Last spring I started writing a young adult (YA) novel, All That Glitters. I had a plan, a synopsis, a teaser, and even a first chapter within days. This being far more upfront legwork than I had ever done with my two adult novels, I was expecting the rest of the draft to flow like water, streaming hundreds of words a day onto the page.
By the end of the summer I had a plan, a synopsis, a teaser, and a first chapter. Still. I was stuck. Yet I knew it was a story worth completing, not one for the black hole of the “later drawer.” In a quest for inspiration I returned to the first few chapters of some of my favorite YA novels—and found what I knew I’d find. Nearly all of them were written in first person. Whether this is a recent trend or a natural fit for readers in the stages most teens are in, I can’t say for sure. But it was clear that almost all the more recent favorites of this audience employed this type of narration.
Of course, I knew this last spring. My students had done a genre study on YA books. I’d made them blog about the characteristics. I even polled their opinions of these characteristics and clearly remember them writing how they preferred first person. (Hey, if you can teach and do market research simultaneously, why not?) So why did I start writing my YA book in third person limited? Because that was the narration I’d used for my first two adult novels. It was a comfy place and actually worked really well for my opening scene. The problem with this logic is that first, a novel requires more than an opening chapter, and secondly, I’m not the intended audience for my novel, and teens’ comfy place is right in the head of their main character.
So the teacher admitted that her students (and the half dozen YA bestsellers written in first person) might be onto something and made the switch. And it was like somebody flipped a switch. It took a few pages, but suddenly I was writing from the voice of sixteen-year-old Zoe August. And not just in her voice, you can get strong voice in third person limited, but in her head. I’ve read and enjoyed books that use either narration and never really recognized the subtle differences. If you’re used to writing limited, switching to first is simply a matter of tweaking your pronouns, right? Wrong. So wrong. Trust me; I tried this with my first chapter, and it is a disaster in need of repair.
I dug in to figure out why, once again returning to my stack of YA books. I was pretty convinced I’d captured Zoe’s voice in my third person chapter, just as I’d captured Alex’s voice in my adult novels. I had a one-character focus and plenty of insight into her thoughts. What then were the authors of first person books doing differently? What had I unknowingly done differently when I switched? I took notes as I flipped through book after book . . . only to realize there was very little cohesion. Some used fragments galore. Some didn’t. Some had very little description. Some had loads of it. Basically, each work had its own style that matched the personality of its narrating character. That didn’t seem any different to me than third person narration though, so there had to be something else. Unfortunately for my research, but fortunately for my writing, I had a story starting to flow faster than I could write. Wasting valuable time figuring out why didn’t make sense.
Luckily for me and my curiosity, I did take a few short breaks to check in with ABC Family’s Harry Potter movie marathon this weekend. I’ve seen the movies enough times that I no longer feel I need to watch them in full, so I found myself watching twenty minutes here and there. As I caught glimpses of the actors, many of whom grew up on the set, it occurred to me how much their acting improved over time. For some it was as if you could see the exact moment when they made the switch from acting their part to becoming their character.
Suddenly I understood the difference between limited and first person narrations. A third person limited narration allows the reader to act the part of the main character. We hear and see what she sees in her own voice. It’s intimate, but there always remains a thin veil separating us from the character. In first person, however, we become the character. As we read what’s on the page it is our thoughts, our voice, our reactions. The author has given us, the modestly talented reader, the ability to do what only the best of actresses can: to completely lose ourselves in another persona.
Many readers would argue that a good author could do this with any narration. I agree, but it makes sense that YA readers with fewer life and literary experiences to connect to might need the added boost a first person narration provides. And for us older readers who still have a passion for YA, it simply makes it easier to be a teen again!