by Marsha Qualey
I’m in the process of revising a manuscript now, changing the point of view from a first person narrative to a third person. When I mentioned this to a (non-writer) friend who had innocently asked me how my writing was going, she replied, “Oh good. I never really like first person stories.”
Hmm, I thought, as I did a quick and silent rundown of my published novels, books which this friend has always assured me she loved. Of the nine, three are written in first person, and a fourth, which alternates between his-and-her stories, uses both first and third.
“It’s probably just temporary,” I told the friend. “I’m doing it mostly as a writing exercise to figure out some things that are giving me trouble. I suspect I’ll go back.”
She said the only thing she could say: “I’m sure I’ll love it.” We then quickly turned our attention to the café menus in front of us.
Apparently she’s not the only reader in the world that has an immediate negative reaction to first person narratives. I’ve often heard writers complain about the difficulties when using a first-person POV, but I’d never before been confronted by a reader’s sweeping dismissal. I began to do a little unscientific polling, asking, What’s your reaction when you open a novel and discover the “I?”
The “I” haters, while not comprising a majority or even a substantial minority of the couple dozen people I questioned, are, however, a vociferous bunch. While some people I talked to couldn’t articulate why they disliked the first person POV, many—most—shared a single reason for their aversion: They hated the self-absorption, the incessant I, my, me.
One anti-“I” directed me to an archived online discussion of the subject. Like my person-to-person conversations, this online discussion among librarians and other children’s book world mavens was an eye-opener for this YA author. Many of the people admitted to a long-held dislike of the first person POV, and some confessed to going through stages where they simply did not read novels written in first person. I was especially struck by one gavel-pounding assessment of a particular book: “It would have been better in third person.”
Well … no. It would of course be a different story; therefore, no judgment of it being better or worse would be valid.
It’s impossible to talk about YA fiction without discussing the first person narrative as it’s so prevalent. Why do we YA writers use it so much, especially at apparent risk (I now know) of immediately distancing some vocal critics and children’s literature gatekeepers?
A strong narrative voice is the most elusive element of a story. And the decision to use one POV or another is perhaps the most important decision a writer makes. I have many students who tell me they simply hear the story one way or that it comes more readily in a certain POV. Fine, I usually say. Meanwhile, your next assignment is to rewrite this chapter in a different POV.
(A covering-my-ass aside: Yes I know that there’s more to POV than just the first/third/second person stance, but it’s a useful shorthand, so when I say “POV” here, that’s all I mean.)
One of the first and most persuasive reasons for going with first-person when writing a YA is that the narrow scope is a natural fit for a teen protagonist. No matter the challenges and experiences these fictional young men and women tackle (and lord knows we well-meaning adult writers throw a lot their way) an honest portrait of a teen must take into account his/her limited experience and still-unfolding physical and emotional development. Most teens live a first-person worldview.
Writing in first also helps to keep the well-meaning adult out of the story. It’s so tempting to make things better for these fictional teens we create and then trouble. But if you add too much adult insight into the mix the whole thing goes rank. The extreme limitations of the first POV helps to rein in the adult.
First person narrators are of course wonderfully unreliable, and this is another reason why I think it’s such a terrific voice for teen fiction. I’ve been getting letters and email from teen readers for almost twenty years, and I continue to be struck by the different things they pull out of my novels. Obviously, as I discussed earlier, teens are still developmentally unfinished. Just as obvious, each one matures at his or her own speed. As a result, some teens read at the surface, seeing and understanding things only as the narrator shares them. Others are able to distance themselves from the narrator, seeing around the corners and filling in blanks. They may all love the same novel, but they’re responding to different stories.
First person narratives are both easier and harder to read. There is the immediacy of a voice in full-throttle monologue; on the other hand, there is the puzzle of things that are necessarily unstated, unseen, avoided, or misunderstood. And for the same reason, first person narratives are both easier and harder to write. A monologue is a splendid way to quickly develop a character and sculpt a voice. On the other hand, it’s so easy to slip up and include a comment or thought or observation that the narrator would not make or think or see or feel at that moment—or any moment—in the story.
For this writer at this point in her writing life, the first person narrative is a favorite tool and a favorite challenge. I love creating a voice and letting it loose. I love the puzzle of figuring out how to include information and emotions without violating the rules for a very limited POV. But mostly I think I respond to a first person POV in much the same way as many readers do. I relish the intensive exploration into a single character’s mind and heart and I love discovering how she or he sees the world. Ultimately, it’s not the “I” that snares me, it’s the eye.
Marsha Qualey is the author of several young adult novels and is on the faculty of Hamline University’s low-residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. Her books have appeared on numerous best-of-the-year lists, including ALA Quick Picks and Best Books for Young Adults, IRA Young Adults’ Choices, New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age, and School Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year. Her novel Thin Ice was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America.