I have been asked, many times, in interviews or on panels about how I decide whether to write in the first person or the third person. Online, I see writers deliberating about this, too.
There are two questions to ask:
Firstly, how does it best fit the story?
When I wrote my first book, Girl 4, I wanted each character to have their own voice – the detective, the killer and the victims. I chose to write each one in the first person, present tense. It seemed obvious to me at the time to do in this way because there is such an immediacy to that approach, ‘I am doing this, I feel this way, and it is all happening right now’.
It made for great tension, particularly with the victims of the crimes because the reader knew that they were going to die at some point and they were right there with them as it happened. It added real impact to those final scenes. And the reader was complicit.
In my latest book, The Beresford, I opted for a third person narrative. Again, there was no question that this was the correct way because it best fit the story. I wanted the reader to feel voyeuristic, like they were secretly peering in on this old, mysterious apartment building, filled with secrets, and they were the only ones who could see everything that was going on.
But there is no rule to say that you can’t use both first AND third person in a single story. Take yourself back to that first question and if it best fits the story you are writing, use them both. It can work.
There is a second question that you should ask yourself when you are deciding between a first or third person narrative because there is something that you are forgetting.
What about the Second person?
This is much rarer but you can find novels in this form and you can certainly find it being used in the things I write.
The opening to my last book, Hinton Hollow Death Trip, says:
‘DON’T READ THIS
You can leave now, if you want. Don’t even bother finishing this page. Forget you were ever here. There must be something else you could be doing. Get away. Go on.
This is the last time I try to save you.’
The reader is immediately a part of the story. They are being spoken to. They are being considered. They are being asked to make a decision.
They are being taunted.
Second person narrative is dangerous and can come across like a gimmick if you don’t handle it correctly. In this case, my story was narrated by Evil itself. Evil explained what was happening to the residents of this small, rural town and how it was infecting everything and everybody, but it consistently brought the reader into the story to analyse what was going on. Because the reader was a part of it. The reader had to question what they would do in that situation, they had to examine what they believed was evil and what they had ever done that was evil.
This explanation may make it seem as though the use of a second person narrative had the reader caught up in the story, absorbed by it, but that was not the case. That was not the point.
A second person voice is jarring. It’s not normal. It’s often a little uncomfortable. If you are writing a story where you want a reader to be swept along by the plot and be magically whisked away from real life, then second person probably does not fit your story.
I am a student of the theatre. I understand the desire for realism and method acting, and they have their place, but what most interested me was the idea of verfremdungseffekt. This was a notion made famous by Bertolt Brecht and its primary objective is to distance or alienate the audience.
You are probably thinking that we are giving so much thought to which voice we write in so that our story is best conveyed to the reader, so why are we trying to push them away? You have probably also noticed how I have switched to second person. We do this to jolt the reader. We don’t want them to lose themselves in the narrative. By pulling them out, by reminding them that they are not in the south of France or in a spaceship or in Elizabethan England, they can remain critical. They can think. Simply by talking directly to the reader, you remind them that they are reading a book.
I used this extensively in Nothing Important Happened Today, a political story about mental health and the cult mentality. I wanted the reader to constantly evaluate the way they saw suicide or depression or loneliness or what makes us believe we are happy and content. By speaking with the reader in second person, you open up a dialogue. You can almost have a conversation with them.
If it best fits the story.
And that is what it all comes down to in the end. You have to double back and revisit question one because plotting and character are important but you can have the greatest story with the best characters and not be telling it in the right way, and you do a disservice to yourself as a writer and to your readers.
Maybe you want the reader to disappear into your book and be lost.
Maybe you want to jolt them out and make them think about more than what they are reading.
Maybe you haven’t given the reader any thought.
Maybe there’s a third question you should be asking.
What kind of a writer are you and what kind of book are you trying to write?
(c) Will Carver
About The Beresford:
Everything stays the same for the tenants of The Beresford, a grand old apartment building just outside the city … until the doorbell rings… Will Carver returns with an eerie, deliciously and uncomfortably dark standalone thriller.
Just outside the city – any city, every city – is a grand, spacious but affordable apartment building called The Beresford.
There’s a routine at The Beresford.
For Mrs May, every day’s the same: a cup of cold, black coffee in the morning, pruning roses, checking on her tenants, wine, prayer and an afternoon nap. She never leaves the building.
Abe Schwartz also lives at The Beresford. His housemate, Sythe, no longer does. Because Abe just killed him.
In exactly sixty seconds, Blair Conroy will ring the doorbell to her new home and Abe will answer the door. They will become friends. Perhaps lovers.
And, when the time comes for one of them to die, as is always the case at The Beresford, there will be sixty seconds to move the body before the next unknowing soul arrives at the door.
Because nothing changes at The Beresford, until the doorbell rings…
Eerie, dark, superbly twisted and majestically plotted, The Beresford is the stunning standalone thriller from one of crime fiction’s most exciting names.
Order your copy online here.