I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my preferred tenses and points of view in the books I read. I’m going to start this post off with a premise that a lot of you may disagree with: third person past tense should be the default for novels. There are a few reasons why I think this, but it mostly boils down to personal preference. The stories I first loved as a girl – the Oz books, fairy tales, The Golden Compass, Harry Potter – were all written this way. To me, stories were things that happened a long time ago in another place, and they were told by someone who knew everything about the story. My more recently-loved reads fall into this category as well: Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Glow, Cinder.
I’ve never found third person distancing. In fact, I usually find first person more distancing than third. When I read a first person novel, it always seems to me as if the protagonist is reading aloud their own story to me, telling me about their own adventures. That can be a great story, of course, but it means it’s not my story. It doesn’t allow me to take ownership of it. In a third person story, the narrator is telling me about things that happened to other people – and any of those other people could be me. I’m pretty sure I’m in the minority here, but the characters I feel closest to are almost always not their own storytellers.
Since I consider third person past tense the default, there needs to be a very good reason to deviate from it, and I get frustrated when no reason for it exists. Most of my frustration has to do with the glut of present tense novels in the YA market within the last few years, not necessarily with first person novels. It’s gotten to the point where I will actively avoid present tense novels even if the plot sounds compelling (and plot is almost always the hook that pulls me in). Interestingly, most present tense novels are written in first person (but not necessarily vice versa).
This isn’t to say that all novels need to be written in third person past tense. There just needs to be a reason for the deviation. Novels that handle present tense well tend to be fast-paced and fueled by action. Present tense puts the reader in the moment and forces the reader to keep the pages flipping. It also doesn’t allow much for lingering. Novels that handle the first person point of view well are those where the narrator’s voice is unique and a vital part of the story. Note that this is not necessarily synonymous with character depth.
I’ve compiled a brief list of some recent-ish reads that I believe handled a first person and/or present tense style well. (I considered making a list of books that should not have been written in first person or present tense, but decided it would be too long.) What are your thoughts? Do you have a preferred tense or point of view? If you do, what are some books you think have deviated from your preference and done it well?
- The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. This is probably the most obvious recent example, and it works because the books are so full of action.
- The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Again, this works because the book is basically one long chase scene. It also works spectacularly as a combination first person present tense novel since Todd is illiterate, so this format of storytelling makes sense.
- Blood Red Road by Moira Young. Saba is even more illiterate than Todd, so her narrative has to be the stream of consciousness, first person present story that Young wrote. It couldn’t have been done any other way.
- The Fox Inheritance by Mary E. Pearson. The present tense works best here once Locke and Kara escape the doctor and go on the run. In other words, it works best once it becomes an action novel.
- Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale. This is a novel told in diary format, and it’s always been a great way for me to experience first person.
- All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin. I wasn’t in love with this story, but the first person format really allowed me to get inside Anya’s head. Anya’s got a somewhat wry, self-deprecating voice that works well in first person.
- Clarity by Kim Harrington. Clare’s voice is snarky and sarcastic and she’s wisecracking constantly. It’s a big part of what makes the book so fun to read, and it also makes the first person choice a good one.
- The Flavia de Luce mysteries by Alan Bradley. Flavia is a somewhat snotty, precocious, smart, funny, fearless twelve year old. She is an over the top character and it’s her voice makes these books more than just standard mysteries.