There’s a big formal choice that affects everything, even from the first sentence of your book. Something you have to consider seriously, and commit to before you put digital ink to digital paper, because changing it later will be the biggest headache of your writing career. It’s a difficult choice to make: third-person or first-person.
I have written all my books in first-person. I tried third-person, I just couldn’t get a handle on what my voice was. Was the narrator me, or was it a new narrator-me? Who even am I? It didn’t go well. Then, inspired by Raymond Chandler in my case, I tried first-person, and it unlocked everything for me. So, if you’re thinking of making that choice, I thought I’d share some things I’ve learnt.
Getting the reader’s sympathy
We can’t help it. When see the world through someone’s eyes we feel sympathy for them. We may not like them, but we understand them. We naturally root for them and fear for them. This is a great help if your protagonist is not always likeable (like my detective character). This is the main strength of first-person narration, and all other strengths people list are just variations of this (except perhaps making it easier to plot, but this isn’t always true), so I’m not going to even bother mentioning them. So instead I’m going to offer three potential weaknesses that you need to think about before you commit to first-person narration.
Lack of jeopardy
Your narrator is not going to die, they’ve survived to tell the story (don’t argue with the meta nature of this, it’s what readers think). For thrillers this is a big thing. Of course, there are fun ways around this: a new narrator takes over, the narrator has been dead the whole time, etc. But you must assume that the audience thinks this character will survive, and bear that in mind when creating tension.
You cannot cut around them (to use a film term). You can’t suddenly show what is happening at the same time in another location. Again, of course, this rule is sometimes broken (Agatha Christie did it in The ABC Murders) but it again creates a lack of jeopardy for the narrator. This is because they must have survived the story in order to find out that information later. It also makes it clear that the narrator will come to a full understanding of the story by the time they are telling you the story. And if you’re not going to do that but have to tell the reader something, you have to rely on others telling your narrator of a scene after the event, which is frequently to the disadvantage of tension.
Another disadvantage is that it is very difficult to create dramatic irony without making your narrator look stupid. Finding the sweet spot of having the reader realise something that the narrator does not, despite them having all the same information is really difficult. Instead first-person stories often work the other way round, where the narrator (especially if a detective) has related all his experiences but not his analysis, so that you only learn what he has deduced when he tells other people. Getting around this is the main reason Conan Doyle and Christie most often had the sidekick tell the story, because if you were inside Holmes’s or Poirot’s head you would already know who the killer is.
Those are the big three. And there are others, I’m sure. So here’s some practical advice: consider both options carefully, do not rush, and (unless you are really sure you know what you’re doing) you should look at what the real masters of your genre do, because there will be a reason. And if you feel you can tell the story either way, go with whatever makes you comfortable, because whichever you pick you’ve still got to write the damn book!
An earlier version of this article appeared on Cheekypee Reads and Reviews