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How to Write Crime Fiction - Part Four: Whose Point of View?

by Kelvin Jones

No matter what the genre, including crime fiction, we need to decide when writing, who will be telling the story. This is known as the viewpoint.

The Point of View (POV)

At this stage, it is necessary to decide from whose angle the story is to be told. This makes a material difference to the synopsis.

Where the theme does not give a firm indication of the viewpoint, the choices are:

  • A first-person narrative. There is the limitation that nothing can be recorded except what that particular character sees, feels, hears, and experiences. The thoughts and attitudes of other characters are seen only through their actions as viewed by the narrator.
  • A third-person narrative but with a single viewpoint. This is virtually the same as a first-person narrative, but more flexible. Without making the stylistic error of occasionally switching to the viewpoint of another character, the reader can be made aware of what goes on behind the main character's back and appreciate the importance of things which do not, as yet, mean anything to the character.
  • A multi-viewpoint narrative. Here the viewpoint can shift from one character to another. This is useful where the crime writer wishes to keep several lines of action going at once. Each chapter will have section, showing what is happening simultaneously or in close succession in a given period of time.

If the main feature of the novel is to be a police investigation, with action shown and characters introduced in advance of the detective's arrival, a multiple viewpoint has to be used. In this case, care should be taken that the initial characters are not `dropped' once the investigation is in progress.

Third Person Narrative Point of View

"Learning about point of view by reading a book can seem like learning to play a card game by reading the rules in 'Hoyle'. Relax. As you use different viewpoints in the fiction you write and notice how point of view works in the fiction you read, it will become as natural to you as poker to a professional gambler."
Jesse Lee Kercheval

What I want to talk about in this article is the roles played by four different people in the writing of a novel:

  • The Author
  • The Narrator
  • The Viewpoint Character
  • The Protagonist

Understand the sometimes subtle, but always important, differences between these people and you will be well on your way to mastering first and third person narrative point of view.

The Author and the Narrator

The first person we need to consider is the novel's author - the one writing the words and whose name appears on the book's front cover - and that person is obviously you! (Third person narrative point of view might be complex, but it is also very logical.)

What about the novel's narrator? Well, in a third person point of view novel, you are also the narrator, or the person telling the story. (There's nobody else doing all the hard work, is there!) But here is the thing: there is actually a subtle but crucial difference between author and narrator.

Stick with me on this one because it isn't totally straightforward to explain...When a reader reads a novel written in the third person narrative point of view, they know perfectly well that the events never actually happened, that it is a story made up in the author's head and written in the author's words.

We readers, though, like to imagine that the events did actually happen and that the characters really do exist (this illusion of reality is one of the reasons why reading fiction is so pleasurable).

Yes, on one level we know that it is a novel, that it is made up, that it didn't really happen - but while we are reading we are happy to pretend that these people are as real as we are. This phenomenon has a technical name: the willing suspension of disbelief.

If we read Gone With the Wind, for example, we know perfectly well that Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler are characters created by Margaret Mitchell and that the events never actually occurred, but we nevertheless like to imagine that we are reading about real events happening to real people.

The willing suspension of disbelief, incidentally, applies to movies, too - and to stage plays, musicals, things like that.

Yes, we know logically that Scarlett and Rhett are imaginary characters being portrayed by real- life actors Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, but for the running time of the film we still like to imagine that we are witnessing reality.

For those two or three hours, we willingly suspend our disbelief in order to become more emotionally involved with the story.

But back to novels, and to this difference between authors and narrators in a third person narrative...The author of a novel is a real-life person who has made up the events and written the words. But in order to feel like what we are reading actually happened, us readers need to forget about the author and imagine instead that the words have been written by a kind of invisible witness to the events - a person with godlike powers, perhaps, who can look down upon reality from above and describe it to the readers.

The crucial point here is that this godlike narrator, as unlikely as such a figure might be, witnesses something that actually happened, whereas authors merely write about events they have made up - and so readers will ignore the author's name on the novel's cover and imagine instead that they are being told about the events by someone who actually witnessed them.

I appreciate that this isn't a simple concept to understand, but there is nothing complicated about it once you do manage to get your head around it. If you are struggling to grasp what I am going on about, read the above few paragraphs again, then again if necessary.

