What’s Your Point of View?

While I’ve been rewriting my novel, a mystery set in a rural Qld town, I’ve been pondering ways I can make the story better, and more interesting. Thoughts such as: “Wouldn’t it be cool if I changed the setting to the 80s?” and “Should someone get blown up?” have taken a back seat to a more pressing question – is my story written from the right point of view?

I recently read an article at the Professional Writing Academy, by Caroline Ambrose, the founder and organiser of The Bath Novel Award. One of her hot tips for getting your manuscript on the shortlist was using first person viewpoint. Apparently, twice as many first person as third person narratives have been shortlisted for the Award, suggesting that first person narratives have more success connecting the reader with the protagonist.

My novel, The Princess Murders, is currently written in third person narrative from the point of view of the main character, amateur private investigator Sylvie Gordon. Crap. Would it have been better if I’d written the story in first person narrative?

I thought about a few of my favourite novels I’ve read recently, and their choice of point of view narratives:

  • She Be Damned by M.J. Tjia – predominantly written in first person POV of the main character, Heloise Chancey, alternating with chapters written in first POV of Li Leen
  • The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey – predominantly written in first person POV of the main character, Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock, alternating with third person POV chapters from minor characters
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins – alternates between the first person narratives of Rachel, Megan and Anna
  • An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire – alternatives between the first person POV of the main character, barmaid Chris Rogers and the third person POV of a reporter, May Norman

From this sample, it appears that in my chosen genre of mystery/crime fiction, first person narrative is the preferred choice.

Last year, I accessed a mentorship through the Queensland Writers Centre and received feedback on my manuscript from writer Emily Maguire. At the time, I asked her the same question about point of view narratives. She said that changing the point of view from third person to first person would substantially change the voice of the book and require some deep thinking about Sylvie’s level of knowingness about herself, and about anything going on around her. Emily suggested I have a go changing the first scene into first person narrative to see how it feels. Here’s a sample of the first 200 words.

Third Person Narrative (current format)

Sylvie had seen the girl go into the house.

It was hours later and her eyes were still fixed on the weatherboard cottage. The sun glinted off the corrugated iron roof and a lazy breeze whispered through the long stems of wheat grass pervading the front yard. She dabbed at the sweat on her forehead with a napkin and discarded it amongst the empty plastic bottles and chip packets at her feet.

William Leeder emerged from the front door. The school teacher struggled with a large bundle wrapped in a garbage bag and his shirt was stained with something wet and dark. Sylvie’s shoulder blades prickled. Was it blood?

Leeder dropped the bundle off the raised veranda and jogged down the steps. He picked up one end of the bag and dragged it through the dirt towards the side of the house.

Feeling conspicuous in her bright red Hyundai, Sylvie wriggled down into the passenger seat. She’d parked haphazardly on the nature strip, far away enough to go unnoticed as long as she stayed in the cover of the Queensland blue gums guarding the front of the property. She fumbled for the zoom button on her outmoded camcorder, but Leeder disappeared behind a large shrub bearing clusters of bright yellow funnel-shaped flowers. She was too late.

First Person Narrative

I’d seen the girl go into the house.

It was hours later and I was still here, staring at the weatherboard cottage. The sun glinted off the corrugated iron roof and a lazy breeze whispered through the long stems of wheat grass pervading the front yard. I dabbed at the sweat on my forehead with a napkin and discarded it amongst the empty plastic bottles and chip packets at my feet.

William Leeder emerged from the front door. The school teacher struggled with a large bundle wrapped in a garbage bag and his shirt was stained with something wet and dark. My shoulder blades prickled. Was it blood?

Leeder dropped the bundle off the raised veranda and jogged down the steps. He picked up one end of the bag and dragged it through the dirt towards the side of the house.

I wriggled down into the passenger seat, feeling conspicuous in my bright red Hyundai. I’d parked haphazardly on the nature strip, far away enough to go unnoticed as long as I stayed in the cover of the Queensland blue gums guarding the front of the property. I fumbled for the zoom button on my camcorder, but Leeder disappeared behind a large shrub bearing clusters of bright yellow funnel-shaped flowers. Damn. I was too late.

Interestingly, rewriting the scene in first person narrative has highlighted some issues in the third person narrative I need to fix. Other than that, I’m still undecided about which point of view is best for the story. What do you think?

