Decisions, decisions – First or Third

Authors are often advised to plan novels in a sequence, and if they manage that the books are then sub-titled after the main character, often a police officer: Inspector Bates #1, Inspector Bates #2, and so on. And this is good advice if you can take it.

My forthcoming paperback, Interleaved Lives, features Douglas Hunter, once a police officer, now a private detective.  The book is a first-person narrative, Douglas Hunter narrating. But when I began a sequel I found this a problem. If a character is telling the story one question always needs a clear answer – when describing events where he or she was not present, how does the narrator know what happened? The answer does not always need to be spelled out, as long as the author knows what it is and the reader can figure it out if he/she is so inclined.

Finding there were too many occasions when I couldn’t answer this question satisfactorily, I rewrote Interleaved Lives in the third person and began the sequel a second time. But I didn’t care for the result, abandoned the draft and reverted to the first-person version of the original. One reason for this was that I find writing in the first person more relaxing. Speaking rather than writing.

So rewriting the book in the third person was a waste of time and effort, but I consoled myself with the thought that Count Tolstoy began a novel on Peter 1 thirty-three times before giving up on the idea. (I am indebted to Elizabeth for this information, gleaned from her excellent blog

More recently, Patricia Cornwell has written some books in her Kay Scarpetta series in the first person and others in the third. But she is licensed to fly a helicopter and is high profile enough to get away with it. And there is also the case of John Irving who, on the advice of his wife, translated his novel Until I find You, from the first to the third. Given the great length of this book, a mammoth task.

However, as far as continuity goes, I can claim to have a fall-back position. A main character in Interleaved Lives, DS Maureen MacNeil, appears in a previous book, Time to Talk, as does Douglas Hunter, though in a more minor role. So perhaps I can claim that the present title is itself a sequel. Sneaky, right?

Published by Eventispress, this title is now live:

First person or third?

On the face of it, writing in the third person will be the more attractive option. It gives the writer complete access not only to what his characters do but also what they think. This is the writer as God approach, and it isn’t surprising that the majority of novels and short stories are written in the third person.

Writing in the first person faces the author with a major question at the outset: how does the narrator come by his information? There are two approaches to this. The author might decide that, for his purposes, it will not be an issue and the narrator will know very much more than could happen in real life. For example, he might have astonishing powers of recall, giving us lengthy passages of direct speech as if, between his ears, he had a fully functional tape recorder or digital recording device. This is what Pawel Huelle does in ‘Who Was David Weiser’. He doesn’t care that a reader (me!) might reasonably ask ‘How could your narrator possibly know all this? He decides that the problem isn’t a problem at all – the writer as God again, but by a different route.

But if the question isn’t side-stepped in this way, we will wish to know how the narrator comes by his information. In the old days, a popular approach was, ‘These papers first came into my hands.’ Nowadays, the narrator might come by a stream of emails, texts or voicemails. And other characters, who have observed events which the narrator has not, will pass their information on. When writing in this way it will always be wise for the writer to ask, ‘How does my narrator know this?’ There should be an answer, explicit or implied.

Sometimes, writers – even famous ones – can be indecisive in this matter. When Patricia Cornwell began her Kay Scarpetta series, the novels were written in the first person. However, when she came to write Blow Fly, she changed to the third person. Then, seven years later, she reverted to the first person in Post Mortuary. This wouldn’t call for comment but for the fact that these books are part of the same series and might be expected to conform to one style of writing. (Bear in mind that she has also changed from past to present tense in this series).

Cornwell was sufficiently established to get away with this, but for authors starting out and wanting to build up a readership, conventional wisdom would be as follows. 1) Write within a specific genre 2) Write a series of books within that genre 3) Write the books in your series with a consistent style. (I am not advocating this advice, simply reporting it).

Then there is the interesting case of John Irving. As published, his novel Until I Find You is in the third person. But Irving wrote it in the first. However, on the advice of his wife he changed it to the third. Given that the book is unduly long, this was a major task which took him nine months. (I believe the couple are still married). So getting this decision correct at the outset can save a lot of time and effort. And while it is perfectly possible to change a first person narrative to a third, going in the other direction would be difficult in the extreme.

But writing in the first person isn’t just a matter of information. Since the narrator will be a person, the author must decide how that person speaks and/or writes. The narrator will have a voice and the writer should let us hear it. This is potentially more difficult than adopting a competent, third person prose style which any one of a number of authors might use.

Fortunately, we don’t have to choose one person or the other – we can use both. The novel I read most recently, Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd, does exactly that. The main character, Lysander Rief, is urged by his shrink to keep a journal as part of his therapy. So, though the book is mainly third person, the narrative is intercut with first person extracts from his journal. Using both first and third persons is not uncommon and can work very well.