Like I said, to master first and third person narrative point of view you need to be 100% clear about the logic behind it. And the reason it is important to understand this subtle difference between a third person author and narrator is that it will affect the way you write the novel...

  • When you sit down to write a chapter in a third person narrative novel, don't think of it as yourself writing the words, or yourself making up the events in your head.
  • Instead, slip into the skin of this godlike narrator - the person who can look down on the events from above as they unfold.
  • And then, as you write the words, simply tell the readers everything that you see and hear and taste (and so on) in such a way that the readers feel like they are right there with you.
    You might believe that the difference is so slight that it is hardly worth bothering with, but it is precisely these subtleties which make the difference between mastering third person narrative point of view - and not.

Who To Choose As a Viewpoint Character?

Given that you now know who your novel's protagonist is, and given that the protagonist is also the viewpoint character in most novels, the question of who to choose as a viewpoint character has conveniently resolved itself. Well, mostly. There is still the issue of choosing viewpoint characters who are not the novel's protagonist.

There are two circumstances under which lesser characters - that is, non-protagonists - will become viewpoint characters...

  1. In a Multiple Viewpoint Novel.
  2. In First Person Narration using an Observer.
  3. Multiple Viewpoint Novels

It is possible to write a multiple viewpoint novel in which every single viewpoint character is of equal importance - meaning all of them are protagonists.

  • You could write a boy-meets-girl novel, for example, told from both the boy's and the girl's viewpoints equally.
  • Or you could write an ensemble piece, told from perhaps a dozen viewpoints, in which each point of view character's story is of more or less equal importance - a murder-mystery novel, for example, told from the viewpoints of the twelve suspects.

But in most multiple viewpoint novels, you have the novel's protagonist, who gets to be the viewpoint character in most of the chapters (not least the opening and closing ones), with the remaining chapters being told by one or more of the lesser characters.

The question is, then: which of your lesser characters should you choose to be viewpoint characters?

And the answer is this: only those characters who have an interesting mini-story to tell, one which sits comfortably within the main story and adds an extra dimension to it.

So suppose you are writing a detective novel and you can't decide whether to tell it solely from the detective's point or view or to give the detective's sidekick some chapters in which to be in the spotlight: If the sidekick has no role in the novel other than to act as a foil to the detective, don't make them a viewpoint character. They are not interesting or important enough.

But if you make the sidekick Muslim, say, and if he is on the receiving end of racism at work, and if the murder is racially motivated, then, yes, the sidekick's mini-story would certainly be interesting enough to weave into the fabric of the main story.

Using an Observer Narrator

The second circumstance under which lesser characters can become viewpoint characters is in novels using a "displaced" or "observer" narrator. I actually referred to this earlier in this section, when I talked about the Sherlock Holmes novels being told not by Holmes but by Doctor Watson. Holmes is clearly the protagonist of those novels, but it is through Watson's eyes that we see the events unfold.

Under what circumstances should you consider using a Watson-type character as your viewpoint character?

If your novel's protagonist, like Sherlock Holmes, is too big, or too mysterious, or too brilliant, or too anything to really connect with the readers (as a viewpoint character always should), one solution can be to tell the novel instead from the point of view of somebody more ordinary - somebody more like Doctor Watson, somebody more like the readers.

Introducing the Characters

Since the theme is developed through the actions of the main characters, they should be introduced as early as possible in the narrative, at least in the first chapter if not actually on, the opening page. It is important to fix them in the reader's mind as the principals.

Characters should be introduced one by one. At the beginning of a book, the reader may become confused, wondering who is who. Slow and steady introduction of the characters gives time for each one to sink into the mind of the reader.

The starting point might be, for instance, at a party, where perhaps as many as four or five characters can be introduced in rapid succession. If it is unavoidable, scatter the characters about the place. A party implies the presence of a number of people who can be spread out over a fair amount of space. Suppose the setting to be a nightclub. Having all the characters seated round one table would be difficult to handle. For the purposes of introduction, split them up — they can be dancing, or in the cloakroom, or out on the terrace, or at the bar — so that the reader may view them separately before they all come together in one place.

Introducing a whole group of characters all in one go is never easy. It is best avoided, and should not be tackled by a beginner. Organise the synopsis so that the characters are fed in smoothly, and the readers will take them in their stride.

