Inside The Sleuth’s Head
First-person point of view the narrator tells the story directly to the reader. The character speaks about himself or herself and share what they are experiencing.
Create a deep connection with your readers when your sleuth tells the story. You create an intimate portrayal of thoughts and emotions.
Traditionally, first person POV stories are told from one point of view. Some writers use multiple characters, each telling the story from a personal point of view. Multiple first person points of view allows you to expand the views for readers.
Advantages of First-Person Point of View
First-person puts the reader inside the narrator’s head immediately. You have the advantage of portraying intimate thoughts and emotions. Each moment the narrator feels, your reader feels. You deliver all the narrator’s senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
Because your reader is inside the narrator’s head, they experience the emotions - their hopes, despair, love - with maximum emotional impact.
You create a strong sense of empathy in the reader through the narrator’s reactions to situations and other characters. Readers understand the character’s motivations behind actions and whether the narrator’s logic is right or not, the actions make sense to the reader.
The first-person voice gives the story a clear identity. You submerge your reader far into the world you create.
You can hide exposition in the narrator’s thoughts. The narrator’s thoughts about situations like class structure or social inequalities are integral to the narration. As a writer, you are spared the narrative trap of info dump to familiarize readers with the narrator’s milieu.
First-person narrators don’t have to be reliable. The story is told from the narrator’s point of view. The narrator can lie or misdirect the reader in a way that third-person narrative cannot do. Although an unreliable narrator doesn’t work well in a mystery, an unreliable narrator can tell a great crime story drawing the reader into a personal view of circumstances.
The narrator doesn’t have to be the protagonist but can be the one viewpoint that tells the story happening around them.
Drawbacks of First-Person POV
The major drawback of writing entirely from one person’s point of view is that it is limited. Because the reader experiences the world only through that character’s eyes, as a writer, you cannot share other characters’ thoughts and feelings.
Although you can describe the physical appearance of other characters through the narrator’s point of view, you can’t describe your main character. Don’t think about having them look in the mirror. The closest you can get is to have other characters periodically respond to a physical attribute.
By nature, first-person point of view is limited. As a writer, you will be challenged to present the big picture. You can’t give that character too much knowledge. Especially in a mystery you want to avoid giving away that big picture by giving your narrator too much knowledge.
The Personal Sleuth
Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther is a great example of first-person narrative. Set in Nazi Germany, Bernie offers his opinions and deals with consequences of his outspoken interaction while solving crime as a private detective.
If you decide to tell your mystery in first-person, know that you will work with limitations. On the other hand, you have the opportunity to build a strong emotional bond with your reader.
A View from the Edge - Third Person POV
How you tell your mystery makes a difference. Point of View (POV) is the voice that tells the mystery to your readers. Third person point of view allows readers to know what the narrator thinks and experiences without going directly into their head. You limit the perspective to one person’s perspective.
Ursula K. LeGuin gives a great description of third person limited point of view in her writing manual, Steering the Craft.
Only what the viewpoint character knows, feels, perceives, thinks, guesses, hopes, remembers, etc., can be told. The reader can infer what other people feel and think only from what the viewpoint character observes of their behaviour.
Connect with Your Readers
Third person limited point of view creates an intimacy between readers and the characters. Even though the story is not in first person, as a writer you can reveal thoughts and responses that allow readers to sense and feel what the character does.
Using different scenes, you can tell the story from the point of view of characters other than your protagonist. Many mystery and suspense writers alternate between the protagonist and the antagonist.
Create Mystery with Uncertainty
Because the story is told from a limited point of view, the emotions, secrets, and backstory of secondary characters - especially suspects - remain uncertain.
You challenge your sleuth to dig deeper to discover motivations and actions these characters keep hidden. Your sleuth’s challenge is to peel back the layers of understanding to solve the puzzle.
When the character has limited knowledge, so does your reader. Your reader is trapped in the head of the character. As you keep secrets from the character, you build tension for the reader. Page-turning is the key to keeping readers involved.
As your protagonist encounters challenges, your reader follows along expectant for the next discovery. Good mystery writing involves keeping your character, and your reader, in suspense.
Reader Comprehension Evolves
As the mystery progresses, your reader’s perspective on characters and situations evolves. This evolution of understanding is exactly what mystery readers want. Because they see only what the character sees, they are tied to the discovery path of your mystery.
