I Am He as You Are He and You Are Me*

Point of ViewOne of the important choices writers have to make is which way they’ll tell a story. Most authors choose first or third person (more about second person in a bit). There are good reasons to choose each one, and a lot depends on what the author wants to accomplish.

Many of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories are written in the first person, from the point of view of Dr. Watson. One of the big advantages of first person here is that it allows for a really interesting perspective on another character, Sherlock Holmes. As fans will know, Holmes is unusual, even unique. And his skill at deduction is legendary. To see all of that from someone else’s point of view allows for the same kind of wonder (‘How’d he do that?’) that we might feel when watching a magician. And then, of course, Watson’s perspective allows Holmes to explain himself. There are examples of that moment woven through the Holmes stories and novels. One that I like very much comes in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. In that story, Commissionaire Peterson brings an unusual case to Holmes. He broke up a fight in which some thugs were attacking a man. Everyone ran off, and in his haste, the man dropped his hat and a goose he was carrying. Peterson brought the goose home to his wife, and when she started to prepare it for cooking, she found a valuable gem in its craw. Peterson wants to know the story behind the gem, and for that, he’ll need the man’s identity. Holmes takes one good look at the hat and is able to be so precise about its owner that they soon find out who that person is.

Of course, sleuths are not perfect. Just ask Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin. He’ll be very quick to lay out the limitations of his boss, Nero Wolfe. And that’s one of the real advantages of telling most of the Wolfe stories in first person, from Archie’s point of view. We get to see all of Wolfe’s faults (which he himself would hardly be willing to discuss). What’s more, we learn parts of the story that Wolfe wouldn’t necessarily know, since Archie usually serves as Wolfe’s ‘legs, eyes and ears.’

Agatha Christie used first person in several of her stories, too. One purpose that served (similar to what we see in the Stout stories) was to give some insight into another character. I’m thinking particularly of the Hercule Poirot stories in which Arthur Hastings serves as narrator. He certainly admires Poirot’s detection ability, but he is not oblivious to Poirot’s faults and eccentricities. And that gives us insight into Poirot’s character.

Hastings’ perspective also serves another purpose: misdirection. In Lord Edgware Dies, Poirot and Hastings investigate the stabbing death of Lord Edgware. The victim’s wife, Jane Wilkinson, is the most likely suspect, but according to the testimony of twelve other people, she was at a dinner party in a different part of London at the time of the murder. It’s a difficult case, and at one point, Poirot explains why he values Hastings’ perspective on it so much:

‘‘In you, Hastings, I find the normal mind almost perfectly illustrated.’’

What he means is that he learns from Hastings what the murder wants him to think. Hastings is not stupid, but he doesn’t put pieces of a case together the way Poirot does. He sees and hears things, but isn’t always aware of their significance.

Christie also created several first-person stories where the narrator is unreliable – another form of misdirection. I won’t list titles or characters, as that would give spoilers. But fans will know which ones I mean. And she’s not the only one who uses first person for the purpose of creating an unreliable narrator. A few authors and titles that come to my mind are James W. Fuerst’s Huge, Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind.

There are other reasons, too, for which authors choose the first person. For example, it allows for readers to really get to understand the protagonist. But it’s got its limits. It’s harder for an author to share information that a given character couldn’t know unless that author uses third person. That reader omniscience allows for a great deal of suspense as readers can anticipate what’s going to happen next once they get some information. Karin Fossum does this quite a lot with her Konrad Sejer stories, for instance. As one example, in When the Devil Holds the Candle, we know something terrible is going to happen when best friends Andreas Winther and Sivert ‘Zipp” Skorpe spend a fateful day together. But Sejer doesn’t know. And that tension as the events unfold, and as Sejer later investigates them adds to the suspense.

