Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Why I?

I got an interesting question at a recent conference I attended: “Do all YA’s have to be in the first person?”

I was a little surprised by the question; I immediately wanted to answer no.

But then I thought about it – and I realized that the asker had a good point; because from all the examples out there, it certainly does feel like first person is the norm.

But why? Going even deeper into this question – why is YA most often in first person…and adult genre fiction most often in third?

The first part of my answer to this relates back to my post on YA vs. Adult – voice. There is a definite ego-centric (less reflective of the world/life, less put into perspective, a world through the teen lens alone), emotionally vibrant and raw quality to YA voice that is best served in first person to hone in on that narrowed focus. And, let’s face it, YA authors are often pulling from their inner teens - so the I voice really is coming from the "I" of the author.

But that is not the only reason. The second layer to my answer is about how relatable the characters, situations and worlds actually are.

A cheating boyfriend, new kid at school, alcoholic mom - things featured in reality we can relate to and understand. But a snarky miss toting from one glamorous ballroom to the next, swept away in an elegant waltz…and then diving out the window in chase of a jewel thief? Not so much easy to relate to.

Let's look at some more examples:

  1. Contemporary YA deals with themes and situations that are directly relatable – and it’s almost always in first person.
  2. Lest you think all contemporary should be relateable, however: contemporary romance, despite being set in our world, often features a situation we can't relate to at all - love at first lust (...ok, sight), and a clean, happy ending. We are reading these stories HOPING we'll have it...but we can't really relate to it.
  3. Adult genre fiction is often pure fantasy (not something we'd likely have happen in real life) - and it is most often in third person.
  4. Genre YA, too (more commercial, fantastical novels) tends to feature more third person – again, I'll argue, because they are harder to relate to.
  5. However, again, lest you think all fantasy is not relatable: Dystopian YA, despite being far from situationally relateable, draws on many of our own fears – we can directly relate to what is going on, because so many of us have felt the same way - and so it’s not hard to see why so much of it is written in first person.

There's clearly no hard and fast rule. But my take on it is that a voice in first person allows the reader to actively be a part of the story in a directly relatable way; a voice in third person allows the reader to be just as absorbed - but like watching a movie rather than playing a virtual reality game.

Quite simply: if you’re reading I in a novel, you’d better be able to put yourself in I’s shoes.

So, what to take away from this?

If you’re debating whether or not your novel suits better in first or third – ask yourself what your end goal is. If you want your readers to have a more direct and intimate experience, first would be a better fit.

But if you want your readers to truly escape, release all inhibitions and disbelief grounded in our reality, give third a try.

You can always find and replace it back.


  1. Thanks for this. I've got a flip-flop question. My first & second ms I wrote in first person, mainly because the heroine's voice spoke to me that way. The first was YA, no biggie, but my first ms so I put it under the bed, labeled "experience." My 2nd ms is an adult genre, humorous romantic suspense, and after I wrote it, I realized 1st person is a little unusual (or so I inferred when my contest critiquers liked my voice but called it "strong"). Now I'm on my third ms in adult genre and trying third person w/multiple POV. It's going all right, but feels more generic. How hard is it to break into adult genre (romance) in 1st person? Is 1st too YA for adult now? Thanks! I enjoy your blog.

  2. This was a great post--I write YA, sometimes in 1st person, but what I'm working on right now is in 3rd. And I honestly couldn't ever think of writing it in 1st. But yeah, there's so much 1st person in YA that it almost seems like 3rd is a little taboo.

  3. If you were reading a ms written in one POV, but felt another POV would better suit it, is that a revision you would suggest to an author, or would that be a reason to reject the ms?

  4. This is an interesting perspective on a topic I've been discussing with my writer friends a lot these days. A former member of my critique group couldn't understand why his contemporary YA novel written in third person garnered nothing but rejections, while most of the fantasy/sci-fi/dystopian titles he'd read were written in third person.

