Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Nancy Bilyeau on Why I Love Novels in the First Person (includes giveaway)

Today we are pleased to be hosting Nancy Bilyeau as part of the blog tour for her book, The Chalice, which I reviewed yesterday. We are also hosting a giveaway of the book, so make sure you check out all the details of how to enter below.

Take it away, Nancy!


I did not begin my first novel, The Crown, with use of first-person point-of-view. In 2005, when I joined a fiction workshop to work on a thriller, I had a setting—Tudor England—but hadn’t settled on a main character. Once I decided to write about a young Dominican novice at the height (or depths, depending on how you look at it) of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, I plunged into research of late medieval nuns and wrote the first few chapters in the third person. Although the plot quickly took form, I wasn’t happy with my writing. The character’s voice wasn’t strong enough.

Until I switched to first person.

I went back and told the story over again, but this time from inside the perspective of Sister Joanna Stafford. A new confidence flowed onto the keyboard. I felt I “had” her now. I could write this book. Five years later, I sold The Crown to Touchstone/Simon&Schuster and nine foreign publishers. Then I wrote The Chalice, the next book in my series, which came out earlier this month.

I’ve since become something of an aficionado of First Person, particularly in historical fiction and thrillers but also in other sorts of novels. In this guest post I’d like to share my favorite books using this point of view and what I believe makes each case special.

I’ve read The Persian Boy four times because there is something mesmerizing about this story of the beautiful young Persian eunuch who becomes the prized lover of King Darius, followed by Alexander the Great. I think what astounds me most about Mary Renault’s skill is how closely I relate to Bagoas, the main character, even though we are separated by millennia, gender, sexual preference—everything you can think of. Bagoas is the son of a noble family and in the first chapter he is a child who sees his father murdered and his mother leap to her death when a political rival destroys the family. Bagoas is sold into slavery, made a eunuch through mutilation, and later raped by the age of 12.

Yet although he is rightly bitter about his fate throughout the novel, Bagoas does not tell his tale solely from the view of a victim and he is not always a good person. Bagoas is vain and manipulative—and, most of all, he is arrogant. In the first paragraph of The Persian Boy, Renault establishes that characteristic while making beautiful use of detail:

“Lest anyone should think I am a son of nobody, sold off by some peasant farmer in a drought year, I may say our line is an old one, though it ends with me. My father was Artembares son of Araxis, of the Pasargadai, Kyros’ old royal tribe. Three of our family fought for him, when he set the Persians over the Medes. We held our land eight generations, in the hills west above Susa. I was ten years old, and learning a warrior’s skills, when I was taken away.” 

Now I’d like to share with you the opening paragraph of another of my favorite historical novels, I, Claudius. Robert Graves created an unforgettable character in an accidental Roman emperor, a despised member of an imperial family ruling Rome at its height. What’s interesting about this conception of Claudius is although his family and even his friends look down on him, we the readers, from inside his perspective, become aware of his intelligence, compassion and his self-deprecation. Claudius is the most blue-blooded of all but a man of utter humility. Contrast Claudius’s perspective of himself with Bagoas’s in the first paragraph of the novel:

“I. Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as ‘Claudius the Idiot,’ or ‘That Claudius,’ or ‘Claudius the Stammerer,’ or ‘Clau-Clau-Claudius,’ or at best as ‘Poor Uncle Claudius,’ am now about to write this strange history of my life, starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the ‘golden predicament,’ from which I have never since become disentangled.” 

Interesting, isn’t it?

Nancy Bilyeau
What first person also enables an author to do is to build suspense and tension from inside the mind of the narrator. This, may I emphasize, is not easy to do. Writers in third-person can jump around and let the reader know that bad things are coming, that the main character is headed for trouble before the main character realizes it himself. The reader can get ahead of the protagonist. But that simply can’t happen in the first person.

Allow me to share with you a longer passage, not from the beginning but from nearly the end of the fantastic novel Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier. In this passage the narrator, the young second wife of Maxim de Winter, has arrived after a long drive to London at the home of the unknown Dr. Baker. The body of first wife, Rebecca, was recently recovered in a boat sunk off the shore of Cornwall and suddenly an accidental death is not looking so accidental. There is an inquest, and following it information is revealed that Rebecca saw a Dr. Baker shortly before she died and told no one. What the de Winters, their adversary Favell, and the county official Colonel Julyan learn in their interview with Dr. Baker will decide the fate of the narrator’s husband, whom she desperately loves. He could either be freed from suspicion, or if this interview yields a motive for murder, swiftly arrested, on his way to the gallows.

