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...
- In a Multiple Viewpoint Novel.
- In First Person Narration using an Observer.
- 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...
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 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).