On this blog I mostly write about what the author puts into a book: different aspects of creating characters or settings. But the reader also contributes to the experience, and it would do for me to remember that. Having said this, something that’s been hitting me in the past year has been the subjective way a reader views a story told in the first person.
I suppose all this started last year, when my English class read Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger. In a nutshell, it’s about an emotionally scarred boy who falls in love with a lesbian. One day, we discussed the book in class, as you do, and one person raised an argument that caught me by surprise:
“Does anyone else think this guy’s really whiny?”
There was more to the claims, as well. Claims like he was a bad friend without any reason to be, that he wasn’t someone to be pitied, but someone to be despised because he did nothing about his situation or his actions. And- most controversial (to me) of all- that he wasn’t actually in love, that he just felt that way because he had never had a friend like the girl in question before.
This shocked me. Of course he was in love! That’s what it said in the book! Why wouldn’t he be? And as to the second claim, he had a right to be a bit moody!
But then I started to think a bit about this. I realized that, yes, maybe he was a bit whiny. Maybe he did complain an awful lot about life, with no reason. After all, even his “best” friend can’t stand him. There was some wiggle room- his emotional scarring came from his parents’ divorce- but not enough, perhaps, to justify this boy.
Maybe the last claim was true, too, that he wasn’t really in love.
I was dumbfounded by all of this. Why hadn’t I caught it? Why hadn’t I believed this? And that’s when it hit me:
The book was written in the first person, from the POV of the boy. Of course I sympathized with him. Of course I was on his side. He was the one writing it. I felt connected to him.
Maybe I’m the only one who does this, but I generally am inclined to believe anything a main character believes. Why? Because they’re the ones telling the story. Their reality becomes our reality within the world of the story. They’re the ones creating our experience, so we have to believe them.
And that can make it extremely difficult to look at a story or character objectively. It’s hard to take a step back and look at a situation from another angle, to notice things the character doesn’t notice. That’s what’s so hard about being a reader. Because, really, sometimes a step back is exactly what you need.
It would be good for me to remember that when I’m caught up in another person’s plight. Perhaps I’ll see something I never did before.
P.S. The book’s title is after a song- an actual, unrelated song- that appears in the book, and it actually fits the text quite nicely as a teaser in case you’re interested. Thought I’d share that with you since I don’t have any exciting visuals or links to go along with this post: