I lean towards books written in first person. I love some books written in third (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, omg, they're awesome), but a lot of my favorites are written in first. But of course as soon as someone pointed that out, I knew exactly which books I was going to talk about.
Even though it might be harder to establish voice, character, tone, and conflict in the first page, you still should. And not every book does it. But in today's market, as a debut author, you have to stand out. A kickass first page will do that for you.
(again, this is a must read. Just ask Brooks)
First two lines: "Ignatius William Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke the next morning with a headache, put his hands to his temples, and felt something unfamiliar, a pair of knobby pointed protuberances."
The first page of Horns--and the first chapter (which is only half a page)--tell us almost immediately what kind of guy Ig is. We get backstory on page 2 which helps us realize why he is the way he is and how he became this guy, and of course we get more as the story goes on. But right in that first page, we know him and are interested in him. We also have the conflict--he wakes up with horns. We also know from the first page, there's something dark and supernatural at work and that this is fast paced. And as someone who picked this up thinking, "I might like this..." I read a little more and was totally hooked.
(I love The Mortal Instruments Series. I can't even count how many subway stops I've missed, reading this books.)
First two lines: "'You've got to be kidding me,' the bouncer said, folding his arms across his massive chest. He stared down at the boy in the red zip-up jacket and shook his shaved head. 'You can't bring that thing in here.'"
This is a more subtle example than any of the other ones I've used. And though the main character (Clary Fray) is introduced on the first page, she's not introduced in the first line. And that's ok, because this first line sets up interest and intrigue and will keep readers going. WHAT does this boy in the red zip-up jacket have that he can't bring into a club? And of course a few lines down, Clary is introduced, along with her best friend Simon, and they're both awesome.
(I love this book. Seriously.)
The first line: "A long time ago, in the spring before the five days of the unspeakable, Finnikin of the Rock dreamed that he was to sacrifice a pound of flesh to save the royal house of Lumatere."
I wanted to use this example because 1) It's from a prologue which are often so boring that I skip them and 2) It's fantasy, one of the slowest genres to start in terms of plot. Yet, Finnikin of the Rock's first line and it's whole prologue (which is short, just a page) gives a quick sense of what the book will be about, gives us the most essential character trait of Finnikin himself (his sense of loyalty/responsibility to his kingdom), and begins building this amazing fantasy world.
Now, I also tend to read things that are a little darker. And sure it's easier to throw some blood on the first page and get the action going, but you can still hook your reader with a great character and voice--and a hint of the coming conflict--if your manuscript is lighter in tone. Think of Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin.
"I was in the fifth grade the first time I thought about turning thirty. My best friend Darcy and I came across a perpetual calendar in the back of the phone book, where you could look up any date in the future, and by using this little grid determine what the day of the week would be."
The first lines are brilliant because it establishes the character, a central problem with her life, and of course her best friend Darcy, and between that and the cover copy, readers know what the main conflict will be.
And of course the other question was about literary fiction. Which is tough for me to talk about. After all, one of my favorite novels of all time is The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Another is Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. Both of them are about so much more than just the plot. They're about the language, the symbolism, the depth of emotions underlying the text--they're about the bigger picture.
But at the same time, the classics that so many of us love and hold dear, they actually do usually begin with some kickass first lines.
Jane Austen anyone?
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
This famous Pride and Prejudice establishes essentially the main plot (this is at heart, a love story) as well as the tone of the novel.
Here are some more first lines, all on one convenient website.
So how about some of the recently published literary fiction. Here are a few examples I dug up.
(This is a Joanna favorite, so obviously a must read)
First lines: "My name is Odell Deefus. I am a white person, not black like you might think from hearing the name and not seeing me. If you did see me, you wouldn't remember me for my face, which isn't the kind to stick in anyone's mind, but you might remember me for being tall."
These lines obviously establish character. That's explicit. The voice is there too though and it's there are definite traits about Odell that are clear from the way things are said, from the voice, not what we're being told. And of course, as you keep reading the first page and the first chapter, you come to understand more about Odell and the journey he's on.
(Another Joanna favorite)
First lines: "God is a slick God. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe."
The voice here is unmistakable. It's different--you'll see just how different if you read on--and it's unique and it practically jumps off the page. Nothing physical has happened yet but I'm intrigued to find out what has happened. Because it's obviously something.
And those are my thoughts. Again, I'm going to stress that looking at the first pages of your favorite novels--and of new and popular debut novels in your genre--are going to be some of the best examples for you.