So I've been thinking about POV of late, partly because I recently read a bunch of books in first person, partly because I'm working on a new novel with a first person narrator—who may or may not stay that way.
As a general rule, as a reader, I dislike first person because it's too easy for me to walk away from the book.
I've tried to figure what bothers me about first person and it comes down to these few things:
First person picks me up and tries to shove "me" into the book. And so every single time I read "I", there's a smidgeon of cognitive dissonance, because I wouldn't act/think/react the way "I" do.
I tend towards hypercriticality, and when you slap an "I" on a character, that critical judgment sweeps out to include the book. At that point, the hold the book has on me is tenuous, because I'm too busy judging the merits of "I"'s actions. For me, "I" invites comparisons. Not commiseration. This is especially true in books with a strong real-world component.
A smaller problem in first person pov is that there's a certain "dear diary" quality to it. It's showy. It's thinking for an audience. When I read an "I" pov, the author seems to be asking me to believe that the events are happening currently. At which point, my brain throws up a road block. When I'm living my life, I don't think in sentences. So every time "I" go through an elaborate series of actions—I rolled out of bed, the sheets sliding over my legs, tangling at my ankles. My mouth tasted sour and stale, and my toothpaste seemed too far away, I get thrown out of the book, tangled between events that seem current, but a mindset that seems to be looking backward.
Yes, I know I'm difficult.
A couple types of first person work well for me: the extremely well-written first person where the character's voice is so strong that I'm swept into it completely. Cody McFadyen did this for me. John Connolly's Charlie Parker mysteries. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books. Each of these has a very vivid main character who has such a stranglehold on the page it's impossible not to forget yourself.
The style-based first person book: Where there's a story being told in a very specific style, be it high fantasy, noir, or confessional. All it takes is one "I" mumble about a dame with a dress painted onto her body, and trouble painted on her face and I can escape my head. Or the epistolary Dracula, where the assemblage of the letters could have been done post narrative by a total stranger. High fantasy is harder to pull off, but I think NK Jemisin's first person narrative works, partly because for every real world moment where I'm about to yell at "me" for making a stupid choice, I get a set-aside moment where "I" step out of the current events to tell me something mythic or world-based, reminding me that I'm the reader, not the participant.
What absolutely doesn't work? Romances. Stream of consciousness (it's not my consciousness). Anything with a bumbling hero/ine (I get enough personal embarrassment in my own life, thank you!) Anything with a bland hero/ine. It took me three tries to get into the Jim Butcher books because I kept bouncing off of Storm Front around 50 pages. I eventually picked up Dead Beat in an airport bookstore and well, necromantically-revived dinosaur skeleton running the streets of Chicago!!! I gave Butcher another chance, and was pleased with the rest of the books.
So what do I like about third person?
If first person feels like the author is trying to drag me into the book, make me a complicit player in the plot, third person's a lot like someone in a dark alley saying Psst! Here. Come here. Shh. Quietly now. And drawing back the curtain on someone else's life. Voyeuristic. And yeah, that's a bit of my id for you—but then, most writers are voyeurs to some extent.
Thing is, a third person character gets leeway. I'm hyper-critical and judgmental, but only of myself. Show me a separate person on a page making bad choices, and I'll sigh and worry about them, and read on.
From a writing standpoint, I love third person. It allows you to have a character who honestly thinks she believes one thing, and have her body language betray her. It allows a smoother look at the external as well as the internal—you know, in my entire life, I have only ever ONCE looked at myself in the mirror and thought about my hair color and that was after a failed experiment with dye. Setting seems simpler to deal with. And honestly, I find it more satisfactory to write in third.
(This doesn't mean I never write first person. I recently sold a story to Dreams of Decadence that's entirely first person, and for my sins, is also in present tense. It's an anomalous story for me in so many ways.)
I guess the question is: am I fighting the trend here? It seems like every book I pick up, mystery, fantasy, etc, seems to be in first person now. Anyone have a sure fire way from divorcing your self from the book you're about to read?