There’s also the fact that third person allows for multiple points of view. Many, many writers (including yours truly) share stories through different points of view. Doing that gives the reader a broader perspective on the events. It also allows for the evolution of a group of characters (since the reader can get to know more than one of them). Kate Atkinson does this in One Good Turn, for instance. In that novel, we follow the lives of several disparate characters, including her protagonist Jackson Brodie, who all end up in the same place one afternoon when a blue Honda crashes into the back of a silver Peugeot being driven by Paul Bradley. The lead-up to the crash, and the consequences of it, are fateful for several of the characters, and Atkinson shows us that through more than one pair of eyes.

There are some authors who’ve actually chosen to use the second person, too. Charles Stross’ Rule 34 comes to my mind as an example of this. That novel takes place in the near future, in a sort of alternative reality. In it, Edinburgh police detective Liz Kavanaugh and her team investigate several murders that are connected with online spamming, a shadowy criminal group called The Organization, and a former identity thief named Anwar. The points of view shift throughout the novel, but the story is all told in the second person.

There are good reasons to choose one or another way to tell a story. Neither first person nor third person is always ideal, and a lot of people are not comfortable with second person. At the same time, each of these offers some important advantages, too. Do you have a preference? Let me know in the poll below, and we’ll talk about it again when everyone’s had a week to vote. I’ll be interested in what you have to say. If you’re a writer, what drew you to the first/second/third person choices you’ve made?





*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ I Am the Walrus.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alice LaPlante, Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Stross, James W. Fuerst, Karin Fossum, Kate Atkinson, Mark Haddon, Rex Stout, Virginia Duigan

29 responses to “I Am He as You Are He and You Are Me*

  1. Such an interesting question, Margot. My first three novels were written in the first person. That was what came naturally and I think it has advantages at the beginning of a writing career as the restrictions it imposes can be helpful. Moving on to the third person with a number of viewpoints as I did with Invisible and the novel that’s coming out later this year was much more demanding, but also gave me more options and opportunities for dramatic irony and suspense (it’s good when the reader knows something a character doesn’t! It’s behind you!).

    • Thanks, Christine, for sharing your experiences. I thought that the use of first person worked very well in those first three Cassandra James novels (Folks, do try them!), so I can understand why you were glad you chose it. it does have its limitations. Still, as you say, those can help the writer to focus. And third person has a lot going for it too, as you point out, including building suspense.

  2. I’m one of those who fall into the camp of I really don’t mind although it does take a while for me to feel comfortable with the second person, once I’ve got into it, and presuming it’s well done, I think it can work.

  3. I voted for third, but I don’t mind first when it’s done as you say in your first examples – by someone who’s not really the main protagonist. It’s fine for Dr Watson to tell us how wonderful Holmes is – however, it would be awful to listen to Holmes himself tell us about his amazing genius, and this is when first irritates me. It can also be very limiting, not just in terms of knowledge but in mood. If we’re stuck inside the head of a grieving mother for 400 pages, it’s pretty hard for the author to lighten the tone with a bit of much-needed humour.

    Second is rare, but I did love Zoran Drvenkar’s ‘You’ – written entirely in second from about thirteen different viewpoints, and yet he managed to make each one distinct.

    • You know, FictionFan, I didn’t put it in the post (should have!) but you’re absolutely right about the limitation of first person when it comes to mood. It’s hard to create a balanced sort of story in that sense when you have first person. It can be done, but it’s not easy. And no, I would never want all of the Holmes stories to be told in first person. One could get very tired of that, very quickly! Thanks, too, for reminding me of the Drvenkar. That’s one I’ve been wondering about, not least because it’s in second person. May have to try it.

  4. Margot: Except for your posts on the subject I do not think about the voice of the story. It has never been an issue for me.

  5. Col

    I’m the same as Bill. However the author wants to write it does me.

  6. I think the third person is a lot more freeing as a writer, but it’s much easier to write in first. As a reader, I don’t mind what it is as long as it’s believable and adds rather than detracts from the story.

    • There are lots of possibilities and options when one writes in third person, aren’t there, Marina Sofia? On the other hand, I can see why you think first person is easier. And you’re right; the point of voice is that it should add to the story, not detract from it. Lots of readers agree with you that whichever voice the author uses is fine, so long as there’s good story integrity.

