WHAT PERSON?

 

How do you decide who’s going to tell the story? Often older fiction—works written before the twentieth century—uses the omniscient voice: the narrator tells the events, introduces the characters, recounts dialogue and all the details, but the narrator is not a character in the story. This narrator seems dated now, although it’s certainly still used.

One of the most famous opening lines of a novel is an example of this voice:

“All happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own               fashion.”                                                                       ANNA KARENIN by Leo Tolstoy.

We are in the hands of a narrator who looks on from outside, telling us the story but not involved.

The most common narrative voice in contemporary fiction is that of limited omniscience. The third-person voice is often associated with a character in the story who can only know the thoughts of some characters and may not know what happened when he or she is not present. Often that narrative voice switches from one character to another, so the reader can be filled in on what the main character has no way of knowing.

Probably the second most commonly used narrative voice is first person singular, usually the point of view of the main character. This works well for the unreliable narrator, someone who wants to keep the reader in the dark.

Second person isn’t used very often, but there are a few. I read BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY by Jay McInerney, a popular novel in the eighties, and found the second person voice annoying. And of course, the reason was that the character was annoying. I kept wanting to shake him or knock him over the head.

First person plural, the narrative “we”, also isn’t often used. It works for groups of people telling a story. I read THE LADIES AUXILIARY by Tova Mirvis years ago. It’s narrated by a group of Jewish women in a southern city, an unnamed Atlanta. The voice worked well as the group narrated and judged the behavior of the protagonist.

My preference in reading—and in writing—is the third person narrator. My Florida series mysteries are written in third person, the voice of Detective Andi Battaglia, but there are occasional switches to other third person narrators. This is the most comfortable narrative voice for me. It gives me the freedom to tell the story from Andi’s point of view, but to include incidents that Andi wouldn’t have any way of knowing.

My standalone mystery, PSYCHIC DAMAGE, is also written in third person, but in that book, everything is seen from the point of view of Eva Stuart and told in her voice.

I find first person singular useful for writing mysteries in the voice of an unreliable narrator who tells only what the narrator wants the reader to know. This has the effect of giving the reader a possibly distorted or untrue version of the actions.

What about other writers? Do you write in first or third? Or do you experiment with second person? I’ve never tried that myself. I’d like to read your comments.

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About casojka123

I grew up in New York and moved to California when I was in my twenties. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa and when I returned I got a master's degree from the University of Southern California. I worked as the administrator in a public law office, and now I write mystery novels of the "whodunit", multiple suspect, police procedural variety. I live in a small town in Southern California with my husband and two dogs.
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5 Responses to WHAT PERSON?

  1. I bill myself as the Eclectic Author because my genre changes as do my form of voice. My last published book was 3rd person, Haunted Seasons, but my newest book, Painting Shadows, is first person. First person really limits the action and story line as the MC has to be in every scene.

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  2. casojka123 says:

    First person is very limiting but interesting to use sometimes. It does limit what you can know.

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  3. sandyfairfax says:

    Most modern cozies are in first person “I” as the feeling is that draws in the reader more and makes her involved in the action. My Sandy Fairfax series is in first person. When I began the first book, I tried third person but it didn’t work. When I switched to Sandy’s voice, the story came alive as he makes snarky comments about people and has a fun attitude. My new series is in third person, partly so Sandy’s voice doesn’t seep in and having more distance from the characters feels better. But so far the story’s only from the viewpoint of the protagonist, not omnipresent. I’m reading the “Poldark” series by Winston Graham that does a fair amount of head hopping, but it works well for the story (a 1700s soap opera set in Cornwall, England).

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    • casojka123 says:

      First person does work very well for cozies. It allows the reader to experience what the protagonist is experiencing which can be funny or, in Sandy’s case, allows for snarky comments that wouldn’t work in third person. Good comment, Sally.

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  4. marilynm says:

    I write close third person and for me it works similar to third person. In my Tempe series, all is from her POV, in by RBPD series, I do use other people’s POV–and both work for me.

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