Whose Voice is it Anyway?

by Zoë Sharp

Something Louise said in her blog this week made me stop and pause for thought:

‘I … have actually opened up the Work-in-Progress document on my desktop. (My God, it’s written in third person. What was I thinking? I’ve never been able to write in third person!)’

Like Louise, all my published novels to date have been written in first person, but this was not how I originally tried to go about it. For some reason I had it in mind that a mystery novel, by its nature, was a complex interweaving of different layers that would be far easier told from multiple viewpoints if necessary, and therefore in third person.

When the idea of my main protagonist, Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox came along, I distinctly remember making several false starts in third person. I can even remember one of those scenes. A woman, alone, walking quickly at night, high heels tapping out a nervous tattoo as she hurries through the muted cone of a streetlamp. Suddenly, a guy looms out of the darkness, snakes an arm around her throat, pins her arms to her body, and starts to drag her backwards into the shadows. But just when you think you’re observing the first victim, the woman begins to fight back, disabling her attacker. And after she puts him on the ground, the lights come back up to reveal a gymnasium, and there’s applause from the evening class of students who’ve come to learn the gentle art of self-defence from our heroine.

And, I have to admit, as an opening section I quite liked it. It did what it was supposed to do – kicked off with a little misdirection, and introduced my main character as someone very capable of looking after herself. But she just didn’t speak to me, and I was equally convinced that she sure as hell didn’t speak to the reader, either.

The only way I could get around that was to get deeper inside her head, and find out what made her tick. To speak with her voice. So I gave it a whirl, not with an opening, but with a disconnected scene. It had Charlie at a bodyguard training school, forced by her ever-so-slightly misogynist instructors to go into a darkened room and deal with what lay inside. That turned out to be an apparently mortally wounded body, and an ambush, to which she instinctively, viscerally, overreacts, laying out her attacker with an old-fashioned desk telephone, then covers up her fear with dark humour.

Ah, now I was getting somewhere.

In fact, I liked that scene so much that it eventually found its way into the third book, HARD KNOCKS, which happened to be set in a close protection training school in Germany, and so perfectly fitted the bill.

Having written my first series book in first person, I felt compelled to continue that way. And there are certain advantages in only being able to reveal information to the reader as it arrives with the main character. The knowledge could be held by other people, but if they don’t or won’t tell her what’s going on, she has to find things out for herself. I can’t show the villain scheming in his lair, nor the good guys working out that she’s in danger and rushing to the rescue. (Not that Charlie needs much rescuing, thank you very much. Her philosophy has always been to break legs now and ask questions later.)

There’s nothing written in stone that says I had to continue in first person for the entire series. Lee Child started off with Reacher in first person for KILLING FLOOR, then swapped to third person until a return to first for one of my favourites in the series, PERSUADER. And now Reacher’s back in first person again in GONE TOMORROW. And it’s a belter.

Of course, some other authors quite happily write in first person, and add in third person scenes where they feel it’s appropriate, or required by the plot. In fact, that device was suggested to me for the latest book. Some people manage it very successfully. Stuart Pawson is one, with his Detective Inspector Charlie Priest police procedurals. In one, he even manages to have his detective go undercover in passages in third person, with his identity hidden from the reader entirely, while the rest of the book is in first person. And it works, but I’m not sure I could pull that one off.

I’ve even read something – although so long ago I can’t remember the details – where the book was told by two first-person narrators in alternating chapters. Now, that’s a tricky one to pull off. SJ Rozan, in her Bill Smith and Lydia Chin series, uses first person but with one book told from Bill’s perspective, and the next from Lydia’s. What a great way to keep a series fresh for the author, as well as the reader.

One of my favourite narration styles was always Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, told in first person, but not from the main character’s viewpoint, thus allowing Holmes to baffle the reader on the way to the conclusion as much as his sidekick, the stalwart Dr Watson. Will Thomas has taken up this literary device with his tales of Victorian enquiry agent, Cyrus Barker and his assistant, Thomas Llewelyn, writing from Llewelyn’s POV.

And that’s quite before we get into second person, which I heard Elizabeth Rigbey talk about for the prologue of one of her books. I’m writing from memory here, because I’ve been unable to track down the actual passage concerned, but it went something like this:

You are driving through a deserted forest and you knock down a cyclist and kill him. There is no damage to your car and no witnesses. What do you do?’