It will be a lot of work to edit my (currently) 100,000-word third person narrative into a first person narrative. I think that the benefits of rewriting the story as first person include the fact that the story is told entirely from Sylvie’s point of view anyway, so I won’t lose anything from the point of view of other characters. However, I’m worried her voice might not be interesting enough, or that being inside her head for a whole novel might make her annoying to readers. I also think that a first person narrative in the style I’m writing will appear more chick-lit/cosy mystery whereas a third person narrative is more classic cosy mystery.

Writer’s Digest has a list of questions to help determine which point of view is best for a short story (which can also be applied to longer stories), including first person, close third person and distant third person.

What do you think? First person narrative or third person narrative? What type of point of view narratives do you prefer to read, and what point of view is your story written? Please let me know in the comments below.


32 thoughts on “What’s Your Point of View?

  1. What a timely post! I’m currently editing my MS and have found myself worried that my POV is a weakness. I’ve written in third person omniscient, which seemed fitting for the genre (historical fiction), but I feel so many books I pick up lately are first person, so I’m second-guessing myself. I’ve tried re-reading my first chapter in first person, but I think it’s time I rewrite it and see whether it truly benefits.

    In terms of your sample, I prefer the first person version! It feels more fitting for what’s happening in the scene and I found myself more immersed, waiting to see what happened (even though I’d just read it in third!). Then again, I’ve been writing another WIP in first person all day, so maybe I’ve biased myself. I can definitely relate – feeling first person voice won’t be interesting enough, I worry about this in my current WIP. I think some authors get around this by changing up the viewpoint, whether from first to third or between different characters. I’ll be interested to see whether you keep third or rewrite!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Lyss! I don’t think I’ve read many historical fiction novels in first person, they usually seem to be in third person? But I could be wrong. Thanks for your thoughts on my writing sample. I’m now wondering if perhaps I should introduce other viewpoint characters… I wonder if the wondering will ever end.

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      1. I’d say most are in third person too. I’m currently reading The Alice Network which alternates between two character viewpoints (and first and third POV), and I’m really enjoying the style. Though, I also wonder if the wondering will ever end. Guess you have to go with your gut! Best of luck with your edits 🙂

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  2. I think third person for two reasons- firstly I think its suits the cosy style better as you mention.

    Secondly, and perhaps more relevant to the future, is that if you see the protagonist continuing into other mysteries, do you want to be in their head each time- do they have enough going on to keep building more about them?

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  3. I feel your pain, Alyssa. My WIP is in first person, but I’m in the process of changing the tense for about 50000 words of it – at least I think I am. These things are so hard to decide. You need to go with your gut. I liked the first-person version, but only you can determine which will work best for your vision. Good luck.

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      1. Sorry, just saw this, Alyssa. My WIP is a psychological thriller, with a bit of magic realism thrown in for fun. At the moment it’s a bit of a mess to be honest. Lots of editing fun ahead of me.

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      2. That sounds like a very exciting story, Lisa! I think we all feel like our work is a mess but I’m sure you’ll sort it out. Looking forward to hearing more about it.

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  4. Oh, this is tricky! I liked both … perhaps the first person version was a bit more immediate, but the third person version seemed more immersive and intriguing somehow. I’d go with whichever one you prefer, rather than trying to gauge which is statistically more likely to win awards or anything like that. Because you’ll enjoy the writing/re-writing much more if you feel engaged with the manuscript, and comfortable with the POV, I reckon.

    Your post has really made me think, too, because lately I’ve realised I’ve fallen into a habit of writing only close 3rd person with my short stories. I need to mix it up a bit, write some more first person (I’ve only written a couple of these – I much prefer 3rd person for some reason. I find it easier to establish a realistic voice using close 3rd person, rather than the ‘I’ of first person). So thank you for raising this topic and waking me up to the rut I’d fallen into.

    Good luck with your POV issue and with your novel in general 🙂

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    1. Thanks so much for your insightful feedback, Fiona. I’ve read two of your short stories and thought you chose the perfect point of view for both of those. Close third person is very well-received by readers.

      I’m still unsure which way I’ll go, but I definitely won’t base my decision around whether I’m more likely to win awards or not. Hahahaha, I wish!

