I’m reading a YA novel written in first person. Nothing outstanding about that; first person has been all the rage in YA for a while now. I’m not going to name the novel because I’m going to rag on it, even though it’s not the only novel committing the crime I want to address. In truth, this crime is committed by many first person novels, so it would be unfair to single this one out.
We write in first person for a number of reasons. Many people consider it the easiest way to bring readers close to a character, and it can help a writer get “inside the head” of a character, encouraging authentic voices. Writing in first person is different from writing in third person, and that’s as it should be. What works in one, may not work in the other.
One technique writers use to convey emotion is to describe facial expressions, body movements, and visceral responses to situations. You know, things like, “Her foot tapped like a woodpecker,” “His eyebrows scrunched together as though he were working out a difficult math problem,” “Her eyes flashed.” And to build a sense of reality, some writers offer minute descriptive details: “She turned her head to the right then to the left…,” “He scratched his head, squinted, then tossed his hands in the air.”
I will be the first to admit that I have a very low tolerance for what I call “minutiae,” all that head turning, looking this way or that, and so on. Some is fine, especially in high-drama moments when we want a close-up view and slow pace, but too much of that stuff puts me in snooze mode. Or ticks me off.
What I can’t handle is this stuff in first person narratives. Seriously, when was the last time you thought or said, “My eyebrows scrunched together”? Or “I scratched my head, squinted, and tossed my hands in the air”? When was the last time you related a personal experience and included such a detail? Uh…never?
Those kinds of details are okay when they come from a narrator, but I think those details in a first person narrative are, in most cases, ridiculous, and it bugs me that it is so prevalent and so accepted. It sounds completely unnatural and inappropriate to me.
I am thrilled when I read a first person story that eschews these details and devices. David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy is a story I hold up as a great example of effective and authentic first person narrative. (I really liked the way that book was written.) There are others, of course, but there seem to be more first-person novels that commit this crime than avoid it.