One of the very first things you’ll have to decide on when starting to write your crime novel is which point of view (POV) you’ll write in. POV is the position from which the narrating character tells the story.
The POV your story is told in will probably manifest itself in one of two ways: you will pick the POV you are drawn to, and the story you create is built around your choice. Or, you have an idea for a story first, which dictates that a specific POV is used.
POV will set the entire direction of your story, but which one should you choose? What are the benefits and drawbacks of each?
Check out my guide below, with examples of popular fiction you should read if you want to see POV in action.
Scroll to the end for my recommended POV for your first story!
I wrote a story in the 1st person
Your central character is the narrator, using ‘I’ throughout the story. The story is told in the past tense, for example ‘I picked up the knife’.
You may also use ‘we’ if your narrators are a community or group identity, for example ‘we each picked up a knife’. I imagine this is tricky to fill an entire novel with the first time round, but could be interesting to try out as a small story to practice first!
First person POV is a very popular style to write in. Writing in the first person produces a character-driven story, allowing the reader to connect strongly with the narrator. This is because the case unravels as perceived by the narrator; their own private thoughts on the events are conveyed to the reader too.
You will need to carefully create an exciting main character that will maintain your readers’ attention, after all, the world is observed through their eyes alone. What biases, opinions or pre-conceptions do they bring to the investigation? What interesting personality traits do they have?
Crucial scenes that occur elsewhere will need to be communicated to your narrating character by an observer so that the readers can find out what is going on too. This means your character must be someone who would ordinarily be privy to such information about the case: a detective, medical examiner, forensic scientist, for example.
You could get around the obstacle of only having one narrating character’s point of view by writing as multiple narrators. Scroll down to the ‘Multiple Narrators’ section.
A tricky bit to get right with first person is how to describe your narrating character physically. It is a bit clichéd to have your character pass by a mirror and comment on their own appearance, but otherwise how can you give a description to your reader?
You are writing a story in the 2nd person
A story written in the present tense enables the reader to watch the tale unfold in real-time. The narrating character is currently carrying out their actions: ‘You pick up the knife’. The pace is quick and the feel is more immediate. Think in terms of the sort of language you see in a cookbook: ‘Add a pinch of salt and stir until bubbling. Then, thicken with cream’.
This POV is seldom used in fiction, let alone crime fiction; in fact it is a relatively recent phenomenon having only graced our stories about 25 years ago. This doesn’t mean you should shy away from trying it out but just be aware it is tricky to pull off. Second person is most often reserved for a younger narrator.
Some writers could fall into the trap of believing the use of second person POV in their story is interesting enough in and of itself; they perhaps sacrifice plot and character development. Readers will spot this gimmick a mile off.
Aspects of your story may include second person POV. For example, if your narrating character reads out a text, email or letter it is most likely written in second person: ‘I’m just on my way to you now’.
Read these: Though not a crime writer, I saw elsewhere Lorrie Moore’s ‘Self-Help’ recommended for this POV. You can see a snapshot in Amazon of the kind of writing style she adopts, if I haven’t explained it clearly enough!
She wrote in the 3rd person
Your central character is referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’. For example ‘He picked up the knife’, or ‘Emma picked up the knife’. This is the most popular style of writing for crime fiction.
The two main types of third person are ‘limited’ and ‘omniscient’:
‘Limited’ is told like first person POV, but we use ‘he’ or ‘she’ in place of ‘I’. What this means is we are telling the story from the point of view of a limited set of characters, perhaps just one, but talk about them as though they are a person as separate from us. In first person POV we as writers embody the character as though talking about ourselves.
‘Omniscient’ is so-called because the narrator stands outside the world, looking in and commenting on what they see. As ‘God’ the narrator can flit between character, place and even time, in order to tell the story. Unlike in first person POV for example, you can describe the thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears and actions of any character, rather than having to infer them when in first person.
Check out Reedsy’s fantastic guide to third person POV:
Changing the type of POV
You can tell your story using more than one POV. This could mean that some of your chapters recount a past event in first person POV, but the current story is told in real-time second person POV, for example.
It is an agreed rule that POV should not be switched part way through a chapter; this is disorienting for your reader if not done right, and probably quite confusing to write too! Either way multiple POVs should be carefully planned out so it obvious to the reader whose perspective we are reading in and when.
Who is telling your story?
Of course traditionally we tell the story of a crime investigation mainly from the point of view of the main detective. If this is your first time writing, have you considered that you might want to try something a little different? Although the perspectives below certainly aren’t new, they might jumpstart a little creativity and allow you to explore a different avenue of writing.
A Killer POV
You could tell your crime story entirely from the point of view of the criminal. This is one of my favourite viewpoints at the moment because you get real insight into the psychology of the murderer you wouldn’t otherwise be privy to; the motivations, excuses and regrets.
As a newbie writer this would take some careful research into the mind of a killer before, during and after the murder so you convince the reader of your authority on the matter. Look particularly at how and why the victim was chosen. Flick through my Psychology section to get some useful resources for this.
As with any normal narrating character you could use first, second or third person POV for a story told by your killer.
What I love about this idea is the options you have for commentary on the way your lead detective goes about their investigation of the crime, from the perspective of the accompanying sidekick. You still get to describe the history, inner demons and traits of the lead but with the added bonus of how those are viewed by an outsider. Does your sidekick agree with the decisions the lead detective makes? What does the sidekick notice or uncover that your lead has missed or ignored? Do the characters clash?
Read these: Most Arthur Conan Doyle ‘Sherlock’ stories are told from Dr Watson’s POV.
How this might work: chapter 1 is told from the point of view of the killer, chapter 2 from the detective, chapter 3 from a bystander, and so on.
You could change viewpoint part way through a chapter but as I mentioned previously, this could easily baffle your reader without meticulous planning.
A story with multiple narrating characters should probably be told in the first or third person. If you write in the first person for a different character per chapter, you need to make it crystal clear who this chapter is being told by. In George R.R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series, each chapter is titled the name of the narrating character, e.g. Chapter 1: Jaime, Chapter 2: Cersei.
You could avoid giving away the killer’s name in their chapter by using a descriptor or nickname such as Robert Bryndza’s character (and title of the book) The Night Stalker.
Telling a story from numerous viewpoints gives you diversity in how you write each chapter; each character has their own personality and so should sound different to the other narrators. You could achieve this by narrating in different accents/regional dialect and language. Could you include phrases typical of the home town of your character?
Writing from different character perspectives also allows you to reveal pieces of the puzzle in a different way to a story told from one character’s point of view. What does person A know that person B doesn’t? This is a fab way to build suspense and interest in the story.
‘I’m still stuck!’
If you are brand new to writing and really aren’t sure which to pick, here are 3 reasons I think you should choose to write in the third person POV:
- It is the most used POV by other crime fiction authors – you may as well try it out too
- It gives you the most freedom to write as you aren’t limited by time, place or character
- Using first person is character-driven and requires a fascinating, well planned narrating character – this is a lot of work for your first story
Over to you
Do you have a favourite POV you like to write in, and could you tell me why? Which POV do you love to read most?