When I started writing the Cal Claxton mystery series, I had this vague notion of my protagonist, a burned out ex-prosecutor from L.A. who had moved to the Oregon wine country to start a one-man law practice in the aftermath of his wife’s suicide. I began writing the first book (a book that rests in a drawer, never to see the light of day) in first- person POV, as we say in the biz. This means the story is being told directly by Cal, so he refers to himself as “I” in the book. I did this, to be honest, without giving it much thought since I was a writing novice to say the most.
Little did I realize how significant that decision was.
As I began to tell Cal’s story in that first book, I could simply place myself in his head and “see” the story unfold from his point of view. This was great for helping me bond with my protagonist. As I began to see him more clearly, it was as if his thoughts and feelings emanated from him rather than me. What would Cal do in this situation? After a while, I didn’t have to think about that question as much. I just knew. First-person POV gave me that intimacy.
But, wait. I quickly learned that there’s a price to pay for this intimacy. Since I’m telling the story strictly from Cal’s point of view, the plot can only advance through what he directly sees and does. For a mystery with a complex plot and lots of twists and turns, this can be a daunting limitation. Had I chosen to tell the story using a narrator who knows all and sees all (called an Omniscient Narrator in the biz) I could roam around the story and tell it from multiple points of view. Such flexibility! Tempting, to say the least.
I began writing my first published book, Matters of Doubt, in first person POV. After slugging through about twenty chapters and wondering if I could pull it off, I began rewriting what I had using an omniscient narrator. Sure enough, it was easier to move about the story, which involved a couple of murders and a bunch of unruly, headstrong characters, all vying to take charge. If I needed the reader to know about an important clue, I could simply have the narrator reveal it. No problemo.
It was around chapter 12 of the rewrite when I had the epiphany. I remember that moment well. I stopped in mid-sentence, pushed myself away from the keyboard, and said out loud, “I’m not doing this!”
Sure, it was easier to tell the story, which was important for a writer like me, who sucks at outlining. Sure, I could plant clues and see a few more chapters ahead. But, I had lost that intimacy with my protagonist, Cal Claxton. It was as if he had become simply one of many players in the story. I didn’t want this. I wanted the story to be his story, and I wanted the reader to experience it through his eyes and nobody else’s.
The beauty of writing, of course, is that, aside from grammar, there really aren’t any rules. Some writers, probably most, use an omniscient narrator to tell their tale. I’ll stick to first-person, thank you