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On First Person Narration In Historical Novels, by Adrian Goldsworthy

Before you sit down and start writing, one major choice is whether to tell the story in first or third person, and what tense to use.  Some authors describe the action in the present tense, and use this to make the narrative more immediately involving.  Sarah Dunant in books like Sacred Hearts and Philippa Gregory in The Lady of the Rivers and the rest of the Cousins War Series do this very well, bringing the story to life as a developing series of events rather than a tale of the past.  As always, whether or not this works is down to the quality of the writing and finding a style that flows.  Most people still write in the past tense, but it is well worth considering the alternative if you feel it better suits your story.

This present tense storytelling can be either first or third person and the same is true of stories told in the past tense.  There is a long tradition of having a first person narrator in historical novels – think of Robert Graves’ I Claudius and Claudius the God.  These are examples of taking a real historical figure and inventing a personal story for him, full of behind the scenes intrigue and scandal.  As an aside, those novels and the BBC dramatisation of them have done a lot to create a far more positive image of the Emperor Claudius that the one conjured up by the ancient sources on which they are based.  Another option is to create a fictional character – or in George MacDonald Fraser’s case take one from existing fiction – and insert him or her into real events.  This had the similar theme of revealing secrets, in this case that the overtly heroic General Flashman was a coward who had lied, seduced, and cheated his way to fame and riches.

First person narration readily lends itself to focusing on the main character’s thoughts and experiences.  We see other people and events through their eyes and the story is told from their perspective.  The narrator may either be the key protagonist or someone close to him, a Dr Watson to his Sherlock Holmes, telling the story and revealing the greatness and flaws of someone else.  This method makes it easier to create a story interwoven with real events rather than driven by them.  The character speaks directly to the reader, although not necessarily with full honesty, and you can ‘hide’ things from them to reveal them later and explain what is going on.  Allan Massie’s Augustus is in two parts, the second supposed to have been written by the emperor after the death of his grandsons and revealing nasty details he had omitted in the earlier version.

Just because you choose a first person narration does not mean that you have to do this throughout the book or even a series.  The Lady of the Rivers mixes first and third person narrative.  So does Red Runs the Helmand by Patrick Mercer, which is mostly narrated in the first person by General Morgan, but has some sections focusing on his sons written in third person.  This is a departure from the earlier two books in the series which are entirely third person.  A less formal version of this is to use the device of a character writing a letter or journal and so for a few paragraphs or for a few pages the story can be told as a narration, whether to reveal their intimate thoughts or to show them concealing them.  Yet another option is to have more than one narrator.  This needs to be carefully sign-posted and usually there will be only one narrator per chapter, but it can be very effective, especially if each character has a distinctive voice.  Alison Weir does this in books like Innocent Traitor, as does MacDonald Fraser in Black Ajax.

If you are going to adopt a first person narration then it is important to engage the reader with your story-teller.  In many ways it is probably harder to write well in the first person, but highly effective when you succeed.  As with everything else, such judgements are subjective.  Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is largely narrated by Ned Kelly and is told in stilted, ungrammatical English.  The historian in me did not find this convincing, with the narrator’s vocabulary too developed and varied for a poorly educated bush ranger.  However, the book won the Booker Prize and has been a great success so that shows how much I know.  Whatever you write, you will not please everyone.

If you do decide to write in the first person then in many ways it is like writing dialogue since the narrator is talking directly to the reader.  So this means thinking about all those questions of style and period language.  To work well, it has either to come across as in period or neutral.  Modern slang or preoccupations will jar even more here than in conversation.  You also have to decide whether you want the narrator to be the character caught up in the story or a version of himself or herself telling the tale in later life.  Some authors employ the latter method as a way of more easily providing background and sometimes contrasting what they know now with what they knew and believed then.  Obviously this method does mean that you let the reader know that the main character will survive the story, but you can hint about some of the cost of this.  You can even offer a promise of what is to come.  The opening pages of MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman stories are particularly good at setting the mood, establishing the character of our story-teller, referring to some of the key events and people in the novel.  The opening pages of Flashman and the Redskins is a particular favourite of mine, and well worth looking at to see how many things and ideas are raised at the beginning.

I have said a lot about first person narrative because it is an effective but delicate tool.  There is less to say about third person, although once again some of the same issues become relevant.  Will you focus on one person throughout or on more than one character?  Editors tend to be keen on sticking to a single point of view in each chapter or section.  Certainly, if you have more than one then you need to be careful to make this clear to the reader.  Advantages are that you can talk about the action in more than one place and ‘see’ more of what is going on than is possible with a first person narration.

As ever, there is no right and wrong style to choose.  This is a personal thing, and none of these methods will work unless you do them well.


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Writing Historical Novels


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