Here they have just found the house of Dr. Baker and rung the bell:

“It tinkled somewhere in the back premises. There was a long pause. A very young maid opened the door to us. She looked startled at the sight of so many of us.

“Doctor Baker?” said Colonel Julyan.

“Yes, Sir, will you come in?

“She opened a door on the left of the hall as we went in. It would be the drawing-room, not much used in the summer. There was a portrait of a very plain dark woman on the wall. I wondered if it was Mrs. Baker. The chintz covers on the chairs and on the sofa were new and shiny. On the mantelpiece were photographs of two schoolboys with round, smiling faces. There was a very large wireless in the corner of the room by the window. Cords trailed from it, and bits of aerial. Favell examined the portrait on the wall. Colonel Julyan went and stood by the empty fireplace. Maxim and I looked out the window. I could see a deck-chair under a tree, and the back of a woman’s head. The tennis courts must be round the corner. I could hear the boys shouting to one another. A very old Scotch terrier was scratching himself in the middle of a path. We waited there for about five minutes. It was as thought I was living the life of some other person and had come to this house to call for a subscription to a charity. It was not like anything I had ever known. I had no feeling, no pain.”

What leaves me breathless about this passage is how du Maurier builds the scene with detail after detail, never a generic or predictable observation but very specific descriptions. You are in this room, unlike any other room. The main character is feeling unbearable tension and that rises slowly through the passage until the end when it suddenly leaps off the page and grabs you by the throat. This is a section not so much written as crafted, as if du Maurier were a composer.

And, finally, because I believe first person can also be most effective when it is simplest, the opening paragraph of Lee Child’s novel from the point of view of Jack Reacher, Killing Floor:

“I was arrested in Eno’s Diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.”
There are countless ways to enjoy first person in fiction—these are just a handful of my favorites but I hope you, too, are enthralled by these masters of the craft. Thank you for having me as a guest poster on Historical Tapestry.

Tour Details

Link to Tour Schedule:
Twitter Hashtag: #TheChaliceVirtualTour
Nancy Bilyeau's website.
Nancy Bilyeau on Facebook
Nancy Bilyeau on Twitter

Giveaway Details

We have one copy of the book to giveaway

- to participate, just leave a comment, maybe about whether you like or don't like books told in the first person. Don't forget to include your email address in your comment.
- one entry per household
- open to US only
- closes 7 April midnight GMT


  1. I love reading from the characters viewpoint - it gives me a chance to see and feel things from their perspective, and that is always a great way to enjoy a book!

    Thanks for the giveaway!

  2. I have learned to like first person novels...done well, it provides such fascinating insight into the character!

    Thanks for the giveaway opportunity!

  3. I enjoy reading books told in the first person. This one sounds like a great read. Thanks for the chance to win it.


    1. I read and love The Crown and am looking forward to The Chalice. Caring about the character is the important thing to me whether it's first person or not. Thanks for the giveaway.

  4. I write my books in the first person. Every morning I take off my own shoes and slip into theirs, sometimes they are not too comfortable but after a few days, once I have worn them in a bit, they are as comfortable as indoor slippers.
    I write the sort of books I like to read and if other people like them too, then that is a bonus.
    I am also looking forward to reading The Chalice, Good luck with it, Nancy.

  5. I was a news producer and the word "I" was never, ever used, period. So when I began to write novels, a colleague's feedback suggested moving into first person. While it felt too close and too presumptuous at first, that's where it ended up—and your post (and writing) are stellar examples! Thanks, Nancy!

  6. I used to not be too keen on the 1st person point of view, but lately I almost seem to prefer it. I read The Crown and I really enjoyed it. I am looking forward to reading The Chalice. Thank you for having the giveaway.

  7. I agree that first Person can really build tension. Rebecca was an excellent choice to demonstrate that. Please enter me in the giveaway.
    Marilyn (

  8. I always enjoy first person -- love being inside the narrator's head.

  9. I loved this interview! I personally love first person narratives. For instance, I loved the book I, Iago because while Iago does some horrendous things and is a classsic Shakespearean Gillian, you all most understand why and get him. Thanks for the giveaway!!

    Libraryofmyown at gmail dot com

  10. I really enjoyed this interview. I feel first person gives books a sense of reality.

  11. Fascinating interview. Yes, first person novels are appealing to me. elliotbencan(at)hotmail(dot)com

  12. First person books provide me with more emotion and a fascinating since they have a unique perspective. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com

  13. I love historical fiction of all sorts, but especially love first person narration. I am dying to read Nancy Bilyeau and free copy would be FAB! sggallagher(at)me(dot)com

  14. I enjoy first person narration, too...maybe even prefer it. Thanks for the chance to win. Loved 'The Crown'. nanze55(at)hotmail(dot)com

  15. I love Rebecca! Interestingly, I fell in love with the movie first. As a writer, first person is, for me, the most difficult point of view to pull off, especially in writing historical fiction. You can't use any words that didn't exist during your time period, for one thing. In my work-in-progress about Abelard and Heloise, I'm writing from Heloise's point of view -- that of a highly educated, Latin-speaking, 12th-century woman. It is incredibly constricting and yet when I tried to write in third person, the story just seemed so detached. No tale is quite so intimately told as that told about oneself, in one's own words.