Dealing with Background Information

The choice of the starting point relegates a certain amount of information relevant to the crime to the position of background material. The problem arises of how to work this into the synopsis.

In my view, the least desirable device to use is that of flashback. The only thing that can be said for flashback is that it is easy. However, it stops the action dead in its tracks; and dodging around time confuses the reader. Flashback is an extended form of a long, dreary description. Readers often skip those, and they may do the same to a flashback. This defeats its purpose, which is to convey necessary information.

To be continued...


How to Write Crime Fiction – Part 1: The Beginning
How to Write Crime Fiction – Part 2: Defining Crime Fiction
How to Write Crime Fiction – Part 3: Character Development

COMING SOON! Head Bangers
A Crime Thriller by Kelvin I Jones

Mangled heads have been turning up all over Norfolk and the inhabitants of Korpusty, a remote village on the East Anglian Fens, are scared. Five murders in five weeks, all committed with a hammer, and still nobody has a clue who the psychotic killer is.

Retired former DCI Ketch is an aged and dogged detective with a fondness for drink. He doesn't know it yet but he is the only one who can stop the violent killer.

DCI Ketch, now semi-retired and a part time profiler for the Norwich murder team, finds himself thrown into the centre of the investigation. His only real clue is a bloody tool bag, found in possession of a local paedophile.

He enlists the help of his former sidekick, DCI Tim Mackenzie.

Can Mackenzie help Ketch overcome his addiction and find the answers before the manipulative killer and his deadly hammer strike again?

See website for the Inspector Ketch series = www.cunningcrimebooks.co.uk

Kelvin Jones

Kelvin I. Jones has been a prolific UK crime and supernatural fantasy writer for over a quarter of a century. Born in Kent in 1948, he is equally at home writing poetry, plays and novels. He has published six books about Sherlock Holmes and the only definitive study of Conan Doyle’s interest in spiritualism, as well as numerous articles about the Victorian detective (see R De Waal's Universal Sherlock Holmes, online edition, 2000). Ed Hoch, the renowned American crime writer, has said of his Sherlockian work: “Kelvin I Jones reveals a sensibility and knowledge of 19th Century literature that extends far beyond the world of Sherlock Holmes.' He is the author of the Stone Dead series, featuring the intrepid Cornish detective, John Bottrell, and the Inspector Ketch stories, which are set in Norfolk.

Recent publications: Sherlock Holmes: The Plagues of London, Sherlock Holmes: The Baskerville Papers, A Dogged Detective (DCI Ketch), A Grave For The Goddess (John Bottrell).

www.cunningcrimebooks.co.uk

Books

The Norwich Murders

Kelvin Jones

£7.32

There's a serial killer stalking the streets of Norwich and it's the job of DCI Price (known to his colleagues as 'Ketch,' }to unmask him. Although there's not much in the way of forensic evidence, Ketch believes that killer is a religious maniac. Plagued by alcoholism and melancholia. Ketch struggles to keep pace as the killer's body count slowly rises. A fast paced and atmospheric crime thriller set against the backdrop of an ancient city.

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The Janus

Kelvin Jones

£8.32

At a Romano-British hill fort in Kent a strange Celtic stone head is found. The ancient artefact soon has a terrifying effect on whoever it comes into contact with since it is the stone talisman of a Celtic warrior whose speciality was the severing of his opponents' heads in battle. The Janus also has the power to project terrifying dreams into the minds of the living. An atmospheric contemporary horror tale by the author of Twelve After Midnight and Carter's Occult Casebook. 'Then, at length, he would turn out the light and leave the room, his mind full of plans and stratagems. And behind him, in the darkness of the vault, the Janus would know that soon now it would rise like a phoenix from the ashes, bringing the dead back into the daylight, demanding the Blood Sacrifice...'

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A Grave For The Goddess

Kelvin Jones

£7.07

Norfolk based detective John Bottrell and his partner had been looking forward to a relaxing holiday with old friends in the quiet Cornish village of Saint Maddern. But when the vicar of Saint Maddern is found murdered in the church, there are few clues as to the identity of her assailant, much to the frustration of Bottrell and his ex colleague DCI Ray Sexton. As midsummer day approaches and the local pagans prepare for their 'Day of Harmonic Convergence,' more murders follow, and Bottrell is convinced that there are dark forces abroad in the community. A Cornish murder mystery with an occult twist from the author of Stone Dead and Witch Jar.

