First or Third?

kathy2 (300x237)Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, reflecting on one of the choices writers need to make when they start work on a new novel. I am currently working on a proposal for a contemporary cozy series. I’m not ready to share much detail about character, setting, or plot just yet, but there is one aspect of the project that I can discuss—point of view.

The majority of cozy mysteries are written in first person point of view and use a single narrator, usually a female. She is the amateur-detective protagonist and readers are in her mind, and her mind only, as she tries to solve a mystery. She’s essentially talking to the reader, telling us what happened to her. Every once in awhile, the first person narrator will be a “Watson” instead—the sidekick reporting on the protagonist’s actions. Once again, the reader will only see the story unfold through the narrator’s eyes.

The second most popular option is to use third person point of view. Instead of reading how “I” went about looking for clues, we follow the actions of the protagonist from the outside, although at times privy to her thoughts, as in “Liss MacCrimmon loved the sound of bagpipes. She just wished her husband felt the same.”

I’ve written novels in first person. I’ve also written novels in third person. In general, I prefer third person because it is more flexible. While some writers do limit themselves to one point of view, that isn’t a requirement. The story can be told from multiple viewpoints. There’s even something called omniscient viewpoint, which lets the author in on everything everyone is seeing and thinking. In romance novels, the usual practice is to use two points of view, the hero and the heroine. In many mystery novels, the use of four or five different point of view characters is not uncommon . . . except in cozies.

ScottiecoverIn the Liss MacCrimmon series, the number of point of view characters depends on the plot. In the forthcoming (October 2015) The Scottie Barked at Midnight, I used only Liss’s point of view, but in the rest of the series I have scenes where I get into someone else’s head. This is especially useful when I want to let the reader in on something Liss couldn’t possibly be a witness to. In historical mysteries, it is even more useful to follow another character’s movements because men had access to places where women could not go. On occasion, I’ve even used the villain’s point of view.

Can you use more than one point of view character and still write in first person? Sure. But, at least in my opinion, it is harder to do so and still differentiate between characters. Mine all end up sounding alike. That’s less of a problem when I write in third person. It’s also possible to use both first person and third person in the same book. Joan Hess does this in her series featuring Arly Hanks. Arly’s point of view scenes are in first person. Scenes in the point of view of other characters are in third person.

one of the books I wrote in first person

one of the books I wrote in first person

I haven’t written all that many novels in first person. Of the non-mystery historical novels I wrote as Kate Emerson, some demanded multiple points of view. For those that did not, I chose to write in first person. One of the books I wrote for ages eight to twelve is in first person. The rest are in third. Similarly, with short stories, I’ve generally chosen third person, even though the length almost always dictates only one point of view.

For a time, I toyed with taking a secondary character who appears in The Scottie Barked at Midnight and making her the sleuth in a new cozy series. I experimented by using her as the detective in a couple of short stories. I wrote them both in first person. I’m not sure why. The novel she appeared in was written in third person.

That brings me back to this latest effort, the new series proposal. Which will it be—first or third? At the moment I’m inclined toward first person, in part because there’s going to be a lot of myself in the protagonist. She’s my age, for one thing. We speak the same language. So, at least for the section of text that will go with the proposal—the first fifty to a hundred pages—the plan is that “I” will tell the story. We’ll see how it goes.

And if I decide first person isn’t working? Thankfully, there’s an easy fix—just switch to third.

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8 Responses to First or Third?

  1. Lea Wait says:

    Interesting post! I think the decision you’re making is one of the most important in beginning a series. My Shadows series is in 3rd person … my Mainely Needlepoint series in first. I’ve written books for young people in both — in Wintering Well I used both first (journal entries by one character) and third (for anther character.) I find writing from different viewpoints one of the most critical parts on determining the overall “vice” of the series. I’ve never written in multiple viewpoints …but one book I’m planning demands that. I look forward to trying it!

  2. Barb Ross says:

    My first book was in third person multiple. It’s what I like to read best–and nobody told me it would be hard! The Maine Clambake Mysteries are in first. I thought it might be restricting and annoying over a long series, but so far, so good.

  3. It is always interesting to know what you are thinking about, Kathy. I perseverate over these kinds of things all the time. It is comforting to know you do, too.

    Quick Pivot has Joe Gale telling the story in first person in the chapters that take place in 2014. The chapters set in 1968, when Joe’s now-deceased mentor, Paulie Finnegan, was covering the early stages of the same story, are written in third person. This device helped me make their voices distinct, and also signaled to the reader when a time shift was happening.

    I enjoyed the challenge of writing both POVs and moving back and forth in time, but don’t want to feel constrained to do that in every book. (And it would be weird if Joe was always finishing stories that Paulie started covering years ago.)

    The second book in the Joe Gale series, Cover Story, will be out in late September. It is a wholly first person book. The third book, Truth Beat, on which I am elbow deep in revision as I steam toward an August 1 delivery date, also moves between first and third person, because the plot requires someone to convey things Joe cannot possibly see.

    I appreciate you sharing your process. It is always cool to know what you are writing.

  4. Thanks for sharing, Lea, Barb, and Brenda. I hope everyone is reading the comments as well as the post. Love these discussions of the writing process!


  5. MCWriTers says:

    I tended to be oblivious to this questions when I first started writing. Had done a couple of practice books–the three that still dwell in the safe at the bottom of the sea, wrapped in chains and cement–and then started writing the Thea Kozak series. It was only when I was alternating Thea and an unpublished series featuring a male high school biology teacher that I “noticed” I wrote the female protagonist in first person and my male protagonist in third.

    These days, when I teach my beginning writing class or crime fiction 101, I always start with a point of view exercise, just to be sure the writers understand the difference and are making affirmative choices.

    Just started a new book…non-series…this week, and I am writing a male protagonist in third person. I have a lot more trouble with multiple voices.

    Seems like there is a lot of writing out there today that alternatives first and third. And then there is Wolf Hall, where it is awfully difficult to tell whose voice we’re hearing because the author, brilliant as she may be, transitions so poorly and signposts so badly. I think we must add to any discussion of this the importance of making transitions, and voices, clear, if we’re using multiple POV.


    • Good point, Kate. And to my mind, there’s no excuse for confusion when it’s so simple to keep the identity of the point of view character straight: just start a new scene (or a new chapter) for each switch in POV. That way a physical break on the page signals the change for the reader.

    • Barb Ross says:

      My take on Wolf Hall was that Mantel threw you into the deep middle of a scene and you had to fight your way out to the surface, gaining context and understanding as you went. I saw it as a deliberate approach, and amazing because you get into the character’s head so deeply, but also exhausting.

  6. joartis says:

    These are wonderful comments. I’ve just released a Gothic Romantic Suspense Series in multiple viewpoints, the heroine’s as first, and stalkers or other outliers in third. As a newbie to an amateur sleuth series, I am canvassing you. But I am and intend to remain an Indie author, and so which will sell best is also important to me. I suppose I can take it from the wrap up that since most are written in first that will sell best, all other things being equal? (Which, of course, they’re not.) I started out in third, guessing that was best, but find myself switching to 1st automatically. Would love input.–Joanna McKethan, Author

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