POV and Tense Choices

It seems like I’ve fallen into a small minority of writers still using third-person omniscient. That used to be the default and norm, along with the past tense. Now it seems like every other book, esp. in YA, is in first-person, and about 90% of YA books in the last 5-10 years or so have also been in the present tense. I really have no idea where this came from.

One should always choose one’s mode of narration and tense for a reason, and a story should feel natural in both of those areas. For example, I love the little-known 1920s Russian dystopia We, by Yevgeniy Ivanovich Zamyatin, which is in first-person. I also love Mark Twain’s memorable narrators, and a few months ago enjoyed the classic YA Annie on My Mind (which does have short wraparound segments in third-person). All those books felt absolutely perfect in first-person, and I couldn’t think of them with another POV.

I first discovered present tense could be used for fiction when I read the late Ida Vos’s Hide and Seek for the first time in late ’92. It was such a revelation to me, made the action seem so much more compelling, gripping, and immediate, that I chose to write my Russian novel in the present tense. When I began my discontinued original first draft of Adicia’s story in July of ’93, it also felt natural to use the present tense.

I never saw, to my recollection, first-person present tense (at least for book-length narratives) till I read Pearl Abraham’s The Romance Reader in the fall of ’97. The book came out in ’95. At the time, it was a pretty uncommon narrative device, and I immediately got into it. It fit with the story and felt natural. I’ve also, as I’ve mentioned, read some Shoah memoirs in first-person present tense, and that choice also feels right for that type of story.

Now fastforward to today, when that’s no longer such a novelty or seeming conscious decision, but something that’s extremely common. I have such a hard time getting into it for longer pieces of fiction, it’s like my brain freezes up and I can’t get lost in the story, or I try to convert it to past tense in my head as I’m reading.

It’s nothing personal against anyone who uses first-person, or who uses first-person present tense in particular, but since it’s so oversaturated these days, it takes a really compelling story for me to get into it and not feel so distracted. It has nothing to do with the quality of the writing or the strength of the concept, but just burnout from seeing it so often. A good story should always feel like it’s in the right tense and POV for the type of story it is. It shouldn’t leave the reader wondering why it’s not in third-person, or why a different tense wasn’t chosen.

It’s also harder for me to distinguish first-person narrators these days, since it’s so common, the voices start running together after awhile. I feel closer to characters in third-person, because there’s more of a narrative distance. I don’t think I ever felt like first-person were more personal and intimate.

Looking back, I now remember I wrote a lot more first-person when I was younger, maybe since I was more familiar with it from the JA/lower YA books I read. But from junior high on, everything switched to third-person. And outside of my Russian novels and my contemporary historical family saga about the Troys, the Ryans, and their friends, past tense is my default. It just feels most natural and familiar for everything else, though sometimes when I’m doing past tense after a present tense project, I’ll inadvertently slip back into present tense.

2 thoughts on “POV and Tense Choices

  1. I’m one of those writers who prefer first person, though I will honestly say that my favorite books are a good mixture between the two. But I like being able to be in my character’s head; it helps me connect with them a little better. However, I’m noticing more and more YA books are getting back to third, so maybe you’ll get your wish and more books will be published in the style you like. 🙂

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