I asked FEARLESS author and RT award winner Elliott James to talk about shifting tense in a novel and making it work. His answer: brilliant.
On Shifting Tense by Elliott James
My name is Elliott James, and I am writing a series of novels called The Pax Arcana whose protagonist, John Charming, will sometimes directly address the reader. This entails shifting the verb tense and the point of view (as in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person point of view, not as in who the central character is) in a way that entails some risks.
A lot of high school teachers try to beat this practice out of their students because they think it is grammatically incorrect, so a lot of people think the 2nd person point of view or asides are inherently bad or lazy writing. Making that particular issue worse, a lot of college instructors have declared jihad on the 2nd person point of view because they believe the voice is inherently presumptuous and intrusive. There’s an intimacy issue tangled up in the middle of all of this – a lot of readers don’t want some cheeky snot in a book acting as if he or she is peering out of the pages and looking at them. If it’s not true, it’s a lie, and if it is true, it’s freaky and unnatural so STOP IT! There are two basic reasons that I decided – and it was a conscious decision – to practice this often reviled narrative technique anyhow.
The first reason is that I just like it.
A lot of my favorite moments from Shakespeare are when his characters address the audience directly, and they do so frequently. I love the technique when characters on Bugs Bunny cartoons use it, and I love when Groucho Marx uses it. I love when Virginia Woolf uses this narrative style, and she does so more frequently than Shakespeare IMHO. I love when old TV shows like Moonlighting or relatively new movies like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang address the audience.
Some of my favorite TV sitcoms of the new millenium are Malcolm in the Middle, The Bernie Mac Show, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family….all of which have fictional characters stepping out of the narrative context to address the audience directly, only they do so by pretending to answer a never heard question from a never seen person off camera. Why the hell there would be a camera crew following these characters around for years is rarely asked, yet viewers are more comfortable with that logically shaky premise because it makes it seem like they are getting a more intimate view of the characters while also being protected from them by the one way mirror of a camera lens.
The other reason contains a spoiler. I plotted and planned and researched my first book, Charming, before I wrote it (and no, that’s not the spoiler), and I was very aware that there was a huge gaping logical inconsistency in the premise. My character is a knight who is bound by a geas (a kind of magical oath) to keep the paranormal world hidden. So if he’s supposed to be keeping the supernatural a secret, why the @#$%! would he be telling a story about the supernatural in the first place?
I came up with what seemed to me to be the only logical answer. John Charming is telling his story because he knows most people won’t believe him – because they’re under a magical spell called the Pax Arcana that keeps them from noticing the supernatural, and because they’re reading the story off of a book shelf or Nook or Kindle with some Urban Fantasy cover on it. John’s world is full of such stories about supernatural events because his world is our world. And John needs to tell the story for his own emotional well-being because he hasn’t had anyone to talk to for a long time. Also, he fully expects the spell that keeps people oblivious to the supernatural to break down some day, leaving humans defenseless. The story he tells is an instruction manual on how to survive the supernatural disguised as a fictional work, and John hopes the reader will remember it later when the emerald colored glasses come off.
That’s the literary conceit of the novel, and I don’t think it’s immediately obvious even though John spells it out on the first page. In the book, John even envisions the moment when the reader becomes aware of what’s going on as a form of being woken up from a spell, much like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White in those fairy tales with a character named Charming in them. John really is writing directly to the readers, with them in mind, and that intent keeps revealing itself in the tone and point of view of his language.
Fearless (a stand-alone novel, #3 in the Pax Arcana series)
by Elliott James
Release Date: 08/11/15
When your last name is Charming, rescuing virgins comes with the territory — even when the virgin in question is a nineteen-year-old college boy.
Someone, somewhere, has declared war on Kevin Kichida, and that someone has a long list of magical predators on their rolodex. The good news is that Kevin lives in a town where Ted Cahill is the new sheriff and old ally of John Charming.
The attacks on Kevin seem to be a pattern, and the more John and his new team follow that thread, the deeper they find themselves in a maze of supernatural threats, family secrets, and age-old betrayals. The more John learns, the more convinced he becomes that Kevin Kichida isn’t just a victim, he’s a sacrifice waiting to happen. And that thread John’s following? It’s really a fuse…
FEARLESS is the third novel in an urban fantasy series which gives a new twist to the Prince Charming tale. The first two novels are Charming & Daring.
About Elliott James: An army brat and gypsy scholar, ELLIOTT JAMES is currently living in the Blue Ridge mountains of southwest Virginia. He’s been an avid reader since the age of three (or that’s what his family swears anyhow), and he has an abiding interest in mythology, martial arts, live music, hiking, and used bookstores.
Social Media Links
Order FEARLESS on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Fearless-Pax-Arcana-Elliott-James/dp/0316253448
Add FEARLESS on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23279104-fearless
Praise for Pax Arcana books:
“The Pax Arcana books are seriously good reads. Action, humor, and heart with unexpected twists and turns. If you are (like me) waiting for the next Butcher or Hearne — pick up Elliot James. Then you can bite your nails waiting for the next James, too.”—Patricia Briggs, New York Times #1 bestselling author of the Mercy Thompson series
“Loved it! Charming is a giant gift basket of mythology and lore delivered by a brilliant new voice in urban fantasy. Elliott James tells stories that are action-packed, often amusing, and always entertaining.”—Kevin Hearne, author of Hounded on Charming
“I loved this book from start to finish. Exciting and innovative, Charming is a great introduction to a world I look forward to spending a lot more time in.”—New York Times bestselling author Seanan McGuire on Charming
“James’s world is rich and complex and well worth diving into.”—Richard Kadrey on Charming
“In a saturated literary realm, James’s tale stands out for the gritty, believable world he builds…This is masculine urban fantasy in the vein of Jim Butcher and Mark del Franco.”—Booklist on Charming