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Conan Doyle And The Spirits: The Spiritualist Career of Arthur Conan Doyle

Kelvin Jones

£8.56

An exhaustive and definitive study of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's career as a psychic investigator by Sherlock Holmes biographer Kelvin I. Jones.The author has been a prolific writer for a quarter of a century. He has published six books about Sherlock Holmes, as well as numerous articles about the Victorian detective. Ed Hoch, the renowned American crime writer, has said of his Sherlockian work: "Kelvin I Jones reveals a sensibility and knowledge of 19th Century literature that extends far beyond the world of Sherlock Holmes."

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The Complete Inspector Ketch: The Casebook Files Of A Norwich Detective

Kelvin Jones

£11.60

The complete edition of crime stories, featuring the lugubrious, alcoholic and long in the tooth East Anglian detective, DCI Ketch.The novel and sixteen short stories in this volume feature a dogged Norwich detective, 'Ketch', so named after his ancestor, Jack Ketch the hangman. Ketch (real name Huw Price) is an alcoholic, nearing retirement in the force. Seventeen atmospheric tales of murder and mayhem, set in and around the towns and villages of Norfolk, involving blackmail, revenge, lust and obsession. By the author of the Stone Dead Omnibus.

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Carter's Occult Casebook

Kelvin Jones

£7.94

A collection of full length ghost and horror stories featuring the Edwardian psychic sleuth Dr John Carter. In the tradition of the English writer M. R. James.

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Traditions And Hearthside Stories Of West Cornwall: Tales Of An Old Celt

Kelvin Jones

£10.96

William Bottrell, the most famous of all Cornish storytellers, once described himself as "an old Celt". This seems appropriate when one looks at his prolific output of "drolls", published privately between 1870 and 1880 for the benefit of the middle class readership of Penzance. The tales he collected came from the lips of the miners and the local people. A new edition of the Cornish folklore classic, with an introduction by Kelvin Jones

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Sherlock Holmes: The Plagues Of London

Kelvin Jones

£8.07

It is December 1888. The body of Queen Victoria's physician is discovered in a railway carriage on Paddington Station. Sherlock summons his brother Mycroft to the scene. Sherlock is convinced the crime bears no resemblance to the Ripper murders but when a letter arrives at Scotland Yard, ostensibly from the Ripper, claiming he is the author of the crime, Lestrade doubts Sherlock's wisdom. When the body of Sir James Fawcett, a leading expert on tropical diseases, is found at his home in Chelsea the day after, Sherlock realises that a challenging criminal mind is at work. This Sherlock Holmes novel, which follows the author's own chronology of the cases of Holmes, introduces readers to a number of real life Victorian celebrities, including Oscar Wilde. By the author of 'Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective.'

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Sherlock Holmes And The Cromer Hound: An Investigation

Kelvin Jones

£7.07

A fascinating investigation into the literary origins of Conan Doyle's horror classic. Kelvin Jones traces the story from its East Anglian roots to its final emergence as a West Country thriller. The story's geography, mythical dimension and folkloric allusions are also examined in depth. A must for Holmes fans.

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Witch Jar

Kelvin Jones

£7.73

When ex-metropolitan police detective and psychic John Bottrell returns to Cornwall to recuperate, having inherited a cottage from his mother-in-law on the remote Lizard peninsula of West Cornwall, he little realises that his analytical abilities will be tested to the full. On the very day of his arrival in the village of St Sampson, Bottrell's car collides with that of local incomer Melanie Pearson, with whom he strikes up an immediate rapport. When Melanie's daughter, Isobel, is found hanging from a tree in the mysterious Hob's Wood, her death is at first thought to be another suicide. But when Bottrell meets Ian Glenister, a former Metropolitan police colleague, assigned to investigate Isobel's death, he learns that foul play is suspected in the deaths of two other teenagers. Bottrell, a melancholy alcoholic, stalks the wild Cornish landscape in this psychological thriller which combines elements of the occult, new age overtones and traditional crime narrative. Witch Jar is the second in the series of novels featuring John Bottrell.

