POV and Voice in YA Fantasy

The overt or sneaky reconstruction of the past from a wise, well-informed, writerly narrator is the standard in classic fantasy, but YA fantasy tends to avoid this approach.

(To recap, you can get up to speed on what POV and Voice mean here, and you can read my discussion of POV and voice in classic adult fantasy here.)

Examples of Present Tense First Person:

YA fantasy is commonly written in present tense first person, which is very unpopular in adult epic fantasy, though often features in adult urban fantasy.

The opening of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games begins:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.

I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my other’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.

Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat…

The Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson also adopts a first person present tense voice:

We run.

My heels crunch sandy shales as my legs pound a steady rhythm. With every fourth step, I suck a lungful of dry air. My chest burns, my thighs ache, and the little toe of my left foot stings with the agony of a ripped blister.

Ahead, Belen glances over his shoulder to check on the rest of us. His boots and his tunic and even his leather eye patch are tinged brownish orange with the dust of this desert plateau. We’ve fallen too far behind, and it’s my fault. He checks his stride, but I wave him on.

Even when it’s not in first person present tense, it has an immediacy and tends to stick closely to the perspective of one character:

The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer adopts a first person retrospective, opening in first person past tense with the main character in mortal peril, then jumping back to perhaps a year previously (also first person past tense) and telling the story forward from there. Despite the story being told in past tense, the narrator’s observations are very much what a teen would think in the moment.

Graceling by Kristin Cashore uses third person past tense, but it holds very closely to the perspective of Katsa, and what she would feel and think as the story unfolds.

Whether in first person or third person, or present or past tense, popular YA fantasy tends to be written in a particular kind of voice. It is a relatively ordered, unobtrusive voice that offers minimal witty commentary. This makes it very similar to the traditional fantasy 3rd person voice, but is what some people describe as ‘deep POV’ or ‘close POV’. That is to say it strips away all the polished asides that the POV character would not know or think, and focuses on what they would know and think in the moment.

An ‘avatar’ for the reader?

These popular YA fantasy novels are written to allow the reader to step into the POV character almost like an empty vessel, rather than presenting a very strong sense of character. It is often said that Bella Swan (of Twilight) is an exceptionally bland character, and I would agree, but I think its also evident that the tweens and teens who are devoted Twilight fans don’t see her that way. Rather than seeing an absence of character, they see Bella as a relatable character.

In fact, Bella is so bland that Twilight constantly begs the question of why any of the other characters have the remotest interest, let alone obsession, with Bella, who is possibly one of the most boring people ever imagined on paper.  Her personality is so absent that it would be more accurate to describe her as an avatar rather than a character.  The kind of ‘character’ you get in porn.

In fact, once you start thinking of Bella Swan as an avatar in the tween equivalent of an erotic fantasy, Twilight makes a whole lot more sense.  It’s basically the fantasy a tween girl has when she hangs that poster of her favourite poster / movie star and dreams of what it would be like if he turned up at her high school and felt the same way about her.  It also explains why Twilight converted so well into 50 Shades of Grey.

You can gather that Katniss (of The Hunger Games) loves her sister Prim and is a fighter, but her opinions and preferences about everyday things are kept very muted. When the Fire and Thorns trilogy starts, the character of Elisa is an insecure, devout nerd who loves pastries and is jealous of her sister, but then she undergoes some experiences which make her a bit more self-aware and for the rest of the story she becomes more of the everywoman, although she is brave and intelligent.

The character of Elspeth in Obernewtyn by Isobelle Carmody (first person, past tense but told as if from the present moment) always has an element of being prickly and reserved character, and for all the admirable qualities we see her develop as she grows up, she remains an introvert with an insensitive streak, but like Elisa and Katniss these qualities only tend to occasionally pop up in interactions with others. They don’t dominate her ‘voice’.

If you think of the unobtrusive reflective narrator of classic fantasy and stripped away all their adulty observations, you would be left with what the young protagonist is observing as they lived it, which is basically the YA approach. The downside of this is that making the unobtrusive narrator double as the actual voice of the protagonist makes for a pretty bland central character.  It means that the attraction of your story has to be entirely in external events happening to the character.  The character can’t make very many interesting dramatic choices because then the character starts to intrude into the narrative.

Is YA ‘thin’?  Or fantasy-without-the-boring-bits?

If you are an adult or a fairly avid fantasy reader, you may think this approach loses something–YA feels thin and immature.  However, if you find reading adult fantasy as interesting as listening to your parents’ friends lecture you on the best way to minimise their tax and get more roughage in your diet, then YA fantasy becomes fantasy-without-the-boring-bits.  (If you have suffered through The Wheel of Time‘s descent into a bloated mess, the YA approach has a definite appeal.)

Adult fantasy written about teen characters could often be subtitled: ‘the mistakes and fleeting joys of childhood, as explained by an adult who now knows better’. By contrast, a YA writer aims to write something that could be subtitled: ‘come hang out with this teen character because what’s they’re up to is super interesting’.

It is a challenge to get across the sense of a believable and very different world from a limited, single POV.  To make a story in this limited POV convey the nature of the world, the main character’s story has to be driven by and revolve around the nature of the world, which tends to lead to a lot of ‘chosen one’ narratives. This in turn sits very strangely with the main character being so unremarkable.  Luckily there is usually a prophecy or something around to explain that the protagonist was chosen, irrespective of personality or other inherent qualities, which is typically Cause Magic.

The Chosen One Cause Magic story does have a major limitation: there are only so many times this one character with their particular abilities can be the chosen one and save the world.  Contrast this to an interesting detective character who can be called upon to solve many murders.  A fantasy protagonist who defeats the Root of All Evil doesn’t have much else to do, or not anything to top that anyway.  Attempts to create a new, direr evil tend to just not make much sense (eg. The MatrixMagician (Feist)).  A Chosen One series can extend over several books, if you can divide the Chosen One’s task into discrete sub-tasks (eg. in Deltora Quest, there are seven gems to find, and the characters spend a book looking for each one; or in the Death Gate Cycle, there are four worlds and we know the characters are going to have to visit each of them before they have everything they need to Face Evil).


What about you?  Do you prefer adult fantasy or YA?

Next up: what would it look like to write a fantasy story in a strong character voice?

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