November 20, 2013

Writing Club Wednesday: The Gifts and Limitations of First Person

If you're a YA fan, you're unquestionably familiar with the first-person perspective. It may not be mandatory, but it dominates the category so much that sometimes, it can feel like it is. And it's not hard to understand why - YA is intense, and emotional, and immediate, and what better way to draw you into a character's heart and head than by putting us in the latter?

That said, I think first person tends to be a little misunderstood; I often see reviews or critique that surprise me with their expectations. The crux of first person is that the reader sees only what the narrator allows him or her to see. As a reader, you know only what the first-person narrator chooses to tell you. And if there's more you want to see or know?


That may not be a realistic expectation.

This past year, for the first time, I posted the first five pages of one of my WIPs in the WriteOnCon forum. I got a wonderful number of comments, some of whom liked my pages, some of whom were less crazy about them. But one comment really stuck out at me. My pages are narrated in first person, from the perspective of a college student (sorry, I know, it's not YA, but it's relevant to my point, I swear!) who's just been caught in flagrante by a couple of cops who've come to tell her that her parents were killed. Along with them is the girlfriend of the guy my MC was caught with, and she's understandably a little angry.

And someone said something like, "I want to see more from the girlfriend; what's she feeling right now?"

But here's the thing - my MC, whose head you're in, who's putting her clothes back on, who's finding out she's just lost her parents? She doesn't give a crap about the girlfriend.

She doesn't care how the girlfriend feels. Girlfriend is nothing to her but a screeching harpy in the background. And since you're in her head, that's all you're gonna get. It may be a failure of my writing that you aren't captivated enough by the main character to be satisfied with her alone, but it doesn't change the fact that the kind of character I was aiming to write would never give you the sort of information you're looking for.

I recently had a conversation with a published author friend about a frequently recurring comment in reviews of her book that called one of the secondary characters "one-dimensional." And my response was similar - of course she's one-dimensional; your book was in first-person, and that's exactly how your narrator saw her. To me, that's not a flaw in the writing; it's a flaw in reader expectation.

But just because first-person is limiting doesn't mean it can't do great things. Would OCD LOVE STORY by Corey Ann Haydu have had the same impact and inspired the same understanding of anxiety disorder had you not been directly inside narrator Bea's head the entire time? Definitely not. Would LOVESTRUCK SUMMER by Melissa C. Walker's narration have been nearly as amusing if you weren't experiencing the narrator's lack of self-awareness from her brain? Would the Ruby Oliver series have inspired the same empathy?

At the same time, when we're in someone's head, we expect a certain amount of honesty and reliability. It's what makes books with unreliable narrators - whether intentionally or due to memory loss - extra exciting, extra compelling, extra twisty, and extra hard to pull off.

And when you get it right? When you go the extra mile with it? It's pretty damn cool.

5 comments:

Sandhya Falls said...

I'm in absolute 100% love with 1st person POV. Especially for younger characters, I think it reads more like a journal than a story being told to the reader, if that makes sense. I've never been as captivated by 3rd person for some reason. (Also, OCD Love Story looks amazeballs--adding it to my TBR shelf!)

Dahlia Adler said...

Yes, exactly! That's why it works SO well in the Ruby Oliver series; it's the perfect POV for it because it SHOULD feel more like a journal. OCD LOVE STORY is afreakingmazing. (There's actually an interview with the author about it on Misfits! http://www.yamisfits.com/2013/09/casual-friday-interview-with-author.html) It can be really tough to read at times because you're so deeply in the MC's head and it's not a pleasant place to be, but it's amazingly written and benefits SO much from being 1st person. Hope you enjoy it!

tawney13 said...

There are a lot of 1st person POV and sometimes I do get a little tired of it. But I love being inside their head and feeling what they're feeling. It's deep and emotional and I just have all the feels for them!

Mathew Wade said...

I like your post and it is so good and I am definetly going to save it. One thing to say the In depth analysis this blog has is truly remarkable.
The Raven

erica m. chapman said...

That's a really great point, D. Of course she wouldn't care about the girlfriend! Ahhh OCD LOVE STORY man I love that one.

Great post!

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