz falls in love with Leandro, the son of a gypsy. Luz comes to the camp in the evening and, hiding behind a large clump of bristling cactus, she watches Leandro play his guitar and sing in the flamenco style for his gypsy family. Luz’s desire to observe and learn has driven her to this place, but she soon becomes uncomfortable, feeling that she is an illicit onlooker.
As he opened his eyes, the gypsy turned towards where Luz was standing. Like deep opal jewels his green irises shone in the semi-darkness and the look of torment in them was harrowing. She made herself smaller. Had he noticed her? The shouts of Olé! and the clapping of hands and stamping of feet were overwhelming, echoing the pounding of her pulse. Men slapped the gypsy singer on the back and young gitanas appeared from every side, screaming, ‘Leandro! Leandro!’ They surrounded him, embracing, hugging and cajoling.
Steel fingers pinched cruelly at Luz’s heart. It was getting colder and the sea wind was beginning to blow, lifting small clouds of dust from the rubble around the encampment. Now lonely, hollow and a little sad, she was not a part of these strange, passionate people, merely an onlooker, an intruder; she had no right to be there. A sudden fear came over her that she might be caught watching them, that he could have seen her, so she turned her back on the scene of merriment. It was time to go home.
In Legacy, the heroine Luna need not feel discomfort over visiting the gypsy camp; she stumbles across it while searching for the ruins of a Moorish mosque, and is guided to the camp by a gypsy lady named Morena. Whereas Alexandra witnessed a gypsy funeral for a child, Luna is afforded the opportunity to watch a ceremony for a newborn baby.
There was a large hollow in the ground next to the cave and a small fire had been lit alongside it. The matron poured water into it and Ruy immersed the child twice in the hole. He then held little Luis over the flame while enunciating a few words in Caló before giving him to his mother.
‘He is bestowing upon him the gift of immortality,’ Morena whispered, ‘an old tradition that some of us follow and that will bring much luck to the child.’
A cradle made of bamboo was brought out. The matron handed Ruy three sprigs of garlic and three pieces of bread, which he placed underneath the mattress. Then, dipping his finger in the hot cinders, he marked the child’s forehead with a semi-circular sign illustrating the moon.
‘The garlic and the bread are for the three goddesses of fate,’ said Morena. ‘El Mèdico has explained to us that this tradition we have comes from the ancient legends of Greece. The first goddess spins the thread of life for each person with her spindle, the second measures it with her rod, and the third determines when and how it should be cut.’
Luna’s initial reaction is akin to Alexandra’s – she is judgmental. She considers the ceremony to be ‘arcane symbolism and superstition’, and assumes that Ruy has not taken proper care of the baby by bathing him in muddy water a hole in the ground. In fact, though, she later discovers, the hole is tiled and the water was clean and warm – she misjudged what she saw.
The common theme in these books is that one must watch and learn about another culture, not make assumptions and judge. For Alexandra, in the prejudice-rife 1950s, this was not easy. But by Luna’s generation, there must be a change. As Luna watches, she must open her mind; she must challenge preconceptions and assumptions. Only then can she respond to the ‘odd stirring’ she feels inside when she sees Ruy with the gypsies – ‘as though some inner part of her was reaching out to it all, like a hungry sapling seeking the sun’.
I dreamed of being an author from a very young age – from the day I first understood how the many books on my parents’ shelves were created and formed the idea that someday I could do that myself.
In those days, to be an author was to be someone who wrote books. It was that simple. Other than dealing with your publisher and engaging in the occasional marketing activity, such as a book-signing event or penning an article for the press, the author’s job was simple: write the next book.
That was my dream job. All I ever wanted to do was write books, many books!
Fast-forward to 2012, and I finally felt ready to seek a publisher for my debut novel, Burning Embers – a book that in fact I began writing in my twenties, but shelved while raising my children and running my business. I was excited that finally I would be living the long-cherished dream of being an author.
But wait… the author job description had changed! No longer could an author just focus on writing books, it seemed. ‘Facebook,’ said my publisher. ‘A blog. Twitter. Goodreads. Instagram. Tumblr. Pinterest. Google-Plus. You must be out there, all the time, making connections, marketing your fiction.’
There was quite a learning curve for me, as I’m sure you can imagine, but soon I did as all authors today must do: I settled into a way of ‘being out there’ that works for me. I blog regularly on topics that interest me and relate to my fiction, and I post once or twice a day on Facebook and Twitter, where I connect with fellow authors and readers. I limit my ‘out there’ work to this, and am careful to ensure that I spend no more than one hour a day on such activities, because for me my novel writing must always come first.
This is what works for me, but all authors are different, and it strikes me that ‘being out there’ is a source of friction for writers. Last week, for example, British writer Joanna Trollope whipped up something of a frenzy by criticising JK Rowling’s ‘insatiable need and desire to be out there all the time… that’s entirely driven by [her] ego’. She was referring to Rowling creating a mass following on Twitter and tweeting several times a day.
People were quick to jump to JK Rowling’s defence and point out that she is a writer who has adapted very well to modern means of marketing and communication. A Radio Times reaction piece praised Rowling for having ‘truly discovered how to make her newest content sing’ on the internet.
While I do admire JK Rowling’s ability to be ‘out there’ so much, I wonder how that affects her ability to write the next book – which, to my mind, is still the author’s job.
In addition, I think Joanna Trollope made some points that are worth consideration. She said ‘she deliberately chose to stay away from social media because she expressed everything she wanted to in her books’ (source: the Guardian). I have a lot of respect for this approach. It reminds me of Italian author Elena Ferrante, who was determined to be anonymous. She wrote to her publisher before her first book was published: ‘I’ve already done enough for this long story: I wrote it. If the book is worth anything, that should be sufficient.’ (For more on this story, see my article ‘Thoughts on the exposure of Elena Ferrante’). I am also reminded of novelist Jean Rhys, who wrote: ‘All of a writer that matters is in the book or books. It is idiotic to be curious about the person.’
Joanna Trollope also expressed concern over the future of the author profession: ‘It’s so depressing to think that aspiring authors will look at famous writers with millions of followers, and think that that is how you have to operate.’ I agree that is not how you have to operate as an author. You may do; you may not – but it is a choice, and you are perfectly entitled to make it for yourself.
The key, I think, is to be careful not to stray far from your own definition of ‘author’. For me, being an author means always writing the next book, and so that is what I choose to do with the majority of my time. But in today’s world, no writer need be isolated, and that is where I find this new world of social media really comes into its own. It’s wonderful to connect to like-minded people – such as yourself. So thank you for reading my post today. Now, I had better get on with my novel-in-progress…