Most people think that after their high school reading proficiency test, they’re in the clear, but the truth is that no one ever stops learning how to read. Every book is its own lesson in how to read that particular book. Readers have become accustomed to certain literary techniques and they recognize them quickly, adjusting their reading to the subtle cues the writer leaves for them.
The perspective from which a fictional story is narrated is a prime example of this—it is presented immediately and is constant throughout the piece, it sets the mood of the whole work, and it is all too often an underutilized tool of the writing craft. While there is some disagreement within the literary community as to how many different points of view are available to a writer, alternative forms of narration have received particular attention lately. Books like Caroline Kepnes’s You and Hidden Bodiesare creating waves for innovative approaches to narration.
First person narration is arguably the most widely used form of narration and in recent years the literary world has been flooded with the many egocentric “I” voices of the YA genre. There are a few theories as to why first person is so common:
- First person narration allows the reader to relate to the character very easily as all events are conveyed through the eyes—and tinted by the emotions of—the main character.
- The reader is able to understand the motivations and reasoning of the character without the need for lengthy sections of dialogue.
- First person is typically very straightforward and therefore easy to read.
Third person narration is also extremely common. While fiction was once nearly exclusively narrated by some form of third person voice (whether omniscient or limited), it can now often be found in literary fiction and scattered liberally among the first person narrated novels of most other genre fiction.
Far less common is second person narration, which employs the use of second person pronouns such as “you” and “your.” From time to time these can be found shelved alongside other works of fiction, but the style is off-putting to most readers. It asks much more of the reader’s suspension of disbelief as the reader becomes the main character and is suddenly living a life very different from their own.
Some writers have pioneered a multiple perspective narration by alternating between a first person perspective of the main character and a third person perspective that follows other minor characters—often denoted by chapter breaks—but few authors have tested the waters of a first person and second person narration mash up. Perhaps first seen with Italo Calvino’s 1982 If on a winter’s night a traveler, the style lay dormant until Kepnes’s You published in June of 2015, followed by Hidden Bodies in early 2016.
“You walk into the bookstore and you keep your hand on the door to make sure it doesn’t slam. You smile, embarrassed to be a nice girl, and your nails are bare and your V-neck sweater is beige and it’s impossible to know if you are wearing a bra but I don’t think that you are. You’re so clean that you’re dirty and you murmur your first word to me—hello—when most people would just pass by, but not you, in your loose pink jeans, a pink spun from Charlotte’s Web and where did you come from?”
The first paragraph of You (above) initially gives the impression that the story is going to be told from a second person perspective, with “you” serving as the main character. However, the first clue that there is actually a first person narrator is the use of “I” and “me.” This immediately presents several obstacles to the reader’s experience of the novel:
- Unlike traditional first or third person narrations, this is not a form the typical reader will be familiar with. This means that the reader is asked to put much more effort into making sense of the characters and where the reader falls in relation to them.
- It also makes the reader uncomfortable. Because the first person narrator is directing his inner monologue to another character known only as “you,” the reader will subconsciously associate themselves with the woman being scrutinized so shamelessly.
- At the same time, the reader will sympathize with the first person narrator, because that is what has been taught by other first person narrations. By filtering the story through a first person narrator, the writer is forcing the reader to understand the story in a way that reflects positively upon that narrator. The idea is that even a villain doesn’t think of themselves as evil, only misunderstood. First person just shows the reader why.
This use of a first person narrator and a second character to whom the narrator’s thoughts are directed introduces a new complication to the topic of narration. David Lodge solves this dilemma by explaining the “you” as filling the role of a narrateeon page 80 of his part instructional, part investigative writing manual The Art of Fiction: “Every novel must have a narrator, however impersonal, but not necessarily a narratee. The narratee is any evocation of, or surrogate for, the reader of the novel within the text itself.” He goes on to explain that this can be as superficial as the “Victorian novelist’s familiar apostrophe, ‘Dear Reader,’” or as involved as “the reader” in Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. However, whether given a name or merely referred to by “you” or “reader,” the narratee is “always a rhetorical device, a means of controlling and complicating the responses of the real reader who remains outside the text” (Lodge 81). In other words, the narratee is a character, not the person reading the book.
While this style of narration shows the potential for variations of traditional narration styles available to writers, Kepnes insisted in an email interview that “the story has to require it. And most stories just plain don’t require it, they’re not built that way.”
In the case of Kepnes’s You and Hidden Bodies, the use of a narratee serves as another layer of characterization for the main character and narrator, Joe. It adds to the claustrophobic feeling that allows the reader to empathize with both the stalker (Joe) and the young woman he stalks and woos (Beck). It also allows the reader to get to know Beck through Joe’s understanding of her, which alternates from justifying his action to justifying hers at various points in the novel.
“I started out on this with the hope that you would read this book and feel as though you were eavesdropping on [Joe’s] internal monologue, which is all directed at this one woman,” Kepnes said. “Which is why it’s captivating, because he’s fixated on her.”
And while second person narration and the use of a narratee may seem to have nearly the same effect on a reader at first glance, there is no doubt that they influence the reading experience very differently.
“It would be such a different book if you were reading and feeling you, the reader, are walking in Beck’s shoes,” Kepnes said. “I love that as a side effect at certain moments, but it would be boring to go through the whole book that way.”