The Ironic Lack of Intimacy in First Person

As often happens, I had a conversation with my husband about a book I was reading and I interrupted myself. I realised that I not only wanted the main character to succeed, but that I also liked her and could describe her personality. This struck me as notable because the book is written in first person present tense. A few years ago, that would have made it difficult or even impossible for me to enjoy the book. I’ve since become inured to it as a style choice, which may be why I don’t notice other people objecting to it anymore. But I do recall that other people dislike first person, whether in present or past tense.

While I’m aware that not everyone who dislikes first person perspective (FPP) does so for the same reasons, I wonder if there might be a common, undiagnosed problem. After contemplating for a few days, my brain tossed up the term “a lack of intimacy.” I tend to perceive FPP protagonists as samey and I often don’t like them, or at least I’m quicker to condemn them for their actions and slower to sympathise. They just feel so… detached from my reading experience.

Isn’t that a weird thought?

Articles and books on writing that cover perspective choice call first person things like intimatedirect, but also limited. The limited nature was possibly my biggest complaint back when I had trouble enjoying The Hunger Games. Katniss just missed so many things that were going on.

In an example like Huckleberry Finn, I certainly recognise the perspective as intimate, but one of the reasons for that is that it’s also conversational. The average YA novel with FPP doesn’t feel like the protagonist is talking to a reader. At worst, it feels like navel-gazing. Self-centred self-narration, like my toddler vocalising his actions because he literally likes the sound of his own voice. As if maybe the reason such a book was written in first person is because that perspective was easier. At best(?), it feels like listening to someone clever talk to themself. Why am I here? is something I have honestly thought while reading FPP before.

Maybe the best way I can really explain it is that for a person who dislikes reading first person books, the experience is akin to being forced to listen to someone recount an incredibly long dream. It’s full of vain little thoughts, meandering asides, in-jokes that only the speaker/author would get, and in the end might be so personal or so predicated on inexpressible feelings that it doesn’t even make sense.

That is not an intimate conversation. That is a selfish speaker and a bored, disengaged listener.

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