Not only is that second person, of course, but present tense as well. And that brings us onto a whole different ball game. Writing successfully in present tense is another skill altogether. Patricia Cornwell has written some of her Dr Kay Scarpetta series not only in first person, past tense with THE BODY FARM, but in third person, present tense with BLOW FLY. A fascinating mixture of styles. Theresa Schwegel’s debut, OFFICER DOWN, was first person, present tense and duly won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

But there’s no doubt that present tense is difficult to pull off. One of the best exponents for me is Don Winslow, with books like CALIFORNIA FIRE AND LIFE, and THE WINTER OF FRANKIE MACHINE, particularly as both these books involve quite a lot of flashbacks. Tackling flashbacks and sticking to present tense is enough to make a poor writer’s head implode, but he manages it with style.

Of course, the reason Louise’s comment resonated is because I’m looking beyond the end of the current rewrites – and I keep telling myself there will BE an end to them – to what comes next. Another Charlie Fox book, yes, in first person, past tense, almost certainly. But what then? I’ve always had a fancy to try third person, present tense, just to see if I can …

So, my question is, what’s your preference, both as a reader and a writer?

What is your current preferred style, and what made you settle on it?

Have you ever hankered to try and different narrative device and, if so, what?

This week’s Phrase of the Week is to win hands down, meaning a comfortable victory. It comes from horse racing, where a jockey who has no need to urge his horse forwards down the finish straight because he has a clear lead, and so can canter over the line with no need for the whip, and with both hands on more or less on the horse’s neck, to win with his hands down.

32 thoughts on “Whose Voice is it Anyway?

  1. Dana King

    My current WIP is third person, past tense, with multiple points of view, as was the previous. I have also written first person, past PI stories. To me, the story dictates which should be used. PI stories like to be told first person, as they’re so often character studies of the hero as he or she works their way throuhg the mystery. For other stories, I like to be able to know more than any character, as it’s fun to see them do things we know are mistakes, but they don’t.

    When reading, either is fine, as long as it’s appropriate to the story. I don’t mind reading present tense in a short story, but it can get a little precious in a novel, unless it’s done very well. I can’t remember the book, but recently I read a novel and didn;t realize it was in present tense until halfway through. Now THAT’s well done, as I was so lost in the story and characters I didn’t notice the mechanics.

  2. R.J. Mangahas

    My current WIP started a little tricky. One main character was done in first person past and the other in third person present. This just got WAY too confusing for me and I’d sometimes mix up the POV’s. I am now just doing it in third past, and it seems to be working okay, but that could change too. Ahh, the joys of a first draft. :-]

  3. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dana

    I think that’s the secret for the reader – if you don’t notice the voice because you’re caught up in the story, it’s a real treat. For the writer, though, achieving that effortless voice takes a lot of planning and forethought!

    I take your point about the PI novel being more suited to first person. Robert B Parker does the Spenser and the Sunny Randall series in first person, but the Jesse Stone books, where the main protag is a small-town police chief rather than a loner PI, are done in third person.

  4. Zoë Sharp

    Hi RJ

    "One main character was done in first person past and the other in third person present. This just got WAY too confusing for me."

    I’m not surprised you were getting knotted up with that one. Occasionally, though, I’ve experimented with changing an existing piece into present tense, just to see how it reads. It does take a while to settle into your own voice.

  5. Louise Ure

    Zoë, you’re speaking to me in this post! In The Fault Tree I had to do some alternate chapters in third person, just because first person from the point of view of a blind woman did not give us enough information to keep the story moving. But those chapters were the hardest I’ve ever written.

    I’m a first person girl.

    Present tense? It’s always off-putting to me when I start reading, but by the third or fourth page I’ve forgotten it and gotten into the story.

  6. Eric Stone

    My current WIP is in third person, with multiple points of view. As a matter of fact, every character who shows up has their own point of view. And it’s not clear, intentionally, as to whether it’s past or present tense.

    It’s a whole lot of fun for me, and very challenging, to write. All the fiction I’ve had published in the past was in first person, present tense, so it’s a big change. I find that refreshing. It is also making me think a lot about the technical aspects of my writing in ways that I suspect will inform and enhance my future projects, even if I go back to my tried and true first person, present tense.

    One of the major problems I’ve been encountering is that I’m enjoying the multiple personality disorder so much that it is very tempting to keep introducing new characters, or keeping some of them on the scene longer, or more often, than necessary. There’s a waitress who keeps wanting to show back up and I have to take deep breaths and tell myself, "whoa there, fella, she doesn’t really belong in this scene."

  7. Cornelia Read

    I’ve always written in first person, even when I was a journalist pretty much. I also most enjoy reading first person books.

    My next one may have to be first and third, though, because I need to cover parts of a police investigation as it occurs, and my protag will be working as a journalist again, but won’t have access (not least since she’ll be the paper’s restaurant critic.) So, I figure maybe I’ll show the cops at work in alternation chapters, just so it doesn’t all have to be described to her second-hand in dialogue.

