I’ve Always Listened to Your Point of View*

PointofViewNot long ago, I did a post on point of view in crime fiction (first, second, and third person). At the time, I invited you to share your point-of-view preference, and I’m very grateful to those of you who did.

I thought it might be interesting to follow up on that little poll and take a closer look at point of view in crime fiction. Let’s start with the most important bit of data: your preferences. I asked you which point of view you like the best. Here’s what you told me.

 

POV Preference

 

As you can see, the majority (12 of the 22 participants – 55%) said that you don’t have a real preference. That finding didn’t really surprise me, since several of you told me in your comments that you care more about the quality of the story and characters than you do about whether the story is told from one or another point of view.

Of those of you who did express a preference, 6 of you (27%) preferred first person, and 4 (18%) preferred third person. There were no votes for second person. Again, that’s not surprising, as second person is a difficult point of view from which to tell a story, and it’s not really very common. What all of this means to me is that those of you who did have a preference were fairly evenly split between those who like first person better, and those who prefer third person.

This got me to thinking about the use of point of view in a larger sense. So I decided to take a look at how common first, second and third person are in the genre. I chose 290 books from among those I’ve read (which of course, severely limits the data!). I sorted the books into categories based on the point of view shared in the novels. Here’s what I found:

 
POV in Crime Fiction

 

As you can see, the majority of crime novels in this data set (195, or 67%) are told in third person. The data doesn’t show clearly whether that’s because the authors find it easier to write that way, or publishers have a preference one way or the other. But it’s interesting to see that most of the books seem to be written that way.

That’s not to say that first person doesn’t play a role, though. There are 88 books (31%) in this data set written from the first person point of view. Interestingly, I’ve had some writers tell me they prefer that voice. And perhaps that’s the reason for that finding.

It’s also worth noting that there were six books in this data set (2%) that had a combination of points of view. For instance, one I have in mind includes some chapters written in the first person, and some in third. There aren’t many books that fall into that category, but it’s there. As for second person, I’ve only personally read one book written from that point of view, although I know there are more than that out there. Still, even accounting for this extremely restricted data set, it seems that second person isn’t a popular point of view for crime fiction stories.

As I looked at this data, I got to wondering whether the balance of first, second and third person has changed over time. So I decided to look more closely at that question. I sorted the books in my data set into categories based on year of publication (pre-1950; 1950-1980; 1980-2000; 2000-present). Here’s what I found:

 

POV in Crime Fiction Over Time

 

In the era before 1950, it’s pretty clear that most books (26, or 72%) are written in third person. Between 1950 and 1980, that number drops to 22 books (roughly 69%). The percentage of books written in third person stays fairly stable in the period between 1980 and 2000 (40 books, or about 65%). The number of books written in the third person as a percentage of the total hasn’t changed very much in the most recent years, either (107, or about 67%). To me, this shows quite a stable trend towards writing in the third person, which I find interesting. It may simply be that readers are accustomed to it. Or it may be that publishers request it/prefer it because it’s more bankable.

At the same time, I think the data shows that there’s also a solid market for those who write in the first person. Plenty of books over time have been written from that point of view, too.

What do you think of all of this?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Foreigner’s Blue Morning, Blue Day.

46 Comments

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46 responses to “I’ve Always Listened to Your Point of View*

  1. As always an informative and interesting look at the data you got from your readers and that from your own reading habits. I’ve recently read a book that is told in a combination of points of view but unfortunately I can’t remember what it was!!

  2. Col

    I’d be interested in knowing what the second person POV book was just out of curiosity. It might be fun to read and to see if it jars me from my “I’m not too fussed as long as its good” position..

  3. Fascinating, Margot. Third is definitely the more popular choice. Of those third POVs I wonder how many use deep third vs. a more omniscient third. Personally I love 2nd POV for flash fiction and short stories, but I don’t know if I could keep it up for an entire novel. It wouldn’t be easy.

  4. This is really interesting, Margot, thank you for sharing. I write in the first person as it seems to be more natural for me. I do occasionally write in the third person but ultimately I return to the faithful first. I like observations and quirks of character, first person allows me to show but it does box me in as the reader can only see what the narrator does and that can make it tricky. Another interesting point about voices that I recently got to thinking about was passive and active voices. My voice is passive, which I feel is fitting for the genre I write in but it’s not very fashionable at the moment. People want fast moving here and now voices, perhaps that’s why first person is becoming more popular 🙂

    • Thanks for your insights, D.S., and for the kind words. I think you do have a point that active vs passive voice is a concern for authors. On the one hand, as you say, some voices are right for certain kinds of stories, characters and the like. On the other hand, authors also have to know what’s popular. And that’s not always the same thing.

