Perspective (a reading/writing post)

I’m not a fan of first-person perspective in fiction. I’m so not a fan that it’s a strike against any book I’m thinking about reading. I do read some first person stories but it’s always despite the choice of perspective.

Recently, because I’ve been paying more attention to a genre where first-person is very common, I’ve started trying to understand why I dislike it so much.

It’s supposed to be more intimate but I’ve always found it very distancing. I always have trouble assigning an identity to the protagonist, and I’d certainly have trouble picking them out of a lineup. This may be because it seems to mostly be used for a very small set of character types: the tough, experienced problem-solver, spiritually descended from the stars of detective fiction. The first person narratives that I do enjoy inevitably establish a strong character identity very early on, so I’m not flailing trying to assign meaningful descriptors to the narrator.

I also don’t like only seeing what the protagonist is aware of, or should be aware of– if they’re mentioning it in a narration, I assume they’re processing it. It’s harder for an author to show me things about the character that they’re not aware of, or flaws in the character’s self-image, or delusions they might hold (as delusions). It’s not impossible, but I think it takes a higher degree of writing skill. Technically the same thing is true with a very tightly bound third-person narrative, and yet I’ve encountered strong flawed and deluded characters more often that way. I’m not sure why, except possibly simply the skill of the different writers involved.

I suppose that I never read first person narratives and imagine, even for a moment, that the ‘I’ in question is me.  At best, it’s a story being told to me by a friend. I’m very aware of choices the author makes in revealing information. In contrast, third person narratives seem as invisible as ‘he said’, pure story, with me riding just behind the protagonist’s shoulder. I don’t waste time thinking about the protagonist because the protagonist is the story, rather than being hidden behind the story.

Incidentally, the best way to make me identify with a protagonist is second person narration. In standard fiction, that’s so rare that it tends to cancel out its advantages. But it shows up in games. And even in games where the ‘you’ has an identity separate from me, I still identify with them enormously. Curious, eh?

Somewhere out there, I read a paper or website discussing this very thing, and talking about psychological reasons that people (not just me, but you, and he) might be repelled by first person (rather than drawn closer). This website also discussed which verb tense felt the most immediate– and it wasn’t present tense.

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