  8. Jude Hardin

    I’ve experimented with all of them, but my default seems to be first-person past tense. I’m reading Child 44 right now, though, and I’m enjoying the multiple POVs.

  9. toni mcgee causey

    And I had the opposite experience from you and Louise–I originally tried writing a book in first person–the precursor to the Bobbie Faye books–and hated the limitations of not being able to show other people’s POV. Probably a heavy screenwriting influence.

    I write what I call "close third" — or "third intimate" — almost like first person, it’s so close, but I can break away to other’s POV without sounding as if I’m switching styles. (Any POV character is in close third, and therefore, has their own voice/rhythm/pattern of speech and thought.)

    I write thriller structure, though, not true mysteries–maybe that’s the significant difference in which choice works.

    As for reading, I’ll read just about anything. Present tense often gets on my nerves, but there are a few I’ve read who’ve done it really well, and I’ve forgotten almost immediately. I enjoy reading first person–I think that it takes a helluva lot of skill to pull those off and I am always in awe when I step so smoothly into the story from one single POV.

  10. K. Keith Johnson

    3rd / past works great for me, however I just finished my first draft that is in first/past. I am working on the revisions now, but I enjoyed writing it. I enjoy revealing the story as my character lives it.

  11. JT Ellison

    I work in close third as well – it’s such a close POV that I could remove the word "Taylor" and replace it with "I" and switch over to first if I wanted to, but I really enjoy being able to scoot between people’s heads.

    But nearly all of my short stories are written in first person. And I’m thinking about a standalone in first as well. But not present tense – that’s jarring to me, for some reason.

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Louise

    Writing the story from Cadence’s POV must have been tough to start with – have I told you how much I love that name, by the way? – so I can entirely understand the need for third person chapters. But tough if that’s outside your natural writing style.

    And I keep being drawn to present tense … there’s just something so immediate about it ;-]

  13. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Eric

    I completely forgot to mention third person with restricted viewpoint, so you’re only looking through the eyes of one character in each scene. I did try a project like that, and found it easier than swapping between viewpoints within a scene, although with some of the same restrictions as first person. But, yes, you do get into the thought-patterns of the character and then it’s hard to leave them behind. I like the sound of your pushy waitress!

    This new WIP sounds intriguing, though – do you have a title for it yet?

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Cornelia

    That’s an interesting one – deciding how often to use the third person viewpoint within a story concerning your established main character. I like the idea of alternating chapters. Building up expectation in the reader can often work really well, I think. I remember reading something where almost the first half of the book was written in first person, then suddenly we dropped into third person to introduce a new character, and it felt like two disparate books had been glued together at the printers – really jarred me out of the story.

    The thing that intrigues me, is how do you avoid repetition of information? You show the cops working something out, but then Madeline has to find out some of this, so do you repeat the information? I’m fascinated by the process of introducing knowledge into a story. Can’t wait to read the results!

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jude

    I, too, settled on first person, past tense, but I’m getting itchy fingers to try something new. And as a reader I have no preferences, although I agree with the comments so far that present tense has to be very well done to avoid being annoying in a full-length novel.

  16. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni

    I love the description ‘third intimate’ and I think that would be the way I’d go with a third person project, with a limited number of close POV characters, and the occasional stretch into a minor character as required.

    I hadn’t considered at all the difference in POVs between mystery and thriller structure. Do you think that makes a big difference?

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi K Keith

    What brought about the decision to change from third/past to first/past? What was it about this particular story that you felt would work better in first person?

  18. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    Taylor’s character comes across very strongly, but I loved being able to see her from other character’s perspective, too. Particularly Memphis … ;-]

    How people view themselves often does not compare to how other people see them, and the difference says a lot about a person, something that’s not easy to get across in first person, unless another character comes right out and makes an observation. "Y’know, you’re not what I was expecting …" etc.

    That’s a difficult one to get right, and I always hate describing Charlie’s appearance in first person.

  19. JT Ellison

    Z, that’s one of the main reasons I ended up in third. It’s so much better to have everyone around the character commenting on what they are like than the character themselves – it can be a great tool for misdirection.

  20. Eric Stone

    Hi back Zoe (I’m really bad at figuring out how to put the line over your e, so please excuse its lack),

    I have been playing with multiple POVs in one scene and that has been fun, trying to make it make sense. Especially since I refuse to use attributions like "Danny said" or "Ida said" – names of characters. So far I think I’m succeeding – at least the one person who has read some partials said as much. It all remains to be seen.

    I haven’t yet figured out if it makes it easier or harder that the whole book takes place in one night.