      As you say, there are advantages and disadvantages, whether a person chooses first or third person person (or second), and whether one chooses active or passive voice. I think that’s why the author really needs to think about the story s/he wants to tell, and choose the best tools to do that.

    • I’ve never been one to follow fashions and I ultimately, rightly or wrongly, write the sort of books I would like to read. For me first person passive is right for Blake but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a few ideas on the back burner that involve third person, active voice 😉 Incidently I often find myself tying myself in knots over POV and passive, active storytelling when in the ebd what I need to do is just write the damn thing lol!

      • 😆 I do that, too, D.S.! I think writers do sometimes get so caught up in what voice we’re using, or what point of view, that we forget to tell the story. Only later, when we’re mired in plot holes, do we see that just getting the thing written comes first. Then it’s time to revise.

        Interesting you should have some ideas on the back burner for different voices and so on. I usually write in third person, past tense, with active voice. But I’ve had a few ideas, too, for stories written in different ways. I think doing those things from time to time ‘stretches’ the writer, and that can be a very good thing.

  5. Interesting that the split between first and third has remained so static – I’d have been willing to bet a reasonable amount of chocolate that first had grown in recent years. Though over the last year or so I have felt that there’s been a reversion both to third person and, thankfully, past tense. Just goes to show how what we see as trends are influenced by our own choices, I suppose – it may well be that I’m just being more careful only to select books that suit my taste.

    • You know, FictionFan, I expected to find that use of the first person had grown, too. That’s not how it turned out in my data, though. Of course, as you say, this really is influenced by our choices. This is only a reflection of my books, or books I’ve read, so if there were a larger set of data, we might find a different result. Still, I do see more past tense and third person these days, too. It makes me wonder what’s coming next. Or perhaps question my own reading…

  6. During my learning-phases, as an author, I got scolded for any attempt in the first person or 1st POV. It is not professional, and it limits the readers view into the world much more than third person. Or so I was taught.

    Still I consider it important to let people write what they want to write, as education is no excuse for fascism, nor for elitism, and beyond the fact that ‘not all of us got the elite university graduation the extra-easy way’ there is the fact that the term ‘Grammar.Nazi’ signaled disgusted customers, not just retaliating authors? 😉

    Thanks, Margot Kinberg.

    post skriptum

    Hip-Gold: While certainly one of the most favored global anti-depressants in existence chocolate can just as easily result in dire need for workouts. Especially, when it was won due extensive success in the chocolate-betting way. ;->

    • You have a good point, Andrè, about over-indulgence in chocolate. Even for that vital nutrient, moderation is key…

      You’re right, too, about the use of one or another point of view. The choice of first, third, or any point of view really depends on what serves the story, whether or not it’s consistent with what has ‘always been done,’ or what ‘ought to be done.’

  7. I feel that when an author writes in first person, one can more relate to the character. Third person just gets in the way.

    • That’s interesting, Scott. It sounds as though for you, there’s a better connection to the first-person narrative – perhaps a more personal one? If that’s true, then it’s not surprising you relate better to stories told in first person.

  8. I do think there is an increase in combined POV stories – quite a few of the ones I have read recently of the new releases seem to go for that in some form. And there was I thinking this was a lazy way out and avoiding it at all costs…

    • I think you’re right, Marina Sofia, that there are more novels with a combination of POVs than there used to be. That approach really does seem to offer some flexibility and possibilities, but it’s tricky to do it well…

  9. Fascinating stuff Margot – I remember Graham Greene discussing why he so rarely used the first person (in fact, didn’t try it until the 1950s, though with very fine results in the case of THE END OF THE AFFAIR and THE QUIET AMERICAN). In the hardboiled tradition, the narrating first person is, of me, one of the main attractions.

    • Thanks, Sergio. And thanks for sharing that about Graham Greene. Interesting that he didn’t use first person for such a long time. And you’re right; the hardboiled PI tradition really does just call for first person. I really works well in those novels.