  5. Dear Natalie,

    When I wrote my first book I wasn't writing to fit into any particular genre... is that wrong? I mean, I was just writing straight from my heart. I really just hoped that someone would connect with my work.... is that ok? I mean, I knew it fell vaguely into philosophy but I wasn't really bothered about the genre at all... !!!

  6. Larissa - it is nearly impossible to sell a romance in first person. Don't make your journey an uphill battle.

    Ms. Snip -I would never reject a manuscript just because it seems to be in the wrong point of view, but if I'm not connecting...I'm just not connecting. Just another reason to send in your BEST work!

    Kitty - I'm going to borrow your comment for a new post...


  7. This was a great post for me. This is the first time I've seen the reasons for different POV set out so clearly. Thanks!

  8. I just finished reading the Y/A Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which is written in 3rd person, and actually shifts viewpoint occasionally from the female to the male protag's POV. It's just such a brilliant book, and I was so thoroughly sucked in. I can't imagine what it would have been like in 1st person--I think you're right, it would have seemed crazy to try to put yourself in the shoes of a flying chiron girl with blue hair!

  9. I love the intimacy of first person POV, and the teens I've talked to often say that the characters seemed so "close" to them. "They became friends," one girl said. "And I wanted more of them."

  10. Well, I naturally write in first person, past tense. If you ask me, your best writing will come from the style you are most used to, kind of like how people read faster in the fonts they see most often.

    Does that mean I'm limited to YA? Eh, I doubt it. Arguably, putting yourselves into the shoes of another can also be an escape.

  11. First person works in adult novels, such as the Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher, probably because the reader would 'like' to be that character.

  12. Thank you for this post. I write YA and MG, but favor 3rd person. Since there's so much 1st person out there, it's refreshing to read this from an agent. I appreciate your thoughts!

  13. Thanks Natalie! I've always found it easier to get my character's "voice" in third. I've tried first (and still attempt it on occasion) but I find I often struggle to get the story out. Maybe I just haven't found the right story for a first person novel yet :)

    Anyway thanks again!

  14. Great advice, thanks for sharing.

  15. Great post, Natalie! I think you explained PoV very well. I almost always write in first person and I think what you said makes sense. When I write I always want to feel like I'm right in the narrator's shoes. Writing in third person makes me feel more distanced from the story––which works in some cases, but not often for me.

  16. Another thing about writing in first person:

    I suspect that part of the reason so many readers had a hard time getting close to Bella Swan in the TWILIGHT novels is because of one of the major disadvantages of writing in first peron point of view.

    Stephenie Meyer sees Bella Swan as extremely self-sacrificing (as evidenced in the version she wrote from Edward Cullen's point of view which appeared online as MIDNIGHT SUN), but because a truly self-sacrificing character would never see herself that way, it was almost impossible for Meyer, as a new writer, to figure out how to get that information across. So Bella seemed, to many readers, to be wishy-washy and whiny and other unpleasant things.

    It wasn't until I read THE HOST, with another self-sacrificing point-of-view character, and then read BREAKING DAWN, that I realized that Bella was also self-sacrificing. For me, Meyer had learned better how to convey that by the time she wrote THE HOST.

    Since a truly GOOD character can not believably think of herself that way, writers have to be very careful when they use first person point of view, and they have to figure out other ways to get those good qualities across to readers, so their first-person-point-of-view characters won't be sadly misunderstood, as I fear for too many readers, Bella Swan was.

  17. Good and another post from you admin :)

  18. Not everyone responds to first person and third person that way. So saying "the reader" like those are universal reactions isn't right because there are many readers and not all respond the same way. Some readers, maybe. A reader, sure. But not THE reader, because there is no such universal entity.

    Personally, I HATE first person in my fiction. Hate it. So I don't feel "actively part of the story". I feel annoyed. There aren't many authors whose first-person works I love. They exist, but they are rare.

    I can and have related very well to characters in third person novels. In one novel, the author wrote a secondary character who I related to. And I'm absorbed, too. For me, third person does perfectly what you claim first person does.

    It all comes down to the skill of the author. A good one can create an engaging, absorbing story with relateable characters no matter which person they're writing in.