    The book has a working title of "Central Avenue," but that’s really only where it’s set and I’m hoping to come up with something I like better.

  21. J.D. Rhoades

    The Keller books were all written in third person, multiple POV’s because that’s how I learned to write action and suspense: build up to a critical point in a scene, then switch to somewhere else leaving the reader (briefly) hanging. (Tom Clancy does this a lot in HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER).

    BREAKING COVER was a little weird: I switched from third to first in the middle of the book, then back again for the ending. It was a little risky; the middle section is essentially an extended flashback, so I was worried about slowing the story down.

    . The current WIP is the first one I’ve done entirely in first since my unpublished "real" first novel, and I’m finding it really difficult to just tell one character’s story.

  22. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    "Z, that’s one of the main reasons I ended up in third. It’s so much better to have everyone around the character commenting on what they are like than the character themselves – it can be a great tool for misdirection."

    Yeah, it’s a hard one to manage successfully in first person. One of the main drawbacks, I think. I don’t know how you’d have Taylor thinking about her slightly different colour grey eyes in first person!

  23. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Eric

    If you’re using a PC, to get the umlaut over the ë you hold down the Alt key and press 137 on the numeric keypad. If you’re on a Mac, I can’t help you ;-]

    Boy, you are making the reader work hard for the money, aren’t you? I seem to remember the Charlie Huston Joe Pitt series doing all dialogue with just an m-dash before it and no direct indication of the speaker, which took a little getting used to. Gotta love the guy’s style, though.

    Good luck with Central Ave, or whatever the final title ends up being!

  24. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dusty

    Hm, you think BREAKING COVER was risky? How about your Booklist review:

    “Like [Lee] Child, Rhoades dishes out one airtight action scene after another, mixing in just enough character-building moments and holding our interest in a full cast of nicely developed supporting players. All that, and a Sam Peckinpah–like bloody, bravura finale that will leave even icy-veined thriller fans panting for breath.”

    I’d say you got it about right without slowing anything down, wouldn’t you? ;-]

    I’ve got into the swing of just telling one character’s story. My difficulty came when I tried third person and was trying to tell everybody’s story.

  25. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I don’t read much in first person and I’ve never tried to write it. But I don’t like too much multiple points of view, either. I like close third – I like the single POV, but enough distance so I can LOOK at what’s going on instead of having someone TELL me what’s going on, which often grates on me.

    When the story’s good, though, I stop noticing what person or tense it’s in.

    I suspect I would find it easy to write a book in present tense because I’ve written so many treatments that way, and I barely even notice when a book is written in present; it seems natural.

  26. toni mcgee causey

    Zoë, I think multiple POVs can help create urgency-to-solve in a thriller. The intimate third gives the "inside view" of the stakes, the multiple POVs give the reader more information (generally) than the protagonist, creating that sense of time running out and machinations beyond the protag’s control. Whereas, in a strong mystery, it is the act of discovery that illuminates the character as well as the mystery, and often multiple POVs in a mystery deflates the rising tension because we already know too much–we’re just waiting for the protag to catch up, logic wise.

    Or, as someone once put it, in a thriller, it’s about how the character will survive, so multiple POVs enhance that (show more obstacles), while a mystery is about how the character will solve the puzzle. (And, generally, survive the bad guy trying to stop them, but the emphasis is on the puzzle, and how they’re figuring it out.)

    Sorry, I should edit this for cogency, but am running out the door. Dunno if that makes any sense.

  27. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Interesting to see the different opinions on first v third and past v present. You buck the trend, as always, X ;-]

    Like you, as long as the story grips me, the narrative style is secondary. If it sticks out enough to get in the way, however clever it might be, it’s too intrusive for me.

    And I know quite a few people who actively dislike first person narration, although none of them have given a reason quite as succinct as yours.

  28. Zoë Sharp

    Toni, that makes perfect sense, and I love your explanation.

    Dammit, though, you make me feel I really should have persevered in writing Charlie in third person … ;-]

  29. Pari

    Sorry to be late to the conversation. I wrote the Sasha Solomon series in 1st and this new series as well. I’ve tried both voices for the beginning of the standalone and am still undecided.

    As to present tense: whenever I become aware of tense, it bugs me and I’ve not yet read a book with PT where I wasn’t aware of it.

  30. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    Once you’ve settled on first person, it’s a hard habit to break, I think, and perhaps it really helps you to get under the skin of a new character more quickly?

    As to tense, I think any writing where you can ‘hear’ the writing rather than the story is not doing its job. I like deceptively simple voices. It’s like an artist who draws a simple squiggle on a canvas, and you can tell instantly that it’s a galloping horse. Just as much skill in that as working on layer after layer of paint.


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