Thoughts on writing a first person narrative when that person isn’t you.
Early reviews for The Green Man’s Challenge are coming in, and readers are commenting favourably on the way Dan Mackmain’s character comes vividly off the page. This isn’t the first time; an email from a satisfied reader of The Green Man’s Foe remarked about one incident, ‘honestly, Daniel’s such a bloke!’ This is intensely gratifying for me as the author, because Dan is so many things I am not, and as the central character in these stories, if he’s not believable, the whole book will fall apart. So how does a happily settled mid-50s woman write convincingly from the viewpoint of a man just turning 30 who works as a self-employed carpenter moving from place to place?
It certainly helps that I’ve been writing for over twenty years and more than twenty novels. My first book, The Thief’s Gamble, was centred around a first-person narrative, but Livak was a woman a decade or so younger than me, so I could draw on my own experience, and on my enduring friendships with other women. I faced a considerable challenge when I wrote the following novel, The Swordsman’s Oath, from a male character’s point of view. As I said at the time, I owed a great deal to my male beta readers; particularly my husband and close male friends who didn’t hesitate to tell me what I needed to know about the male perspective, ideally over a pint or two.
Writing those early books, it helped that my hobbies have included a good few male-dominated activities. At university and through my twenties, I enjoyed Live Action Role-Playing. I’ve done tabletop gaming since university, and also studied the martial art, aikido. I wasn’t consciously studying the men around me at the time, but when I was writing a scene where I needed to portray a convincing male reaction or interaction, I could frequently think back to some occasion where a conversation or disagreement showed me the best line to take. This is still the case. Add to that, over the years I’ve had some interesting chats with police officers, paramedics, nurses, social workers and door staff over post-aikido pints. These professionals frequently find themselves dealing with young men behaving unwisely to say the least, when aikido skills are invaluable for staying safe without having to meet aggression with aggression. Their anecdotes offer me further insights into attitudes that are a world away from my own.
Then there are the resources I have closer to home, namely my twenty-something sons, godsons and their assorted friends. I don’t interrogate them, notebook in hand, because that would be weird, but I can check what I am writing against the way they speak, the references they use, and the concerns they have about work, relationships and money. All these aspects of their lives are very different to the decades when I was their age. And yes, if I’m not sure I’ve got something right, I ask. Grounding any fantasy solidly in reality is essential if readers are to make that step into believing in the monsters and magic. That’s a challenge writing a secondary world, epic fantasy. It’s twice as hard when you’re writing about this world, in the here and now. Thankfully my sons are as helpful as they are amused by such queries.
For writers who don’t have esoteric hobbies or convenient relatives, endless information can be found in non-fiction. I’ve read any number of memoirs and autobiographies by soldiers, sailors and airmen, explorers and adventurers, from historical eras to the modern day. There’s recently been a flurry of very interesting books written by doctors. Obviously Dan’s not a medic or anything of those other things, but such books show me the different ways in which a range of personalities will address a particular challenge. Since Dan’s concerned with rural affairs, I’ve recently been reading James Rebanks’ writing, and (heaven help me) watching the Clarkson’s Farm series from Amazon Prime video. Documentaries offer further ranges of perspectives – unlike ‘reality’ TV which is as artificial as its participants’ smiles.
All this has shown me something very interesting about writing from Dan’s point of view. Very little of his outlook outside the bedroom is specifically or intrinsically related to his gender. People are definitely influenced by the different expectations and pressures they face from an early age, and many of those are undoubtedly based on whether they’re seen as a boy or a girl, but those things come from outside, not from within. Whether someone’s lively and outgoing, more reserved, or somewhere in between, isn’t determined by one particular set of chromosomes, and the same is true of other character traits. External factors like family circumstance, upbringing, social class, education and life experience play a hugely significant role in shaping anyone’s personality.
So the fact that I am a happily settled mid-50s woman does not mean I can’t write convincingly from the viewpoint of a man just turning 30 – or from the perspective of anyone else who isn’t me. However it does mean that I have to put in a good deal of work to do it well. Whatever I write, the further a character’s life might be from my own experiences, the more research I need to do. Above all else, I need listen to people who know a lot more about the reality of their own lives than I ever can. As I do that, I learn far more than simply how to write.