Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The world within the book or the book within the world - Lily Hyde

My alternative title for this post was ‘to first-person or not to first-person?’ Not as grammatically pleasing as Hamlet, but a question I, as a YA (young adult) author, have to ask myself.

Why are so many YA books written in the first person? Or, if not, written from a single point of view? 

It might be just the fashion right now. But I tend to think it reflects a quite typical adolescent state of mind. Teenagers are just emerging from the self-centredness of childhood. The pressures of what to look like, how to behave, which group to belong to, to conform or not conform, increase when childhood becomes young adulthood.

It’s a time when most people start to actively construct their identity, their own story in opposition to, or at least differentiated from, the world of adult authority. And of course everyone wants to be the centre of their own story. I think this is why many YA books present a narrative through one person’s eyes; a world within a book.

And yet at the same time teenagers are curious. This is the age when people start asking big questions about the world and how it’s run, and where they might belong in it. It’s when they look around at all the options, and imagine their possible futures – if they have a choice of future, that is. Lots of young people, of course, do not. It’s a time when, perhaps, the curious really try to imagine what it would be like to be able to choose, or not to have a choice. One person’s experience will only ever be a single voice amid all the options and possibilities and realities, just one book in the much wider world.  

First person narrative is supposedly easier to read, and may be easier to write. I’m not personally a fan of it, unless it is exceptionally well done (and don’t get me started on first-person present tense…) but I do think that every story finds its own voice.

The novel I’m writing at the moment is a head-hopper – a third person narrative with multiple points of view. Does that make it unsuitable for a YA novel? I don’t believe so; I’m told publishers might be harder to convince. Instead I think it’s the only voice for this particular novel, in which I’m trying to create a book within a world of cross-currents and threads and secrets and intentions. I want my characters to feel lost and confused in it, and by extension, my readers too.

I think that’s the way a lot of young people feel – I know I did at that age. But I’d like to show in this book that it’s not just teenagers who feel this way. A key aspect of growing up is realising that adults are people too, in their own right, who never grow out of those confusions.
What do you prefer in your writing and reading – to first-person or not to first-person?

(To be or not to be: Hamlet is absolutely a YA author; musing on whether the only way to escape from inside his own point of view is to top himself...)

Teenage self-absorption...


name badges international said...

First person narrative is supposedly easier to read, and may be easier to write. I’m not personally a fan of it, unless it is exceptionally well done (and don’t get me started on first-person present tense…) but I do think that every story finds its own voice.

Emma Barnes said...

I think it's the long arm of Catcher in the Rye and its first person narrator, Holden Caulfield. Somehow that quirky, subversive teenage voice has become an essential part of YA literature.

Like you, though - and although there are lots of first person novels that I love - I prefer the third person. It's so intriguing to see into different minds, and to realise that every character has a different perspective on a situation.

I also think that first person is popular with authors because it lets them evade the creative writing mantra of "show not tell". Somehow it's acceptable to "tell" when its a character doing the telling - look at the Hunger Games for example, where Katniss "tells" the reader lots of what they need to know. (And why not? It works well, and its economical.) Maybe it's time to rethink that particular piece of writing dogma for third person too.

Nick Green said...

I too have a real dislike of first-person present tense; it feels the most artificial form of all. That said, I have used it once. Briefly! It has its place. Not a whole book, though.

@Emma - I agree, I think 'show don't tell' is an overused and misunderstood mantra. It's catchy and memorable, but a far truer one would be, 'Sometimes it's best to show; sometimes it's best to tell; your challenge as a writer is to know which form to choose at any given time.' Not very snappy, though.

Lily said...

Interesting point about first person being a way to get round 'Show not Tell', Emma. A first person narrative I guess is totally 'telling' - it's one person telling their story. I like the way that third person allows you to 'show' the characters from different perspectives.

Nick - yes, I've used first person present too! I still hate it though, 9.5 times out of 10...

VikLit said...

Very interesting post, I think a third person with multiple POV would work very well. in fact if I am going to read something with varying points of view I think third person would work very well for that.

I write in whatever writes best for the story, I think, first person present does seem very popular at the moment.

Very interesting!

Jean Atkin said...

What an interesting conversation. It made me think about a novel I've not read for a while by Lindsay Clarke - 'The Chymical Wedding'. Which makes use of 1st person (and he is a self-centred, immature individual on a learning curve)interspersed with much more sophisticatedly delivered 3rd person narrative in a different historical period. The two stories are linked by place (and some other interesting things). It seemed a clever, tactical use of the 1st person which doesn't get the chance to grate on the reader. First published 1989 (no, I am not a YA...)

Nicola Morgan said...

Those of you who dislike first-person-present-tense had better not read my latest novel, Wasted.

In my view, each story needs the right tense and pov and as long as you get the right one for the story that's all that matters.

Keren David said...

Isn't Wasted third person present tense, Nicola?