Help! I’m Wrestling with a Conundrum!

I’m grappling with a conundrum about point of view.

Part of me loves writing in first person. Writing from the “I/we” perspective allows the main character’s personality to beam through. First person makes for an intimate bond between the reader and the protagonist, whose quirks feel more real, her fears more intense.

But as every one of my colleagues here on MCW knows, there’s a trade-off for that immediacy—every fact and perception is funneled to the reader through the mind of the protagonist.

Writing in third person allows writers the flexibility to present the story from multiple perspectives, and this can be a boon. There’s inherent conflict when some characters know things other characters don’t (and maybe need) to know, and in crime fiction, conflict is more than desirable, it’s essential.

The general rule is that authors must choose.

I am not always good at obeying rules.

In my Joe Gale series, I played around with point of view. Quick Pivot, the first book in the series, alternated chapters between the point of view of  newspaper reporter Joe, written in first person, and his mentor, Paulie Finnegan, written in third person. To amp the degree of difficulty, I used dual timelines. The Joe chapters were contemporary, the Paulie chapters were set in 1968. That book was a blast to write. Tricky, yes, but lots of fun.

Cover Story, was written entirely from Joe’s point of view, and with that particular tale, it worked. No scenes demanded to be written from another character’s point of view. Though it is the second book in the series, Cover Story was the first book I actually wrote, and its wholly-first-person point of view almost certainly stemmed from the fact it was my first effort to get 90,000 words on paper. Learning to write a novel was hard enough without doing anything fancy.

In Truth Beat, the third book in the Joe Gale series, I also used a first person/third person combination. Joe narrated most chapters, but some were from the perspective of his buddy Rufe, who knew some key secrets the reader needed to know along the way.

My current novel in progress features Neva Pierce, a Portland criminal defense lawyer who takes on the kind of cases that prove Maine’s not always Vacationland.  It has five point of view characters, all of whom are essential to the story. Each chapter is confined to a particular character’s point of view—I don’t hop heads in the middle of chapters. The conundrum I mentioned at the outset is whether Neva can be written in first person, and the other four characters in third person, or whether all five should be in third person.

While I’m not a fan of hard-and-fast writing rules, I don’t want to frustrate, irritate or exasperate my readers, so I need your help. I will greatly appreciate hearing from those of you who read this blog, writers and readers alike. Here are my questions:

First, does a novel work for you if different chapters are written from the point of view of different characters?

Second, is it a problem if one of those characters is a first-person narrator, and the others are written in third person?

I very much will appreciate your thoughts and opinions.

P.S. Neva is the first-person narrator of my short story Means, Motive, and Opportunity, which was included in last year’s anthology, Bloodroot: Best New England Crime Stories 2021. Joe Gale fans should note he plays a central role in that story as well.



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16 Responses to Help! I’m Wrestling with a Conundrum!

  1. Anne Cass says:

    I like varying POV as long as they have separate chapters, and they don’t have to have equal time. I think it would be intriguing to have Neva in first. Plus, we’d get to know Neva better.

  2. Monica says:

    Yes, different POV in different chapters works for me. The first book I wrote did the same. I made sure to mention the character’s name in the first sentence to orient the reader.

    As long as the reader knows whose head you’re in, it works. I’ve seen different fonts used so it’s an immediate clue. (Does not work for audiobooks, tho!)

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Thanks, Monica. I agree that anchoring the POV in the first line or two of each chapter is so important for the reader. Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Vicki Erwin says:

    It would not bother me to read a novel from multi povs, but I like it to be chapter to chapter versus skipping within chapters. You’re an excellent writer so I think you’re up to the task. What is key is being able to distinguish the voices.

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Thank you for that kind compliment, Vicki! I am all for the chapter by chapter method (or at least a visual break within a chapter, which some writers use to signal a shifting POV. I appreciate your response.

  4. David Plimpton says:

    I like the intimacy of the first person, with its narrator personality quirks, like paranoia, on full display. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re NOT out to get you!” Joseph Heller, “Catch-22”.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I find switching styles within a work jarring, but agree chapter to chapter changes helps moderate that effect.

    Some first person paranoia:

    Congratulations, Brenda, on the publication of your story!

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Hi David! You are right, first person is a lot of fun to write (and yep, Heller’s Catch 22 is a great example of first person writing).

      Thanks for sharing The Little Blue Painting – folks, if you haven’t clicked David’s link, you really should!

  5. susanvaughan says:

    Brenda, I agree with you on not head hopping. That drives me nuts. But having your protagonist in first person and the other four characters in third can work. I haven’t seen it done, but there’s no reason not to if it’s done well. Having five viewpoints is in my opinion (gleaned from Tess Gerritsen) is the limit. More is too many for readers to keep track of and probably most writers do to well. Good luck!

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Thanks, Susan. Head hopping also is a pet peeve of mine except when it’s done by a REALLY good writer who has the skill to pull it off (and even then . . . ) I am very careful not to head hop, but really dislike the limitations of only one POV or only 3rd person POV. Thanks for your thoughts – they are valuable to me.

  6. kaitcarson says:

    Multiple POVs does not put me off at all. And I’m fine with having the protagonist POV in first person with other characters in third.

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Kait, that is very good to hear. Feedback like this from people like you–who read a lot and think about what you read–is very helpful. Thank you!

  7. kaitlynkathy says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever used both 1st person and 3rd person pov in the same book, but some of my personal favorite authors, like Margaret Maron and Joan Hess have, and very successfully. I have no problem with multiple viewpoints, either. When I was writing the Face Down series, I regularly used five different points of view in each novel. Honestly, if you write a compelling story, most readers won’t even notice the mechanics. Write what works for you.

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      Thanks, Kathy. This is reassuring advice (but your advice is always reassuring.) I appreciate it.

  8. Julianne Spreng says:

    Years ago I read a very long novel with many first and third POV mixed together. The story was interesting but I finally had to create a physical spread sheet to keep all the characters straight..
    I remember it to this day because it was so challenging.

    Switching back and forth in first person does create more intimacy with the story. The methods you choose work fine for me. Your writing is top notch and I share you with everyone!

    • Brenda Buchanan says:

      I am hopeful no spreadsheets will be required with this one, that it will flow smoothly whether I decide to use the version with Neva as a first-person narrator or with her character written in third-person. Thank you for your compliment about my writing. That means a lot to me.

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