01 July 2019

The Pitfalls of Being First

by Travis Richardson 

Today I am going to leap into the shark-infested waters of controversy. I’m crossing my fingers (which makes it difficult to type, BTW) and hoping that I won’t get banned from Sleuthsayers or unfriended (in real life and on social media) by longtime colleagues that I admire or challenged to a fist fight in the parking lot at the next Bouchercon or Left Coast Crime. It is a critique on a point of view used by many of the masters of the crime genre with names no less than Edgar Allen Poe, Dashiell Hammett, Sir Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Raymond Chandler as well as over half of current crime fiction and a large percentage of “literary” works as well. And, I might add, that I have used this popular contrivance myself. 

Itchin' for a fight
So here is my critique. Ahem, first person point of view in past tense fiction is contrived and rife with pitfalls. Yep, I said that. I’ll duck under this desk for the next few minutes while everybody throws tomatoes and rocks at me. 

Whew, glad that is over. 

Crime fiction is built on the above-mentioned forebears' groundbreaking works. (For what it's worth, according to Ranker those forebearers represent 5 of the top 6 crime writers of all time.) It is hard to think of a PI novel that’s not in first person. Several cozy/traditional mysteries also use this POV too. Of the crime books I’ve read this year, the first-person narrative holds a slight 7-6 edge over the third. (Not including short story anthologies, the books are Under A Dark Sky, House. Tree. Person., Cut You Down, Weight of Blood, Revenge is a Redhead, Get Carter, Silent City vs. I-5, Negro and an OfayKnow Me From Smoke, Don’t Speak, The Big NowhereThe Drop.) 

I asked Terri Bishoff, Senior Acquisitions Editor at Crooked Lane Books, and Chris Rhatigan of All Due Respect Books whether they have more first or third person POV titles in their lineup. Terri believes she has helped publish about 60% first person POV titles. Chris said he used to publish more first person, but the trend has shifted to third person recently to the point they are about 50/50. 

While I prefer to write in third, there are times when first is necessary and I’ve embraced that world as each story dictates the best POV. Below, I'll give a few arguments regarding the issues and pitfalls of the first-person narrative.

Total Recall

The biggest problem is the suspension of disbelief. Stories told in first person are often full of dialogue and minute details while taking place of over several days—as we’ve come to expect. The problem/contrivance with that setup is that every narrator from Dr. Watson to Kinsey Milhone has hyperthymesia, also known as superior autobiographical memory. This incredibly rare and not well-understood anomaly in the brain allows certain people to recall every detail that happened to them in the past. Few people have this super-power and from what I can tell it is usually a burden for them to the point that they are depressed and inactive as they are living in the past too much. While depression is a firmly established trope in the crime fiction, inactivity would not make for a great protagonist so I doubt many of the protagonists have hyperthymesia. 

In the real world, people often talk about conversations they had with others, they might remember their lines well (or enhance with retrospective distance) and paraphrase the other person’s dialogue unless it concerns a line or two that created a tangible emotional response. Like an offensive phrase or an enlightening piece of wisdom. A person relaying a personal crime story might recall a specific lie they heard from a suspect or a threat that burned a permanent impression in their brain cells. In fiction, an enormous amount of details usually go into a first-person story. It’s what readers have expected over the years and an overlooked contrivance, but if I were to listen to somebody relate story like we read in fiction, I would believe they are unreliable unless they convinced me they had hyperthymesia. 

A Narrator’s Ultimate Peril

Another problem is that the protagonist in question, while possibly in peril, will probably not die at the end of the story regardless of their opponent’s evil intent. Of course, this expected for series characters. (Why kill your golden goose, right?) I’d argue that after the first self-narrating pronoun of “I” or “me” in the past tense, an indirect signal goes to the reader that the protagonist will live in the end. Maybe there won’t be much more than brainwaves, a heartbeat, and oxygen filling the narrator's lungs, but the retelling of events almost guarantees this at minimum. In some ways that lessens the threats made against the protagonist life.

