Writing Update #6

One Day Versus Every Day

Today I am going to write about one of the major characters in the first book of my trilogy.  This character doesn’t have a name yet (I try to let those things percolate in my brain until I find something that fits well), so for now we will call him “the Leader”.

This character’s arc will take up perhaps a fifth or sixth of the first book, and it is written in a distinct style that is different to all of the other parts of the novel.  I have mentioned before that I am trying to be stylistically innovative with this book and have been playing with tone and perspective, but the Leader’s chapters are different in terms of time, as well.

First, an example.  Let’s say I am writing about World War II (I am not, but it’s a story we should be familiar enough with to understand easily what I am trying to achieve), and that one of my characters is Winston Churchill.  Obviously, throughout WWII Churchill did things and interacted with characters.  He caused and was affected by events.  But on a small scale, he also lived a day from morning until evening eating, sleeping, thinking, talking, etc. 

In this example, my Winston Churchill chapters would be written in third person, in present tense, and serve to act as being representative of a archetypal day for the character.  At the same time, in the other chapters (ie chapters from the perspective of different characters), Churchill reacts and participates naturally and accordingly. 

The effect I am trying to achieve is to show the day-to-day environment of The Leader (who is, obviously, a leader – a King or Dictator) while avoiding being shackled to a specific day.  The day recounted in the chapters is intended to represent all days.

The need for the present tense flows naturally from this, as it helps to heighten the effect of immediacy.  When reading, it should feel as if the events are happening right now, and that there isn’t any kind of authorial agent guiding the events (as would be the case from events told in the past tense).

This technique has created some interesting issues, challenges, problems and successes.  Namely, the chapters work, I think, to immediately draw the reader into the world of The Leader, as his perspective, and the tense chosen (and his activities) are so compelling.  Similarly, a problem that has arisen is that he will occasionally appear in events that have not been decribed in this archetypal day (because they exist during a specific day).  Lastly, the events of the book last much longer than a single day, and yet The Leader’s day is, obviously, just one day.

I think, however, that the advantages far outweight the disadvantages.  The reader is supposed to understand that on any given day, even though the names may change and the events may alter slightly, this is in fact the kind of day that the leader will have, ever day, forever.  His life is one of crushing responsibility, with challenges from all sides, during a period of turmoil and danger.  The weight and oppression is felt more strongly because it becomes clear that this kind of day is every day, and thus feels more intense than if it were a specific, named, plot-inserted day.

I have really enjoyed writing these chapters as they also allow me to step outside the narrative of the story in ways that don’t require flashbacks and aren’t exactly separate from the plot.  They have been challenging to write for this exact reason, but I think I have made the right choice.  A leader – dictator – king – warrior – whatever – is an inherently interesting, but inherently unknowable type of person, but by relying on the archetypal day, I can use this character as a springboard to better examine the social and political milieus of the trilogy. 

I encourage you to read the rest of my Writing Updates series, which is published each Friday.

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