Ask a reader: Are you the hero?

The discussion on first person vs. third person narrative POV brought to light for me something that I seldom (actually never) considered: that not all of us are bystanders when we read — some readers are definitely active participants and consider themselves the main or side characters (or all of them) in any story.

After a bit of soul searching and considering, I discovered that I almost never “play” the hero.  I am NOT Lyra in The Golden Compass, definitely NOT Frodo from The Fellowship of the Ring, and was never and will never be any of the first person narrators from Wonder.  (Even though I CAN relate to all of them on certain level.)  To me, reading is to observe and watch and listen to other people’s lives.  Whether the narrator tells the story from the “I” or the “They” perspective, I am always an outsider looking in.  This, I suspect, might have contributed to my preferred type of book discussion: I want to concentrate on the craftsmanship of the author, on how he/she manages the various aspects of the tale, and feel impatient whenever someone else at the book club table starts relating personal stories that either validate or disqualify the characters’ experiences for them.  (” ‘I’ would have never done it!!”  “When ‘I’ was in 5th grade, someone in my neighborhood totally was like that.” “There is NO way that anyone growing up in the 70s, like ‘I’ did, would have felt this way.”)

However, now I started to see that perhaps, for others, reading IS about relating and becoming the main characters and putting oneself in the shoes of them and experiencing the make-believe world created within the covers as if all is REAL.

I really would love to hear from a host of readers in unpacking some of the following questions:

  • Do you read and feel that you are the main character (or side characters) in stories?
  • What kind of stories do you like most — totally fanciful? very realistic? uplifting? upsetting? dark? light? funny? serious? wise? irreverent? provocative? cozy? tender? harsh? (and so many more types)
  • Does it matter to you if the narrator is a 3rd person who sees everything (or only seeing through one character’s view) or a 1st person?  Which do you prefer?  Do you know why?
  • Have you changed as a reader regarding the above questions through the years?  Do you find yourself a different kind of reader now than when you were in middle school or younger? How so?

Perhaps there are other questions and answers… but this is a beginning point… Please share!


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17 responses to “Ask a reader: Are you the hero?

  1. 1) No, I NEVER feel like I am the character: I am always an observer.
    2) Honestly, 1st or 3rd just creates a different experience: the craftsmanship of the text renders it effective and enjoyable.. or not.
    3) No, I haven’t changed, although when young, I could relate better to characters who were more like me, and enjoyed the books where I felt a similarity (and thus hated Are You There God?…). As an adult, I can really appreciate and enjoy books about people who are NOTHING like me… (Lolita, for example, or Nothing Pink…)

    • fairrosa

      When I was a young reader (pre-teen,) I definitely imagined myself INside the books and often pretended that I was the main characters — not sure that during the time of reading or only afterwards that I envisioned myself as the main character. One of them was definitely Scarlett O’Hara. And another might have been Charlie Bucket (exploring Wonka’s factory.)

  2. Miriam Lang Budin

    I often put myself into the roles of characters in books and always have done. (I seriously considered a career in the theater and I’ll bet that inclination and the way I read are related.) It’s not always the main character and sometimes I switch “allegiance” as I read. If I like the dialogue, I might actually read it aloud to myself! (Oh! I hope I’m not alone in this…)

    That said, I prefer to discuss books in terms of the craft of the writing, rather than my personal connections with the plot or characters.

    I’d rather read books far removed from my own life/reality than those that echo my experiences.

    • fairrosa

      Miriam, if you have a pile of unread books — do you put the Fantasy/SciFi books on top or Realistic/Historical Fiction?

    • fairrosa

      I can’t reply to your reply.. haha… but here — just for fun — which was/is your favorite children’s book character to BE?

