Third is always my first choice
First person viewpoint (I did this. I experienced that.) appears to be an appealing choice for a suspense writer. It’s familiar and intimate because it’s the way we all tell each other our ordinary personal stories every day. It seems to be an easy way to grab reader attention and hold it.
But there are major inherent drawbacks.
Telling a story from the protagonist’s point of view is severely limiting. The protagonist can’t know, for example, what the villain is up to or what any other character in the story is privately thinking or doing.
To overcome that problem, a popular technique among writers of late is to switch the point of view back and forth, chapter to chapter, from first person whenever the protagonist is on stage to third person when other characters are on. But that introduces an even thornier problem, because every point of view shift can’t help but jar the reader, no matter how skillfully done. At every such shift the writer must work to once again draw the reader back into the story while the writer backs out of the story, where we writers always belong.
First person risks making the protagonist appear egotistical. We’ve all heard people dominating conversations, going on and on about themselves, bragging about their personal prowess and their great accomplishments. It’s distasteful.
First person is also highly improbable. Which of us can remember in detail everything we did on a given day a week or a month ago? Try it yourself. What did you have for lunch three days ago? What exactly did people say to you and what did you say to them? Tough to do, isn’t it? Yet first person narration asks the reader to believe a protagonist can do just that, remember everything that happened in a story over sometimes long spans of time with precise detail down to what was for lunch or what people said verbatim. It’s unlikely at best.
Also, we faintly distrust personal narratives, knowing instinctively that people tend to embellish and exaggerate and bend the truth just a wee bit, because don’t we sometimes do that ourselves? This is a subtlety, yet it’s there in the back of a reader’s mind.
But the most serious damage first person does is to diminish the overall aura of suspense we writers strive so hard to create. If a protagonist is talking to the reader, she or he obviously has survived to tell the tale, so the story ordeal can not have been all that serious, and the reader is aware of this on some level. (Everybody knows the last line of the story cannot possibly be, “And then I died.”)
So what can you gain from using third person viewpoint (He did this. She experienced that.) instead of first person throughout a work of suspense fiction?
Third person automatically carries the weight of truth, of authority, because it’s the way parents and teachers and preachers and newscasters and writers have long presented factual information and stories of all kinds to us. It is immediately more believable, and sticking to it avoids jarring the reader.
We can use the third person voice to heap praise on our protagonist, either in straight narration or through our other characters, with no risk of displaying egotism.
We can effectively use cutaways in third person to build suspense, moving easily from looking over the protagonist’s shoulder on this side of town to probing the innermost dark recesses of the villain’s mind on the other side of town. As the story builds we can shorten the cutaways, along with our other tricks, to heighten the suspense. And it’s always a thrill for the reader to know something dangerous the protagonist does not, such as an armed killer approaching our unsuspecting hero from out of the night behind him.
Any time we want to get right inside a character’s mind, we can simply use italics, like this:
Jack spun to see a tall figure in the alleyway shadows. A figure raising an arm. A glint of moonlight on steel.
Dammit, my gun’s in the car, was all Jack had time to think. He . . .
That’s every bit as intimate and dramatic as relating such a scene in first person would be, and it carries the added suspenseful benefit of serious uncertainty. We want the reader to be thinking, Will Jack survive this encounter?
With a touch of skill, third person will accomplish anything first person can, and considerably more besides.
Third person is my first choice of viewpoint every time.