  16. I prefer third person. I like diaries or journals or letters for first person. The authot is omniscient to me in third person so that way we develop more than one character.

  17. I prefer third person. I like diaries or journals or letters for first person. The authot is omniscient to me in third person so that way we develop more than one character.

  18. Rebecca is one of my favourites ~ and I love stories told in first person! Lovely interview and I am looking forward to reading The Chalice ~ Thank you for the wonderful giveaway! Cheers ~ Elizabeth

  19. I've really gotten into writing first person ever since I did some YA historicals, where you really have to pull the reader in immediately. Now I seem not to be able to go back to third! Great essay, thanks!

  20. Although first person is constricting, there's one challenge to newer writers that it can overcome: The problem of withholding information. In third person, the temptation exists to skip between omniscience and ignorance, and I've read several MSs in which a narrator suddenly and too obviously starts to play coy, withholding something he/she obviously knows, in order to create suspense. In first person, the usual assumption is that the narrator is reporting after the fact, when much is known that wasn't known as things unfolded. Thus the narrator can, now and then, jump forward and tell us things that were learned later, and if this isn't done too much, then it still feels okay that the norm is to withhold anything not known in plot-time. (Wish I could think of an example, but I can't just now. I suspect there's one in Cutting for Stone.)

    Another reason newer writers should at least experiment with first person is that too often, they neglect that even a third-person narrator needs some distinct voice and persona. Writing in first person, by accentuating the need for a clear persona, helps develop the ability to control voice.

  21. I love a book written in first person because of the access to thoughts otherwise not known. I like being able to get into that character's head! Thanks so much for the giveaway. I really enjoyed The Crown, and I'm looking forward to this one, too! Great interview!

    tiger_fan_1997 AT yahoo DOT com

  22. Fabulous guest post, Nancy. I prefer third person myself, mainly because first person is so difficult to get right and I've read too many novels where it just hasn't worked as well as it could have. One of the other reasons I prefer third person narrative is that it can (although not always) give the reader a better sense of what is going on in the world around a group of characters than first person can (I love historical fiction that gives the reader a sense of what is happening in the world as a whole rather than just in the life of a specific character). That said, when first person narration is done well I have no issue with the technique, and some books really do suit that style best -- Rebecca and I, Claudius being excellent examples as you've noted. I will add that I think both The Crown and The Chalice are examples of first person done right, and I don't think either book would have worked as well as they do had you employed third person.

  23. I loved this post! I am also a big fan of first person. As a matter of fact, I'm writing my historical novel in first person.

    I loved The Crown and I'm happy to say that I'm on the tour for The Chalice too. Can't wait to read it!

    Please don't enter me in the giveaway, as I already have a copy of the book. Thanks!

  24. I prefer first person to third. I feel like I can understand a character more in first; that I can get inside his or her head. Third usually frustrates me because I know "too much."

    I would love anchancento win this book!

    lafra86 at gmail dot com

  25. No need to enter me in the giveaway- I already have a review copy- but I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the guest post! I am in the process of changing my current WIP from third person to first for these same reasons. Now that I've made the switch, I'm just playing around with past and present tense. So far writing in past tense is my preference.

  26. I'm currently reading this book and enjoying it a lot, the style is definitely very engaging.
    I sure love books in the 1st person, I feel more engaged as if the characters were speaking to me. I'm almost participant then, not just a spectator or viewer.
    would love to win a copy to offer!
    thanks for the giveaway
    ehc16e at yahoo dot com

  27. I really don't mind 1st person. However having tried my hand at writing over the last couple of years, I've found how limiting that perspective can be in some respects, and am now rethinking and considering trying a different perspective.

    nfmgirl AT gmail DOT com

  28. Thank you for your comments, this has been an exciting experience to read the different points of view on, well, point of view, and to learn from all of you!

  29. I think in general, I enjoy reading it first person more. But to be honest, I'm a little embarrassed to admit, I often don't notice the difference.

  30. Love, love, love this post!! ( don't enter me for giveaway- I'm part of this tour too!) thanks:)

  31. Reading in the first-person is always interesting!