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  5. Great post Alyssa on a a very complex topic! I’ve struggled with POV too. I write crime fiction and psych thrillers. I rewrote the protagonist in my last manuscript from third POV to first POV (a huge feat!) and i did feel it read better in terms of mood and pace- but the character still needed some extra work to make the voice stronger. I’ve since written another manuscript with all characters in first POV and it really challenged me as a writer (in a good way) and to further hone my voice. Not sure if i succeeded but i do find it more enjoyable to write in first POV now. It’s funny because that’s how i started out writing, in first POV, but because i was writing romance at the time, third POV seemed to be the norm in that genre so i just started writing that way. Not sure if i’ve been of any help to you whatsoever, but essentially i believe you’ve just got to find what works best for you and the story!
    Lauren

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    1. Thanks so much for your advice and tips from your personal experience, Lauren! First person POV does seem to be more popular in crime fiction. I’m currently reading a crime fiction/domestic noir novel with four different female POVs – all in first person. It’s very engaging. Ahhh, the dilemma!

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  6. As a reader, it doesn’t bother me. It’s never something I consider when picking up a book, and I kind of find it odd that other people actually prefer one over the other. I don’t think I’ve read a book and thought it would have been better written in a different POV. I’ve perhaps thought a POV character wasn’t necessary, but that would be all.

    As a writer, I’ve alternated between the two at times. The first draft of my ms now out on submission started out as First Person, but I changed it to third person as I felt it fit the storytelling better. And I had other third person POVs so it just felt right. My new first draft work in progress is first person. And entirely first person as I need the reader to only see what happens through the narrator’s view point.
    I think it comes down to a couple of things:
    – Does it fit the story and feel right
    – And what does your reader need to see, and through which pov/s is this best achieved.

    I find first person a little trickier to write a I tend to get into the habit of telling – using a lot of “I” rather than showing. It’s tricky to navigate, but you can also get much deeper into the character too.

    Good luck with it!

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    1. Thanks so much for your valuable feedback, Jodi! I agree with you that I don’t have a preference as a reader when it comes to POV. From what I’ve read of your manuscript, I remember thinking that your voice was engaging and your choice of POV seemed spot on. I wonder if my novel is similar to your current WIP as everything happens only through the main character’s viewpoint. Will keep on as it is for the moment and see how I feel a bit further down the track.

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  7. POV is so tricky! I’ve flipped back and forth between POV in my WIP, which is currently sitting in third person (and why it’s a long time off coming into the world 🤣).
    First person makes it difficult to tie in other aspects of the story which are unknown to the protagonist, and I think that’s why I like reading crime/thrillers which focus on different view points in alternating chapters.
    Sara Foster handled this quite well in her book, The Hidden Hours. It’s written in deep third person, so that it almost reads like first person. At the start of most chapters is a short piece in italics written in a different voice, giving crucial information the reader needs to know, but is not known by the protagonist. Definitely worth a read to see how she pulls this off so well.
    I wonder if the process of re-writing in first person, even if it ends up back in third, will strengthen your manuscript anyway – making the extra time worthwhile?
    I quite liked the second piece of your writing 😊. It felt more immediate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading my post and for your comments, Marie. I have read The Hidden Hours and enjoyed it so much it was actually one of my ‘Mysteries of the Month’. It’s very cleverly written and Sara Foster has such skill writing deep third person. I think I may have to rewrite a sizeable chunk of it in first person to really see how it feels. And you’re correct – if I already noticed things that I could improve just from rewriting a short section, it’s very likely I will find quite a few things from rewriting a longer section. Thank you also for your opinion on which style you preferred! Looking forward to hearing more about your WIP soon.

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  8. I was drawn in quicker with the first person POV with your sample, but I always am with first person 🙂 It has me fitting into the story as if it’s happening to me, where as third person POV makes me feel like an extra. As to writing, my fantasy was mutliple third person POV and that’s because of the cast and the genre. My current WIP, an historical time slip, is first POV and I’m actually enjoying writing it more. There is no thought process behind that decision, it’s just how it come about. Best of luck figureing out what works best for your character and story 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Sam, that’s very helpful. From what I’ve read of your fantasy novel, the multiple third person POV was definitely well-suited to your story. Good luck writing in first POV for your new work! Can’t wait to hear more about it.

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