The Immersion

Ha! I did it. You didn’t think I was going to do it, did you? You thought I was going to skip posting again. You were all set to email and complain or ask if I’d fallen off a cliff.

Fooled you, you didn’t? 😉

Well. As most of you probably know, I’ve spent the last few months overhauling everything I’d written previously in Lily and Fred’s story. Due to a certain character who disagreed with me over who’s story I was actually writing, (*pause to give said character an exasperated eye-roll*) I had to stop, study my characters and story structure in general for a few months, and then dismantle the story and put it back together with a whole different main character and a much better idea of the story arc I was creating.

That was…a lot of work.

But it was worth it. And aside from story arc, one of the most exciting changes I made as I rewrote (and continued writing new material) was in the perspective I was writing from. Now, there are a couple of choices when it comes to the perspective you can tell a story from. There is the first person narrator (I.e. David Copperfield’s “I am born…”) Or the third person narrator (I.e. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…” as Tolkien tells it.)

And yes, for those of you who are wondering, there IS the option of a second person narrator as well. But hardly anyone ever uses that one, and I must say I can understand why. It would take a bit of adjustment for me if I opened up a book and read, “You are born…” or, more startling yet, found the narrator informing me that I lived in a hole in the ground!

So. Novel writers generally stick to first or third. I have always favored third myself, in both reading and writing. It’s just what I like. But what I did not always realize is that just because you decide to write in third person does not mean your choice in perspective is all set. Nope. Not so fast! Because there are a couple of options there too. Firstly, you could write as an omniscient narrator. Omniscient means “all -knowing.” Essentially an omniscient third person narrator is the type who does NOT pick any one character whose head they stay inside during a particular scene (or the whole book). This narrator knows all the characters’ thoughts and can share any or all of them with the reader. This style was extremely common in novels of past centuries, but is becoming less used now.

Having read a lot of older books through my growing-up years, this type of narration actually comes extremely naturally to me, and I wrote in it long before I knew what it was called, or even bothered to make a choice in the matter! I simply wrote the same style I read. (That also explains why in some of my early manuscripts I spent entire pages describing the weather or the sunrise or the scenery in great detail and with as many different adjectives as I could drag out of the thesaurus. If you don’t know what what writing style I’m referring to, go read the unabridged Les Miserables. I dare you.)

However, as I’ve studied perspectives in writing, I’ve realized that I actually prefer third person narration in the “deep” style. This means that you are “deep” inside the character’s head, and experience the scene exactly as they do. No idea what is going on in other character’s heads. No broad views of the the scene where you find out what’s going on behind the character’s back. You see only what they see and hear only what they hear. This is similar to first person narration, except of course that you use the character’s name to refer to them, rather than “I.” Also it is much easier to write different parts of the story through the eyes of different characters (alternating from one chapter to another, etc) without confusing readers. You CAN alternate perspectives in first person too, but since you aren’t referring to the character by name it is lot easier for readers to start getting confused about whose head they are currently inside.

Well. All that is to say, I realized I wanted to write my current project (a biographical novel) in deep third person, alternating between two perspectives (Lily’s and Fred’s). And since I’d originally just sort of fallen into the more omniscient viewpoint by default, as I started re-writing I had the rather interesting adventure of taking an “omniscient” scene, deciding whose perspective I wanted to tell it from, and then climbing inside that character’s head and experiencing the scene all over again looking through somebody else’s eyes.

That puts a whole new spin the story. All of the sudden I’m not just telling the story. I’m living inside the story. As a character. And that changes the way I write. I begin to choose phrasing and metaphors that fit with how the character would describe something, or feel about something, rather than how I personally would feel about it. Most fun of all, I get to actually change my writing style depending on whether I’m experiencing the scene as Fred or Lily.

How so? Well, Lily talks more than Freddie. She’s more wordy. So her descriptions are longer. Fred’s are shorter, more to-the-point. Lily compares things to what she is familiar with, while Fred compares the same things to what he is familiar with. Lily might look at a cloudy sky and be reminded of “a misty grey ocean after a storm.” While Fred, being in the military and not as familiar with the ocean, might look at the same sky and say it was “as stormy looking as a drill Sergent with a hangover.”

You would not believe how much fun it is to really get inside your characters’ heads and see the world through their eyes! The words they choose, the things they notice, the way they feel about things. It’s all so unique to the character, and so different from what a distant, omniscient narrator might experience in the same scene.

And of course, it forces me to dig deeper and deeper into who these people were, what their culture was like, what they were familiar with, what they loved, hated, feared, or where surprised by. I can’t get inside their heads if I don’t know who they were, or what their world was really like. But as I continue with this journey, I find it becomes more and more fascinating to try to really understand how a young man and a young woman in the 1940’s would actually be thinking. What the world would  really look like, from inside their heads.

Not my head. Theirs.

People are talking a lot about “immersive” experiences these days. Immersive living history exhibits, immersive 3D and 4D movies, immersive virtual-reality video games, etc, etc, etc. Those are all fine a good. (Especially the living history, I love that stuff!) But generally, no matter how immersive they are, you are still YOU inside those immersive experiences. You see it all through your eyes. You may be immersed in a recreation of the 1770’s, but you are still YOU in the 1770’s.

I’ve discovered something even more immersive than that. The rather breath-taking adventure of leaving my culture, my feelings, my sensitivities, my life experiences behind, and trying to not only experience a different place, time and culture, but actually experience them in somebody else’s head. Now that’s immersion.

And the really incredible thing is, if I can do a good enough job with it, I won’t be the only one who gets to do it. Every one of you will hopefully get to experience the same thing, when you read the book.

But perhaps…perhaps there is a part of it that won’t ever quite translate to paper. Because I’ve read many books, and been inside many characters’ heads as a reader. And I’ve never quite felt the same thrill as I am feeling now, as I see the story through the character’s eyes, and then tell it…through the character’s lips.

Maybe…maybe there is a certain kind of magic that happens here between me and the character and the story on the page…

…that only the writer can ever really understand.




Leave a Reply! I'd love to hear from you!