      • Miriam Lang Budin

        Oh, there were so many! Here are a few: Arrietty and Spiller, Jo March and Laurie (but NEVER that awful Amy!), Johnny Tremain and beautiful Rabb, Harriet the Spy, Black Beauty (for a bit of cross-species identification), Piglet (though today I identify strongly with Eeyore). And in about 7th grade I was fixated on young Johnny Gunther in DEATH BE NOT PROUD and thought it would be very romantic to die young of a brain tumor. (Demonstrating a different sort of “sickness in the head”…)

        • fairrosa

          Yay, I fixed the reply chain to allow for about 5 layers. I also wanted to be the very tragic, very literary, very jealous, and very frail Lin Dai Yu from “Dream of the Red Chamber” (now abridged and retold in English as “The Red Chamber.”) I still remember roaming around the garden pretending to be ill and reciting poetry. Very dramatic!

  3. 1. I never feel I am part of the story; I’m a happy and willing observer.

    2. Favorite stories are fantasy or real-life high school comedy.

    3. Favorite narrator lately is a first person narrator DONE WELL. I’m thinking of Meg Cabot’s Mia Thermopolis or Shannon Hale’s Dashti or Elizabeth Bunce’s Digger.

    4. I haven’t changed much, although as a teen I don’t think I cared about point of view so much. My favorite book was Deerskin by Robin McKinley, which is in third person limited but switches occasionally to third omniscient (quite effectively), but it was something I didn’t notice until I was an adult. Now I find third person omniscient distant and impersonal and I’ve no interest in it. And poorly done first person (first person without a unique and defining voice) is a waste of my time, and I won’t finish the book.

    — Bridget

    • fairrosa

      Lately my favorite stories are told in wise, 3rd person, all encompassing, commentary spouting know-it-all, invitingly conspiratorial voices. DONE WELL. As you so aptly pointed out. Truth is, I don’t really have a huge preference — as long as it’s done well. A book I am reading right now is that 3rd person narrative voice, interspersed with many first person one-page confessionals. I find everything works in this book and am totally in love with it!

  4. 1. As a young reader I definitely frequently identified as the main or a side character in a story. Alice is a good example as I reread it constantly. I wanted to BE Alice and have her adventures. Or one of my other favorites, Madeleine L’Engle’s And Both Were Young were I wanted to be the main character so much that I just read the book as a way to do so. However, I don’t do this at all as an adult reader and so have to keep in mind the different stance child readers take from me when reading, evaluating, and writing books for young people.

    2. I like (as you know:) fantasy most of all. I love atmosphere in books. While I have no problem with dark (e.g. Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series or A Monster Calls) my taste definitely does not run to realistic and potentially sad, but uplifting sorts of stories. A good example is Wonder which I was resistant to reading based on the flap copy, but I ended up liking it very much.

    3. Have no preference for POV. Just needs to be done well and in a convincing way.

    4. As I wrote above I have changed as a reader. No longer put myself in the main or a side character’s position as I read. Much more interested in being swept away by good writing. I do pay attention to that in a way I didn’t as a child reader.

    • fairrosa

      So, do you think my attempts on forcing literary analysis on young readers actually are not necessary (not a challenge, but a genuine question) since they are at an age where they just want the stories, just want to be swept away, and just want to interact with their books without outside influences? I definitely didn’t have anyone asking me to analyze all my pleasure reading books. Once in a while I came to some revelation and noticed the author’s technique and was delighted by my own observation as much as by the author’s craft — but I only just wanted to read for fun! Perhaps I need to back off a bit.

  5. As I think you know I think there is definitely a place for inviting young readers to do this. Absolutely! I think it is important for them to begin to learn how many different ways there are to consider a book. One way is to lose oneself in a book, but another is to look at it more intellectually. I certainly don’t think you need to back off. Any more than I do!

    • In fact, what I think we both do successfully is help young readers see that literary analysis can be fun! It doesn’t have to take away from any other way of enjoying a book. Nodelman’s Pleasures of Children’s Literature is all about that.

  6. Beth

    I am definately a bystander and like it that way. When working with kids, sometimes making text to life connections is a really good way to involve them in the text, but for myself, I prefer book discussions that center on the author’s craft. I think I have always been this way as a reader. I’m such a voyeur.

    • fairrosa

      I totally agreeing with you about the joy of being a voyeur! I plan to check in with my students when we go back to school this fall and see what they are as readers.

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