  7. I will write from one point of view in the first draft and then switch to another (usually from first to third) in the draft. I don’t know why I do this only that I do. It’s a big pain in the patooey but I submit.

    • What an interesting evolution your stories go through, Jan! It must be a pain, but if that’s your process for drafting, it is. And if the end product is something you’re proud to have created, that’s what matters.

  8. Margot, it is not an issue for me either but I’ll admit to being slightly partial to “first person” because I find it easier to connect with the narrator/protagonist and the story he or she is narrating. There is an instant rapport.

    • That’s an interesting point, Prashant. It is sometimes easier to make that personal connection with a protagonist when the author is using first person. It sounds more as though a person is telling you about something that happened to her or him. And that allows for that connection.

  9. Kathy D.

    I normally don’t like first person point of view. However, the examples of Dr. Watson and Archie Goodwin are fine with me. It would be tedious to read about Sherlock Holmes bragging about his brilliance, but Dr. Watson can do it. I can’t imagine Archie Goodwin being written about in third person. In the Rex Stout series, his first person is hilarious and a lot of fun.
    But there are books in which this doesn’t work so well. The Girl on the Train has three characters speaking in first person present. It is annoying. The reader doesn’t always know who is speaking and the three characters are indistinct from each other. If names weren’t in the chapter headings, one would never know who is speaking.
    And I could easily avoid books with women in peril speaking in first person; the horror can be ghastly and terrifying, however, some readers may enjoy this, but not me. Do those books sell? Well, I guess publishers wouldn’t publish them unless they succeed and The Girl on the Train is still on best-sellers’ lists.

    • You have a point, Kathy. Some kinds of first person narrative can be harrowing. But at the same time, like you, I couldn’t imagine the Nero Wolfe stories told in anything but Archie Goodwin’s voice. It works very well. As you point out, it certainly doesn’t work in all situations, though.

  10. I voted 1st POV, but that’s not totally accurate. I use 1st POV for my protagonist and deep 3rd POV for other POV characters (the antagonist or detective, for instance), alternating chapters to keep readers grounded. I’ll be interested to see what you do with this information; I sense pie charts in our future. 😀

    • I think that’s interesting, Sue, that you use different POVs like that. I’ve read other authors who do that, too, and it can be an effective way to give the reader all of the information and, as you say, keep the reader grounded. I’m looking forward to talking more about what everyone’s choice is for POV, too. Who, me? Pie charts? 😉

  11. When reading, I have no preference which point of view is used. For thrillers, multiple POV is always fun and exciting. I’ve used a multiple POV with one character first person and one or more other characters third. I’ve also written in 100% third person from one single person’s POV. For me, the choice happens when I start hearing the character’s story in my head.

    • I know what you mean, Pat. My characters do the same thing to me! You’re right, too, that multiple POVs can make thrillers all the more interesting, since we get to follow the action from different perspectives. It also allows the reader to feel that suspense of knowing what’s about to happen before a character does.

  12. I think different techniques suit different books, and the author usually picks the best one… and btw poirot manages to boast about his cleverness with or without hastings, and in any voice….

    • Yes, he does, doesn’t he, Moira? Christie was quite good at letting that part of his personality through. And you’re right; the best voice for a book really depends on the plot and characters for that particular story.

  13. tracybham

    I no longer have a real preference, although some of my favorite books and series are told in 1st person. But years and years ago, I used to prefer 1st person to the extent that I would not start a series if it was not in 1st person. As you have said, each has their good points.

    • That’s interesting, Tracy, that you’ve changed your mind about voice. Some people do have a major preference when it comes to person. Others really don’t. And, like you, some people start with one, and as their reading evolves, so do they. Perhaps it’s a matter of reading a book or two in first (or third) person, and learning that that voice can be done really well.

  14. I hate the use of “the man said/did…” I came across this in a book I read the other day and I found it really irritating…

  15. Pingback: I’ve Always Listened to Your Point of View* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

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