Okay - last time, I was talking about the various meanings of an author's voice, and how tricky it could be to write from the perspective of a character very different from you. This time, I'd like to discuss what seems to be a very popular point of view in YA fiction - first person, present tense.
The classic way of telling a story is in third person, past tense. It might be tight third person, showing only what one character experiences, or it might shift point of view between characters. It might even be omniscient third person - a pov that, I think, isn't used much anymore, though it was common in the 19th century.
Another common way of telling a story is first person. That can be extremely effective - I can name several YA stories, right off the bat, in which first person narrative shines. Mike Mullin's "Ashfall" is one; Patrice Kindl's delightful "Goose Chase" is another, and Catherine Gilbert Murdoch's "Dairy Queen" is a third. I'm sure you can name many more. This point of view has one very great strength: if readers empathize with the narrator, they'll identify closely with him or her. As youngsters read about Alex's struggles, or Alexandra's, or D.J.'s, they can feel that a kid like them is speaking directly to them. That's powerful. And there can be some really good reasons to use this point of view. If the story is really about that one character and that character's growth, first person is a very reasonable choice. But should you use it?
I wish I could find the exact quotation - it might have been William Zinsser or Norman McClean? If anyone knows, maybe you could tell me? At any rate, when he was a boy, a well-known writer showed his father a piece of writing and was told, "You haven't earned the right to tell that story in first person. Rewrite it in third." That struck me as awfully harsh when I first read it. Why shouldn't young writers play with any points of view they like? Now that I'm older, I can understand the father's point. First person is tricky because of its limits. You have to be absolutely sure that this point of view suits the story you're trying to tell. The reader can never know anything the narrator doesn't know.
Then we come to present tense. A story, by definition, is something told; we're reading or hearing about something that has happened in the past. More and more books, however, are getting written in present tense. The best example I can think of is the "Hunger Games" trilogy. This is an excellent use of first person. Katniss, angry and self-absorbed, is not an entirely likeable character, but I'd say it's impossible not to identify with her. She's brave and capable and in an utterly dreadful situation. The first person narrative encourages readers to empathize, and it works very well. And present tense?
That's well used here, also. It's an open question whether Katniss will actually survive the hunger games. Had Collins used the past tense, readers would have assumed that, of course, she lived. Otherwise, who would be telling the story? Collins's choice of present tense lets her keep us in suspense.
But, to my mind, there's a cost to that choice of POV. It's oddly distancing; it's almost as though, being slammed right into a character's mind, we put on the brakes and then back off. At least, I do! I want some perspective. First person, past tense, doesn't bother me the same way. I don't feel as though I'm actually living in the story when I read a novel in first person, present tense. Rather, I get the sense that someone's narrating a movie. So I'm at one remove. Rather than viewing the movie myself - as I would be in a past-tense narrative - I'm listening to someone else's retelling. Am I the only one who feels this way?
There's also a technical reason for the flattening of narrative that I sense, as a reader, in first-person, present tense stories. Flannery O'Connor points it out. She says that, in any story, no matter how colloquial,the narrative voice must be distinct from the voices of the characters. Otherwise, you lower the tone - and you also lose contrast. This is what happens with first person narrative, and most especially with first person, present tense. There is nothing to contrast the protagonist's voice with - that voice is all the reader has. If the identification with the protagonist is strong enough (and, for millions, it was in the "Hunger Games"), there is no problem. But, if readers are turned off by your character's voice - well. There is no other voice in the novel, and no perspective, either. It's all happening now, from that character's point of view. If that character's voice pushes your readers away, you've lost them.
And that, I think, is why it's so tricky to write a long story in first person, present tense, and to do it well. I know I'm not yet up for it. What do you think?