Writer Challenge for Third Person Limited POV
The most common challenge, for beginning writers, to third person limited point of view is the temptation to head hop. That means changing character heads within a scene. Don’t do it.
If you go outside the view of your protagonist, use separate scenes to illuminate another character’s point of view.
Limit the number of characters you use to narrate your mystery. Besides the protagonist and the antagonist, choose wisely if you want to let your reader inside another character. The point of your mystery is to create a puzzle for your reader. Too many viewpoints muddies the waters of your story. You are more likely to confuse the reader rather than enlighten them.
Choose the point of view before you begin your mystery. If you have doubts, try writing the beginning in first person and third person to see which flows better. I tried this a few years ago thinking I wanted to be inside the protagonist’s head in first person. As I thought about how the story would unfold, I realized that third person limited would work better for the mystery.
Alternating between third person and first person is a device some writers use: third person for the protagonist and first person for the antagonist. In the hands of a skilled writer, this technique can work.
Your Choice for Storytelling
Third person limited point of view is the standard storytelling device in popular fiction. Use this point of view to your advantage as you create a mystery trail for your sleuth.
Eye on the Mystery Prize
Reading other authors in your genre is a sound practice. not just for emulating story strategy but for caution on what not to do in your story.
I just finished reading a mystery by an established mystery writer. As a reader, I was disappointed. As a writer, I thought about why I was disappointed. I reviewed the mystery writing elements and discovered the reason.
I liked the sleuth, a police inspector, and his team. But everytime the villain appeared he was snarky and overdone with throw-away lines. The villain intruded on the story rather than moving it forward. I kept thinking, “OK, let’s get back to the story.”
When readers, like me, get distracted they can and will stop reading. The only reason I kept reading was to see how it fit together because my interest as a reader was gone.
Organize Your Story
To keep the mystery in your mystery, all the the components must move the story forward. It’s challenging to keep the balance. Read other writers to know what to do and what not to do. Learn from their mistakes.
Keep these tips in mind as you build your story.
A disappointed reader, will not come back to give you a second chance. Focus on creating a sleuth your readers like. Make her character deep and empathic. Your sleuth’s reaction to other characters has a greater chance of keeping your reader involved than creating complicated interrelationships in other characters.
Take a look a popular mystery TV series. You’ll see that the emphasis is on the sleuth and the sleuth solving the mystery. Make sure your subplots don’t overshadow the mystery.
It doesn’t matter if you are a pantser or organize every scene of your story. A pantser may do the organization in the rewrite/editing phase. Planners can eliminate story clutter by creating a storyline and sticking with it.
Focus on the mystery.
Not the Villain, The Obstacle Maker
Enrich your mystery with an opponent who gives your detective problems. The opponent has a role quite different from the villain’s role. The villain in a mystery is the one who committed the murder. From Agatha Christie's Chief Inspector Japp and Hercule Poirot to the neighbor Grannen in the Swedish television series Beck.
The opponent is a character who causes trouble for your hero, the detective. They may be a rival, or a love or ex-spouse, or a neighbor… But somehow, villainous or bumbling, they are connected to the detective and oppose your central character.
Just like the sidekick, the opponent can be any age or sex. Their main role in the story is to cause problems and throw up obstacles for the detective. These obstacles force your detective to show qualities and personality characteristics that deepen your reader’s understanding of the central character.
The opponent creates obstacles that personally affect the detective and often hinder the murder investigation.
It’s up to your writer imagination to come up with ways to thwart your detective.
Sleuth Character Expansion
Depending on the opponent’s character and role in the mystery, each obstacle creates and opportunity for the mystery writer to expand your reader’s knowledge of the sleuth.
Because the opponent is outside the sleuth’s investigation, the interactions between the two characters are personal. These interactions reveal character traits the sleuth may not use in the pursuit of a murder inquiry.
Again, your writer imagination is the key to creating situations that emphasize your sleuth’s traits by interacting with the opponent.
The Free Character for Mystery Writers
The opponent complicates the sleuth’s life but not the mystery. The opponent can be a fun addition to your mystery because they don’t have to be part of the solution. As a novelist, you have a free hand in creating the sleuth’s opponent. Make the opponent as likeable or unlikable as you want and then insert them into the story to reveal your sleuth’s character traits. Readers will relate to your character and the misadventures created by the opponent.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Her course for beginning writers Write A Killer Mystery is coming soon. Get on the notification list.
Zara Altair, Author
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middle Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.