Often a writer has to ponder general rules about fiction. Readers might be disgruntled more often and without referring to these words and phrases - stereotypes, derivative, formula plot, point of view.
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The novel was originally written with the omniscient narrator. The idea, I have thought, was that the author was like God in knowing, but that characters had free will. So someone above might want to follow the characters for the whole story. Then third person and limited point of view told a story from the character perspective, listening in to the human side. Characters could hold the spotlight as in a play or film.
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The first person point of view, or first person narrator, is traditionally the human storyteller. “Call me Ishmael…” is a witness who loses himself in the events of Moby Dick. The “I” is infrequent. A servant tells about Wuthering Heights. She is at the edge of it, an observer that the reader easily forgets.
Today there’s much preference for the first person narration. Often it seems, the storyteller becomes what is termed an unreliable narrator. Other characters tend to bounce off of their relationships to “I.” They’d better get in good with the one talking!
An agent wanted me to read some contemporary first person narrations because he thought I might rewrite The Swan Bonnet that way. I usually don’t write in the first person, and when I do, the person is close to my identity. The Swan Bonnet was researched and a historical book, so I wasn’t keen to rewrite it that way. It’s hard for an author to accomplish first person in a historical novel without being found out to be living in the 21st Century, I’ve noticed from my reading.
First person adolescent narrators had me thinking about stereotypes. When characters are stereotyped, they serve the author. And when they are put into formula plots, they do things for the author. That makes the author an authority that most would like to avoid. Characters are made to behave so that the novel works, and then made to unthinkingly perform actions. So I began to see that these rules were really about giving each character their humanity.
While revising a children’s novel, I pondered stereotypes and narrator focus. It is the only children’s novel I wrote with a boy protagonist. The novel is about a dog like the dog in my childhood, and I wanted the boy and male dog parallels. What revisions I had. First of all, I had to think about the boy’s actions instead of seeing them from his mother’s or his sister’s eyes. I did a whole rewriting of the book, shadowing the boy. The dog story was the core that kept me revising.
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Then when I thought the book was about done, I knew it wasn’t. What was the problem? I made the boys around the main protagonist do what I wanted. When I thought about them, the plot changed and entire scenes had to be rewritten. I had to stick with what a minor character would do in order for me to accept the book myself.
At a recent library book sale, I picked up an antique book, Peter, Pippa and Puck. It was from the early 20th century and I was taken with the photographs in it. I’ve always liked photos in children’s books. A British woman told a real story about a dog. I enjoyed reading some of the book, and noticed that her dog dilemma was similar to that in my book. There it was. A writer has to tell about a dog, because that dog is not like other dogs, and it ran off and did something different from the other dogs, I heard.