On the first person, past tense
4 min read

On the first person, past tense

The great Victorians, the Terminator, Hilary Mantel

I’ve been thinking about —

(INSERT HERE: A GIF which doesn’t exist. Kermit the Frog is spinning, that’s the key, it’s definitely a Kermit meme, and he’s dressed in a detective’s outfit, with fedora etc., and he’s facing away from camera, then towards it, but not in a flailing way nor a menacing one, to the small extent that Kermit can be menacing, which is one reason — but not the only one — that many trans mascs identify with him.)


See, I’m starting a new book with a Victorian setting. And when you’re starting a book, picking the perspective is one of the few choices that you can’t walk back. Everything else is a matter of slapping clay into a different shape, but with perspective, you’re choosing the consistency and the chemical makeup of the clay itself.  You can rewrite a draft in another perspective, I suppose, but then you’d have to rethink everything else about it. Everything flows from perspective: the style of the book, the things the narrator observes and doesn’t observe, the length and chop of the sentences, the number of similes, the permission the book gives you to spin and chat.

I tend to default on the first person, past tense. My last four manuscripts — The Breath of the Sun; my upcoming vampire book whose final title is not settled; a failed trans epic; a successful trans epic now in late edits —  have all been written in first. It’s an affection that stems from my love of Victorian literature, and the Victorians’ frequent use of a first-person narrator who is a sort of Terminator: perfect memory, exquisite style (that leather!), and with a tendency to deviate from their programming. The Victorian first person is Jane Eyre, with her elephantine memory for the slights and humiliations that give her such pleasure, or Ishmael, who becomes porous and then stickily imbued with the life of the Pequod. These narrators know things they shouldn’t know; they remember things they shouldn’t remember. Whatever their nominal job, each one writes like a great novelist at the height of their powers.

It is a perspective that doesn’t care that it’s unrealistic. It places realism elsewhere than in the voice. It accepts the voice’s artificiality so you can dwell on other things. I love and believe in writerly pretension, but the pretense of realism in first-person narration is too much for me.

I’ve never worked very hard to differentiate my narrators from each other. Each of them is a cranky bitch who speaks an elevated English. Lamat from Breath is sadder and smugger than the rest. Sol from the vampire novel is quicker, wetter, sillier. The trans epic has two narrators, one more confident and experienced and the other with more to prove. Even by my standards, they’re similar, but their similarity is explained by their being family — the younger writer having been raised by the older, and the older having learned some of his English from the younger. To me, a writer is best served by refining their style, not splitting it off into slenderer and slenderer branches. I will defend the fact that my narrators don’t pass the Turing test.

But with this new book, I’m compelled to write in the third person. This is partly because I need a break from all this I, and partly because of the setting. You can’t reproduce the patina of 19th-century work. The best Victorian pastiches I’ve read — A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell — know how to keep you just far enough away from the past that you don’t care if the marble is painted wood. Byatt restricts herself to short bursts of perfectly executed historical poetry and prose, while Clarke’s book is more gestural, combining a few Austen tics with heavy pastiche of early Tolkien (who wasn’t “Victorian,” but whose hobbits evoke a generalized England-as-it-was) until she’s mixed a generically historic drink with an Austen aftertaste.

So we cheat the angles. My sense, though, is that the angle of a first-person Victorian narrative is uncheatable. It’s too immediate, too close to the fake marble. And — like — I just admitted that I don’t care that my narrators all write in my style. It’s possible to avoid failing by not being interested in that kind of success. But just as I love the Victorian first-person narrative, I also know that our instincts about narrative have evolved so far from the Victorians’ that their work feels like another country. It’s better to be inspired by them than to try to be them. I’ll find a way to give my book the right feeling without laboriously tapping out even more semicolons than usual.

I was also briefly compelled to write this new book in the present tense, for the same reasons: shying away from imitating Victorian style. In this case, my dislike of the present tense won the day. I’m sorry to say something that sounds so arbitrary, but this doesn’t mean I don’t read present-tense fiction, or that I haven’t been stunned by the quality of some of it. The present tense is a -2 modifier on a d20, that’s all — where a 7 or below means I hate it, and an 18+ is a critical hit. The frustration is how it’s used. People bring it in to provide an immediacy, a sensory bloom, but seem to trust it too much to deliver these things on its own.

The present tense works when the writer has a point to make with it, if not a flex to execute. In the Wolf Hall trilogy,  Hilary Mantel uses it to convey how immediate Cromwell’s world is, how well he uses his body to react to it, and yet how numb he is: the dissociative voice, the moment when you’re telling your therapist about how something made you feel, and you lapse into “when you love someone,” “when you’re that much under someone’s control,” “well, it’s hard for you not to be frightened.” In her hands, that eternal “he, Cromwell, says” doesn’t feel like an arbitrary attempt to create immediacy. It feels like a man manipulating his own beloved body through a scentless and terrifying world. It feels like the impossibility of immediacy. That’s the bar it has to clear, and so I’ve kept the perspective but changed my mind about the tense, after 5,000 words of fucking around and finding out.