  10. as a relatively new author who always writes in third, this post has put my mind to rest, for just lately I have been worrying that maybe it wasn’t ‘proper’ to use third. Am now a very happy thirder!

  11. I’m reading Peter May. Coffin Road is his latest release. I’m also reading the Lewis Trilogy. May uses a combination of 1st person and 3rd person POV in these books. I think the way he has done it is really effective.

    I do my crime writing in 3rd person but I’m experimenting with 1st person for my first non-crime story. It’s actually a lot more liberating than I thought it would be.

    • That’s interesting, Peter. And actually, you’re not the first person to tell me that writing in first person is liberating. As to May, I agree completely that he makes that combination of first and third person work quite well in the Lewis trilogy. He weaves the two together fairly seamlessly.

  12. Always impressed with your post, Margot. They make me think of books in a new light. Interesting data. Makes me wonder do authors change their POV style if they do more than one series.

    • Thank you, Mason. And you’ve raised a really interesting question about what authors do. I know of a few multiple-series authors, but at this moment, I can’t think of any who switch POV. They’re definitely out there, though.

  13. I love it when you do these posts. I’ve just finished reading The Meursault Investigation which is in the first person and it got me thinking about how difficult it is to carry that off as a writer. It’s so claustraphobic! Am currently writing something which is partly first person and partly third and have been worrying it is a complete catastrophe so nice to know that figures as well, although not that often!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Vicky. I’m glad you like these posts. And I give you a lot of credit for taking on a combination point of view like that. It’s not easy! But it does happen in crime fiction, and it can work well. I wish you success with it. You know, it’s interesting how different people have different views about how easy/difficult it is to write in one person or another.

  14. Margot, this is an informative and an eye-opening survey. It’s interesting that “third person” was the dominant voice through most of the last century. One “first person” voice I liked was in James Hadley Chase novels. Somehow it fit well into Chase’s crime-suspense narratives.

    • Thank you for the kind words, Prashant. And I think you’re quite right about the way Chase used the first person in his novels. In some cases, it works really very well, and that’s a terrific example.

  15. These data are so thoroughly interesting and information. Thanks a million for compiling and sharing everything. My POV on the subject is this: the author’s decision about and management of POV might be the most important technical/craft decision the author makes in a story or novel; get the POV decisions and management wrong, and neither plot nor characterization will ever salvage the effort.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Tim. I’m glad you enjoyed this post. You’re right, too, I think, about how very important POV really is. There are, of course, different ways to tell different stories. And the author’s choice of how (and from which vantage point) to do so really can ‘make or break’ the story.

  16. Very interesting, Margot. I cannot remember if I have read books with a combination of 1st and 3rd POV.

  17. Thanks for this poll. Very interesting, Margot.

  18. Kathy D.

    I certainly think that the Nero Wolfe books would not have been as effective or humorous if not told in Archie Goodwin’s voice, or much of them.
    However, I can life without some of the women-in-peril books told in first person, although perhaps the publishers and some readers like that method.
    As I’ve said, The Girl on the Train uses first person present. It may work for many readers; it’s still a best-seller and will be a movie. It just irked me.
    I think that Mercy by Jussi Olson-Adler was a mixture of third person about Dept. Q and then first person with the imprisoned person. Is my memory right on that? If so, it was done correctly.

    • Oh, I agree, Kathy, about the Nero Wolfe stories. They would have been far less effective if they’d been told in another way, and from a different point of view. As to Mery, I believe it’s told in third person all the way through, but you’re absolutely right that it shares both the Department Q team’s perspective and another. And that’s quite effective.

  19. I write the majority of my crime fiction in first person, past tense. I’ve had one reader try to tell me, after reading the first book, that the use of 1st person was jarring to her as it was very unusual. I didn’t find it unusual at all as several writers I like to read write in first person. It’s all a matter of taste, I guess.

    It works better for me even though I typically have dual protagonists in my primary series. I just have to take great care to make sure the reader always knows who is speaking. If you write in 1st person POV, you can’t head hop inside a scene. That’s what doesn’t work.

    • I couldn’t agree more, Anne. It’s really important to make it clear to the reader whose point of view is being shared. To do otherwise is too confusing, and pulls readers out of the story. You’re right, too, that everyone has a different way of thinking about what’s ‘normal’ and ‘comfortable.’ There really isn’t just one way to think about POV. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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