That’s not to say that surprises can still happen in first person past tense. The narrator can relate the story while dying in a pool of blood (aka Walter Neff) or being lead to the gallows/gas chamber/electric chair, but that’s the exception. 

Dictation before dying.

One way to get past the ultimate peril problem is to put the story in the present tense. There is no past. What is happening on the page happens in real time. While I know some readers and writers don’t like this approach, I’d argued that is used in visual media—movies, video games, comics—to great success. And let’s be honest, we are getting our butts kicked by them. Also, by writing in the present tense there are fewer letters in use thereby creating a slightly more efficient read. Any flashback would be in past, not past perfect and pacing can be increased. (Of course, how a narrator can shoot a gun and tell a story at the same time is another contrivance.)  

Protagonist Loathing

Part of the allure and strength of first-person narration is the immediacy of knowing the intimate thoughts and motivations of a character. The reader gets a window into the soul of the narrator as they make choices and feel events happen on the page. This easier to do in first person and even though there is a considerable amount of telling over showing, it is couched as thoughts and philosophies that seem conversational. 

But those pluses can be a negative too. It is easier for me to read about an a-hole in third person doing less-than-ethical things or acting erratically than a narrator in first person trying to get me to sympathize with them. It feels like pandering. 

Reading from the POV of a dour malcontent gets old, especially for 300 pages. I am not (get ready for controversy) a Phillip Marlowe fan. Chandler’s writing is AMAZING (although I am often too aware of the stylized prose which takes focus away from the story). Whenever Phillip finds himself in peril, I want him to get his ass kicked hard. He’ll complain either way he comes out of the fight and I have to read about it. In David Simon’s The Wire, Jimmy McNulty felt like a Phillip Marlowe prototype—a knight errant with personal flaws trying to go up against overwhelming, evil powers. But I liked Jimmy over Phillip because I watched him through action and if he ever philosophized it was through dialogue and his views could get countered by other characters.

The Wire Jimmy McNulty.jpg
Sometimes an update is better than the original.

Evangelism Fatigue 

Too much evangelizing from a character’s POV about certain philosophies or political issues can also turn me off if it is repeated like a drumbeat. This problem happens in both first and third, but I think it is easier to fall into the trap in first because the narrator is thinking about a certain issue. I don’t mind a character having political or religious beliefs that they discuss every so often, but when they try to convince the reader to convert to their ways through repetition, I get turned off. 

I took 3 required philosophy classes in college and I hated them (which I didn’t expect). Either I disagreed with the philosopher and had to read a book of arguments I didn’t care for. Or I agreed, but still had to read a book of something I already supported since page 10. This happens in fiction sometimes too. A statement here or there is fine and showing hypocrisy, corruption, power of faith, etc. is fine, just don’t bog the book down trying to convert me. 

So there are a few of my critiques on the first person POV. Thank you to Terri and Chris for a quick turn around on my percentage question. (BTW All Due Respect is open for submissions if you write "lowlife literature.") Let me know what you think. If things look bad I might have to carry around a pair of brass knuckles for the rest of the year. 

Travis Richardson is originally from Oklahoma and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. He has been a finalist and nominee for the Macavity, Anthony, and Derringer short story awards. He has two novellas and his short story collection, BLOODSHOT AND BRUISED, came out in late 2018. He reviewed Anton Chekhov short stories in the public domain at www.chekhovshorts.com. Find more at www.tsrichardson.com


  1. Welcome to the club, Travis.

    Whenever someone tells me that "All" PI stories are in first person, I respond with "The Maltese Falcon."

    I've never understood the common dislike of present tense, either. Dickens used it 150 years ago and many of my favorite books and stories have used it more recently. I use it more often than not, along with multiple-third POV.

    You mention many instances where present tense prevails. I grew up listening to baseball games on the radio (and TV). All sports events occur in the present and it conveys the excitement of the competition.

  2. To your point about total recall, unless the POV character is clearly telling a story of what happened in the past, (sit down, Jimmy, and I'll tell you about the time I robbed a bank), then I don't think past tense stories are told from a distant past (be it a day or a decade). I think what happens in past tense happened just a second before it appeared on the page. That's what I learned somewhere along the way, and I've never heard it contradicted until now. It works for me. It might make reading past tense more enjoyable for you, easier to sink into, if you use that approach, Travis.

