Writing in First Person or Third Person or Somewhere In Between
by R.G. Belsky
I’ve had fourteen mystery novels published during my career as an author, all of them written in the first person. I’ve written other novels in the third person, but none of them ever got published. Which is probably why I prefer writing in the first person.
Deciding on a character point of view (or POV, as it’s usually called) is one of the most important decisions an author needs to make before writing a book. Especially if you believe (as I do), that the relationship between your character and the reader is even more important than the story line.
My new book THE LAST SCOOP (Oceanview) is a good example of that. It’s the third in a series featuring Clare Carlson, a hard-driving, hard-living TV journalist in New York City. The Clare Carlson books have won a number of awards, including the Claymore and Silver Falchion Finalist at Killer Nashville.
But none of this might have happened if I hadn’t got the POV right.
You see, I originally wrote the first Clare Carlson book in third person.
It just didn’t quite work that way. Same story, but the character didn’t come alive like I wanted. I tried a few more versions until I finally hit on the idea to write the Clare Carlson character in the first person. After that, everything seemed to click. I won the Claymore at Killer Nashville with the beginning of the book, later got a publishing contract at Oceanview Press and then all the other good things that have happened with the series.
The advantage of writing in the first person like this is that you’re able to establish a much more personal connection with the reader: you’re not just writing about your character, you’re writing as your character. No question about it: The first-person narrator can provide more intense emotion and a better portrayal of inner thoughts than a book in the third person normally does.
Simple, right? Well, not really. Otherwise, of course, everyone would write first person books.
It clearly depends on the type of story the author is trying to tell. Some books work better with a third person narrator. Many – especially complex thrillers – require multiple POVs involving a series of characters to keep the plot moving by telling the reader things the main character doesn’t know. Other books combine a first-person narrator with several third person POVs from other viewpoints. And there are even novels (not many, but a few) that are written in the second person.
How each individual author makes this decision can be a fascinating process.
Now most of the classic PI novels are written in the first person of the main character. Think Raymond Chandler with Philip Marlowe; Robert B. Parker with Spenser; Sue Grafton with Kinsey Millhone; Janet Evanovich with Stephanie Plum; Lawrence Block with Matt Scudder; and so on.
But there is one notable exception: Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. Bosch normally would be a classic first-person character like those others, you would assume. Except Connelly (with one minor exception) has always written his Bosch novels in the third person. I had the opportunity to ask him about this once at a mystery conference. Connelly is such a wonderful, accomplished author – maybe the best mystery author of our time – that I expected some kind of extremely reasoned, well-thought out response. But instead his answer was: “I don’t know. I never really thought about it that much.” In other words, he just went with his instinct on the best way to tell the Bosch stories. Which is probably why Michael Connelly is so incredibly successful with his books.
Lee Child on the other hand has used both approaches – writing some of his super-successful Jack Reacher thrillers in Reacher’s first person POV – but using third person for Reacher in other books. Child has said he finds it more natural to write in the first person, and he enjoys the intimacy of that – but the third person helps him build the story’s suspense around Reacher. Therefore, it depends on the type of Jack Reacher book he wants to write.
And then there are many mystery authors – like the late, great Mary Higgins Clark – who use multiple POVs to tell the story. Higgins did that so masterfully for many her novels – giving the reader the viewpoint of various characters as well as her own main character until the climactic moment when it all came together for the conclusion of the mystery.
Sometimes authors will even use a hybrid combination of those formats. Writing much of their book in first person for the main character – and then switching to third person in a few instances for different viewpoints to help propel the plot.
So which POV approach is best?
There’s only one right answer to that question.
It’s whatever one helps the author tell his story the best way.
And there’s simply no hard and fast rule for that.
As a matter of fact, the current manuscript I’m working on features a third person lead character as well as multiple POVs.
Who knows what will happen? Maybe I’ll wind up selling it this way.
If not, well…there’s always first person again.
R.G. Belsky is an author of crime fiction and a journalist in New York City. His newest mystery, The Last Scoop, was published in May by Oceanview. It is the third in a series featuring Clare Carlson, the news director for a New York City TV station. Belsky has published 14 novels – and also has had a long career in the media as a top editor at the New York Post, New York Daily News, Star magazine and NBC News. Belsky won the Claymore Award at Killer Nashville in 2016 and also has been a Silver Falchion Finalist.