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Stone Dead

Kelvin Jones

£7.39

Ex-Met detective John Bottrell travels to Cornwall to escape the memory of his wife's tragic death but he little realises that he will soon be embroiled in a web of murder, witchcraft and the occult. When the naked body of a young woman is found on a footpath suspicion falls on her boyfriend. However, after Bottrell has applied his analytical skills to the activities of the local pagan community he is forced to revise his opinion. A dark tale of intrigue and obsession from the wilds of West Cornwall.

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Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective

Kelvin Jones

£10.14

A definitive and fascinating biography of the great detective. The book draws on the work of many Holmes scholars and provides an illuminating picture of Victorian crime and scandal. The definitive account of Holmes' illustrious life by an English Sherlockian.

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Flowers Of Evil

Kelvin Jones

£8.35

It's the long hot summer of 1976. Young D.C. John Bottrell arrives in Bristol to begin work on the Somerset and Avon's Special Investigations Unit under the watchful eye of his former colleague, DCI Ian Glenister. Bottrell is soon introduced to the unit's first case. The remains of a woman have been found in a disused ice house in the garden of a Redland mansion, the only clue to her identity being the expensive French mackintosh which she was wearing. Bottrell, a young detective with a passion for criminology, who also possesses psychic abilities, is tested to the limit in a case which involves passion, guile and obsession. An intriguing and puzzling murder mystery by the author of Stone Dead and Witch Jar.

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Death Of A Cunning Man

Kelvin Jones

£7.08

When the Reverend Lewis Trenchard takes a year's sabbatical from his post as Norfolk's Adviser In Spiritual Affairs, he little suspects that he will soon be immersed in a multiple murder mystery. Yet within days of his arrival it becomes obvious that the remote village of Thorsford in North Norfolk harbours a deadly murderer. The first victim, the wheelwright's daughter, is discovered by chance in a shallow grave on Thorsford Hill. When Trenchard's old colleague, Professor Charles Whitaker, embarks on a quest to unearth the ancient hill figures which for centuries have lain beneath the hill,Trenchard becomes convinced that human motives can be ascribed to all of the murders. But is there a link with the pagan past? And what is the meaning of the mysterious esoteric society of "The Horseman's Word"? A supernatural crime novel in the tradition of 'The Wicker Man.'

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Cornish Witchcraft

Kelvin Jones

£9.81

A thorough history of the craft, lore and lives of Cornish witches. Immensely researched, this is quite possibly the last word on the subject.

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Twelve After Midnight: Twelve Stories Of Terror And The Supernatural

Kelvin Jones

£12.81

A collection of 12 contemporary tales of horror and the supernatural by Kelvin Jones. The author's work and style in this genre has been compared to that of the legendary English ghost story writer, M R James by both Francis King, the novelist, and Ramsey Campbell, the renowned British fantasy writer. Often rooted in Celtic folklore, this diverse collection ranges from the perverse to the fantastic. Vintage horror from the writer of Carter's Occult Casebook.

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A Cromer Corpse

Kelvin Jones

£7.68

Melancholic ex cop John Bottrell is looking forward to a peaceful retirement when a man's body is fished out of the sea at Cromer, a pentagram carved into his groin. It's a ritual killing, which is more in Bottrell's line than the local police, so he's co-opted back to Norfolk to solve the case. Then there's another murder, this time a 13 year old girl - also with the mark of a pentagram. In a fast paced narrative, the reader is drawn into a web of modern paganism where nobody is quite who they seem to be but everyone has a motive for murder. Kelvin Jones recreates the essential eeriness of East Anglia during a heatwave and melds crime and horror, leading us into a world of magic, mystery and murder.

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The Criminological Sherlock Holmes

Kelvin Jones

£7.00

An A-Z guide to the forensics and criminological detail of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Provides a fascinating insight into the world of Victorian crime and methods of detection and includes a reprint of Holmes' monograph on the tracing footprints.

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Akenstone

Kelvin Jones

£10.45

Ben held the stone up to the window. It had a curious glint to it, a depth and solidity unlike any common pebble taken from the beach. The grey wether had been given to Ben by his grandfather. When Ben and his archaeologist father visit the Kentish village of Akenstone, neither realises the magical significance of the stone. But Akenstone is a village of ancient stones, ghosts and long hidden secrets. And Ben soon discovers that he alone must find the key to unlock the power of the stones. A thrilling fantasy novel by the author of Odin's Eye.

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