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.
Zara Altair, Author
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middoe Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.