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During the early drafts of Another Case in Cowtown I came to a crossroads: an important decision to make. It was the start of a series of novels, so should its main character, a private investigator called Moss Reid, be first-person singular (“I”) or third-person (“he”)?

Many authors must have the same dilemma, because most novels in the English language opt for one of two main approaches: the first-person or third-person – the “I” vs the “he” / “she” approach.

  1. Many modern crime novels use the third-person; examples include Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Colin Dexter’s Morse and Henning Mankell’s Wallander. Same too with good old Holmes, Maigret and Poirot.
  2. On the other hand, a lot of classic hardboiled fiction goes for the first-person singular, right back to Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep etc.
  3. A third, slightly different approach, is to use first-person but have a major switch in the main POV (point of view) during the novel from character to character – even from chapter to chapter all the way through. Giving several people the first-person voice in this way can be very exciting, but you need to handle it very carefully. While your readers might scratch their heads for a minute, then realise “Ah right, of course…”, they must never ever feel totally lost and confused.

So those are three of the main first-vs-third-person approaches. There are more of course. Like calling your hero “it” or (the royal) “we”.

The POV question

Whatever approach you go with, it will have a significant effect on the POV.

Therefore early on in the writing process of the first Moss Reid novel I decided to have a pow-wow about the first vs third person. I called a late-night meeting with my novel’s main characters, all 14 of them. Not a pretty sight, and they were a right stroppy lot. I suspect some drink may have been taken…

“What POV are we using?” says Colley (a minor villain).

“Yeah, first person or third?” Reidy jumps in (Moss Reid, private investigator, the novel’s main character. “Reidy” isn’t his actual name but that’s what a few other characters have dubbed him already. And “Mossie”. He’s turning out to be the kind of character who puts the “agonist” and the “prot” – and the “chief” – into “chief protagonist”. Bit of an occasional smartarse is Reidy).

“Yeah, what’s going on?” Maggie Dardis asks. Another right troublemaker, is Mrs Dardis.

Jaysus guys, we’ve hardly started working with each other and I’m getting the twenty questions treatment.

But the word is already out: our little Gang of Fourteen have noticed that the opening 40,000 words of the first draft have recently undergone radical surgery.

For some reason it hadn’t been working. With my chief protagonist in the third person (e.g. “He got up, lit a fag, slayed the dragon and joined Young Fine Gael…”), I was finding it hard to get into a decent groove. It felt  too confining and impersonal.

So I shifted the narrative focus from third to first person. With this new first-person POV, I found it a lot easier for the main character to come alive. It was quite liberating – helping the flow and giving a greater sense of immediacy and intimacy to the whole thing, for a more personal story and a more fleshed out character.

So if you find yourself a bit stuck in the rut with your third-person main character, try switching to first-person and see what happens.

I, me, mine

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think first-person is always and intrinsically better. And I’m well aware that there are many possible drawbacks and perils in the first-person approach, such as…

  1. All this I-me-I-I-me-me-me stuff can become a right pain. All those “I-verbs” and sentences starting with “I” (“I did this… I did that.. I went… I said… I walked… I ate… I shot the sheriff…”). Dull, repetitive, stilted stuff.
  2. The temptation for the main character to spend far too much time thinking, and not enough time in the here-and-nowness of the story. Too much “tell” and not enough “show, as they say.
  3. Everything becoming way too “internal” and claustrophobic.
  4. The continuing problem of finding a special, unique voice (besides being grumpy, sarky mavericks as these private investigator characters often are).
  5. The first-person POV being harder to handle grammatically. For a brief moment I was even tempted to write the whole thing in the present tense, but that could be a road crash waiting to happen. How do people tell a (first-person) story in real life? It never just stays in the present tense. It jumps back and forth, e.g. switching from past to present tense for things like dialogue or a dramatic incident.
  6. Making this first person not likeable enough. Not that he’s (in my case it’s a he) perfect by any means. But despite his fair share of flaws he has to be someone we can empathise with. And you don’t want the poor reader constantly thinking “No way would I do / say / think that…”

Maybe readers cut a bit more slack with a third-person main character. Maybe some of them detest first-person characters – much as some film-goers would never go to see a black-and-white film with subtitles.

One of the most misleading representational techniques in our language is the use of the word ‘I.’
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

But not having a creative writing degree – or, for that matter, a creative anything degree – half the time I wasn’t consciously thinking about what the formal rules should be (yeah yeah, rules are there to be broken – once you know them etc etc). I simply blundered about until I found that groove and decided to go with the “I”.

I was even tempted to do a modest little real-time, real-life experiment…

(a) Write an initial version (for, say, a free eBook) using third-person limited;
(b) Then rewrite it as an almost identical eBook, only this time using a first-person POV;
(c) Put them both up for download on Amazon and Smashwords.com – or in posts on this blog – with everything identical apart from the first/third person thing, and sit back, watch the download counts and review stars  and see which version goes down best with you readers. A sort of evolutionary contest.

Nice dream but such an experiment has its flaws.

How do you make the two versions absolutely the same apart from the POV change? Would the books have exactly the same covers? The same title? That would be dead confusing.

Above all, though, it’s never simply a question of doing a search-and-replace of “I” for “he” and tweaking a few verbs. An “I” approach soon becomes very different to a “he” one.

There’s a time and place for both the first- and third- person approaches. It just so happens that I went for the first-person singular for Moss Reid, and felt it worked best for my particular purposes.

Using the second-person (‘You’)

But that wasn’t the end of it. There was a second character, a female character, and this was also to some extent her story too. At times she was in control of her story and her destiny, at other times she was a complete victim.

So I tried jumping back and forth, making her second-person singular (“you”) when she was in control, and third-person (“she” or even the terrible “it”) when she felt she wasn’t, when she felt like an object.

Using “you” can also allow for a certain slippage: perhaps someone else – possibly Moss Reid – is referring to and addressing the “you”, and trying to narrate her story and get under her skin.

It was a bit risky, but what the heck. At least she wasn’t another “I” – she wasn’t allowed to invade the “I” space of the main character, if you know what I mean. You see, by then I’d become very strict about who could use the “I” word (outside dialogue of course).

  • You could refer to Moss Reid, as the main character, as “I”.
  • You could also get into other characters’ heads using the “I” word, but usually qualified with something like “he thought”, or similar tricks to make sure the reader would never confuse this other person with the main character, particularly when you’re not dealing with direct speech in quotation marks:

That rain is mad; I’d be completely mad to go out in it, she thought.

That’s not a solution for every book. The point is that you have to think these kinds of issues through at a relatively early stage, and consider how to handle them for your readers.

Moss Reid and I

So at the big pow-wow I explain all this to my cast of characters. Then one of them – the villain of the piece, let’s call this person “Person X”, gender unspecified – says “Well, if Reidy’s going to be first-person, I want to be {expletive deleted} first-person too. Otherwise it’s not fair.”

“Nope,” I say, authoritatively (and authorially). “That’d be far too confusing, and life – and fiction – isn’t fair.”

“Fair enough,” Person X says. What about second-person then?”

“I’ll give you second-person,” I say, putting Person X in Person X’s place. “From now on we’ll refer to you as ‘you’, and see how ‘you’ like it.”

You don’t like it one bit. You feel trapped. The rest of the characters are looking at you. You fumble in the desk, you reach for the murder weapon, you wipe your prints off the door handle and…

So anyway, that’s Moss Reid. A first-person pronoun.