  3. Best private eye novels I have read in recent years are in third person: Joe Ide and Lisa Sandlin. But I have no problem with first person.

    By the way, there is a not-great novel by a great mystery writer that ends with someone pointing a gun at the hero point blank and pulling the trigger. Title available on request.

  4. Oops, I should have said that the book I mention which ends with the hero getting apparently killed is in first person. And come to think of it the first story I sold to AHMM ends with my narrator locked in a dark tomb waiting to either die or be rescued and arrested for murder.

  5. I think POV depends on the writer. True, the Maltese Falcon is in the 3rd person, but The Thin Man is in 1st person. Both are excellent. And the Continental Op can tell a pretty good tale, too. Hammett was very good.
    So was Cain: he was a master at the first person past tense who was dying/about to die immediately after the book ends. But Mildred Pierce is also a masterpiece, and that's 3rd person.
    Personally, either works for me. What I cannot stand is 1st person present tense, but that's just me.

  6. Welllll… Let's start with agreement. You're the first colleague I know who's less than charmed by Chandler. I read Dashiell Hammett about the 5th or 6th grade, the entire Continental Op and the Sam Spade stories. The librarian then recommended Chandler, which I found less than satisfying after Hammett. To wit: Marlowe lands a wealthy client and then whines when they turn out to be (surprise!) ungrateful losers.

    I do prefer past tense over present, whether 1st or 3rd person. 1st person past feels like we're sitting before a fire relating a tale. It sometimes takes me a few chapters to adjust to present tense.

    One of the worst examples was a best-seller Washington thriller that used the 'modern' technique of combining 3rd person with two different 1st person accounts, one of them documenting his own death in a dumpster. I never forgave the author for that.

    As for evangelizing, another Washington thriller portrayed Jimmy Carter as shrilly hectoring and abusing the White House staff. Jimmy Carter, really? Even Putin or Rove couldn't concoct fiction that bad.

    Well done article, Travis!

  7. I think I realized the first person insane memory recall when reading Dracula as a kid. Diary entries from different people with tons of details I could never remember in a day. I've never considered Barb's point about the past tense happening seconds after the sentence was written. I was often under the impression they'd made it to the end and then recalled all that happened. That would keep things tense and moments of peril could still happen.
    I forgot the Maltese Falcon was in third. Hammet's Red Harvest (which I love) and Thin Man are in first. I love Ide's books as well. A fresh take on the PI genre.
    The play-by-play sports analogy is perfect for present tense. They call it as it happens in real time. I love what Don Winslow does third person present tense. He makes characters feel intimate like first while moving (often huge) stories a quick pace.
    Regarding nailing a point home too often, I thought Crichton's Rising Sun should've been called The Japanese Are Coming! The Japanese are Coming!
    Thank you for all the comments!

  8. Don Winslow is one of the writers I had in mind in my previous comment.

    The memory thing...I've never worried about it. Maybe it's willing suspension of disbelief--unless someone makes a big mistake that breaks the spell. As for the whole past/present/first/third issue, the writer should be good enough to do what she or he needs to do in order for the story to work. If you can make it work, I don't care how you did it (although I may go back and figure it out so I can steal it later).

    Henry James may have said it best: We must grant the artist his subject, his idea, his donnee: our criticism is applied only to what he makes of it...If we pretend to respect the artist at all, we must allow him his freedom of choice...

  9. Chiming in late, here.

    Quick mention of some personal preferences: I like to read either third- or first-person, I probably write more third-person stories than first-, I'm not crazy about reading present tense and never write in present tense, and I don't always like books that mix first and third (but sometimes they work). I've always thought it would be hard to write an entire series in first person and then write another series in third-, but I can't help thinking of Robert Parker, whose Spenser books were all first-person and whose Jesse Stone books were third. And I liked both series.

    Travis, I really enjoyed this. Great column!


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>