Monday, May 16, 2011

First Person Vs. Third Person in Fiction

by Jamie Freveletti

I've been reading a couple of mysteries and thrillers--unusual for me because I'm writing continuously now and don't like to read others while I write-in order to nominate on various awards and moderate a panel at Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago. One of the novels is written in first person, the others in third. I'm not surprised that the first person novel is a mystery, while the third person fiction is a thriller.

I love first person. Especially one as well written as the novel I'm reading: The Damage Done, by Hilary Davidson. It feels like you are right there with the protagonist as she moves through the mystery. The immediacy is wonderful, and as the clues unfold the reader experiences the "aha" moment along with the character. This novel is filled with a cast of shadowy characters that surround the sister of the main protagonist. The sister has a long history of drug addiction and collects trouble in the way that you would expect when someone deals with the fringes of society so long. When the addicted sister is found dead, her older sibling returns to New York to solve the mystery.

First person can present problems for the writer. How to describe the character's physical appearance without having her look into a mirror? Ms. Davidson does a wonderful job weaving in the protagonist's love of classic movies and physical comparison to Ava Gardner. Well done. The story's cast of characters, from a police detective to a Pakistani "import/export" specialist are dark and filled with contradiction. I wouldn't call Ms. Davidson's book noir exactly, but it has the brush of it in a new, modern way that's great to read.

Third person, on the other hand, allows a myriad of options both for the writer and the reader. In this form, the reader gets the benefit of crawling into the mind of several characters and there's nothing more chilling then being the fly on the wall when the killer starts to justify the act. The other novel I'm reading is The Outfit's own Kevin Guilfoile's The Thousand. If you like the Stieg Larsson novels, you'll love this one because it has a believable premise with a heroine that is unusual and tough. This is a great read that is a thriller but with the puzzle plot that's pure mystery. Wonderfully written, this book takes a great premise: a woman with an unusual ability that sets her apart and ties it to an ancient cult. Very very cool stuff and probably best written in third person because it goes back in history.

It's tough to keep a thriller moving when in first person. I know, because I've tried it. One of my manuscripts--written after my debut but never shown to either my agent or editor--initially started out in first. After two thirds of the way done I realized that I wanted to get into the mind of the killer and show how he was tracking the protagonist, but I couldn't because it would involve showing things that a first person character couldn't possibly know. I ended up rewriting the manuscript in third person in order to do justice to the idea that I had. What I lost in intimacy I gained in plot in that case, but that's a call that only a writer can make. Sometimes a story requires first person. Especially in a story of self discovery, as is Ms. Davidson's, where I think third person would not have been as effective.

I've seen writers that bounce between the two forms in the same novel. Harlan Coben has done this to great effect, as has Barry Eisler. It's tough to do without jarring the reader and takes quite a bit of skill. Both these writers have that skill and I think the switch up worked just fine. Notably, neither writer does this in every book. Once again a writer making a decision about form for each individual story.

I'll be reading two more novels in the next three weeks in order to moderate the panel at Printers' Row. I'll post about those soon!


Kathy Holmes said...

I'm a big fan of first person for the main character, while third is okay for the other POVs. I've seen this done in thrillers, as well as mysteries. In fact, I can't quite get into novels where the main character is written in third person - it's a rare author who can do this without making me feel distanced from the character. The only name I can think of is romance author Jennifer Crusie.

EK said...

It's not a crime novel, but Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is brilliant in its use of point of view. It turns the omniscient third person around--it's technically third person, but very much from one character's point of view. And it has that intimacy of first person narration. If I knew more about the craft of writing, I might be able to describe it better and figure out how she did it.

I'm reading JA Konrath's first Jack Daniels book, Whiskey Sour. He uses shifting first person--some chapters from Jack's point of view, the others from the serial killer's. I haven't really thought about it before, but as I think about some of my favorite crime fiction, it seems to be a mix, but most authors seem to stick with one or the other.

Jamie Freveletti said...

I haven't read Wolf Hall but sticking with one person in third is probably as closed to first person as you can get, I'd imagine. Bet it works very well!

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Thanks for the kind words, Jamie!

Most of the third-person novels these days are third-person attached--so the narrator isn't speaking strictly in the voice of the character but doesn't know (or at least doesn't reveal) information that the character doesn't have (although the narrator might be more eloquent, etc.). The problem with third person omniscient (especially in the mystery-thriller genre) is that if the reader suspects that the narrator knows more than he's telling, you wonder why he/she doesn't just tell you already. It is easy to start feeling the presence of the author in the omniscient POV. Of course, it's often done brilliantly (Lonesome Dove is a great example.) A good writer knows where the traps are and jumps nimbly over them.

Hilary Davidson said...

There I was, innocently checking out what's new on The Outfit, when I stumbled across this amazing post. Thanks so much for the kind words about The Damage Done, Jamie!

Jamie Freveletti said...

Well deserved, Hilary. I loved it!

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thanks a lot for the post! very interesting!


This is a great read that is a thriller but with the puzzle plot that's pure mystery.
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