First-person narrative allows readers to become the characters as it encourages readers to directly experience the thoughts and emotions of the chain characters. This is why first-person present tense is such a popular point of view in YA fiction. It offers a sense of immediacy because it seems to present an authentic voice for the characters.
While I’m not entirely sold on the tenses used in YA fiction, I do have to say the books I’ve read this year were overwhelmingly written in the first-person perspective, with a few dual-point-of-view books thrown in. I started keeping track of these trends at the beginning of this year. So far I noted that the tenses have been pretty evenly split between the past and present tenses, whereas third-person narrative took the clear minority compared to first-person narrative.
Knowing that first-person narrative is more or less the de facto perspective in YA fiction, I started wondering how readers truly relate to these books. Does reading books with the I as the subject really help readers relate better to the books they read?
Personally, I can see why that apparently is the case. Reading books set in the first-person perspective basically encourages me to look at the world through the eyes of particular characters. When I’m completely engrossed in a book, I see myself in the stories. I’d say it’s a bit like acting because I become those characters, even though I still am me, and not them. The only difference between reading and acting is that when I read, I barely need to move. It’s all in my mind.
Yet there are occasions where reading books written in a first-person narrative feels more like those characters are talking to me. Those instances are more like those times when my friends tell me about things that happened to them. I can empathise and imagine the things that they went through but these things don’t become real to me.
What then causes that divide between being a character and listening to a character? I suppose age plays a large role. If a character is below 16, I almost always hear the character speaking in my mind. When characters are older and more mature, I’m more inclined to take on their thoughts as my own when I read. It also matters if I’m familiar enough with the subject matter. If a book is about space travel, I’m less likely to imagine myself as the character. If a book is about sports, I find it easy to see the scenes I’m reading about flashing right before my own eyes.
I think that reader perception of first-person narrative is very much dependent on circumstances. Teenagers reading YA fiction are in high school themselves, so imagining stories through YA protagonists isn’t difficult. High schools are their immediate realities. Adults on the other hand, already made it through high school, are in college, or graduated, and are most likely working. Their circumstances are different, so their relationship with characters in YA fiction also shifts. At least that’s what my experiences, coupled with the reasons that tend to be cited as to why first-person narratives are so popular in YA fiction, would have me believe.