Saturday, February 21, 2009

pronouns and reader engagement

A report in Science Daily about pronouns in fiction and how readers imagine character:

ScienceDaily (Feb. 19, 2009) — While reading a novel, as the author describes the main character washing dishes or cooking dinner, we will often create a mental image of someone in the kitchen performing these tasks. Sometimes we may even imagine ourselves as the dishwasher or top chef in these scenarios. Why do we imagine these scenes differently - when do we view the action from an outsider's perspective and when do we place ourselves in the main character's shoes?


The results, reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, indicate that we use different perspectives, depending on which pronouns are used. When the volunteers read statements that began, "You are..." they pictured the scene through their own eyes. However, when they read statements explicitly describing someone else (for example, sentences that began, "He is...") then they tended to view the scene from an outsider's perspective. Even more interesting was what the results revealed about first-person statements (sentences that began, "I am..."). The perspective used while imagining these actions depended on the amount of information provided - the volunteers who read only one first-person sentence viewed the scene from their point of view while the volunteers who read three first-person sentences saw the scene from an outsider's perspective.

(thanks, Cindy)

While it might appear to negate the whole notion of mirror neurons in reading, it really doesn't. Mirror neurons, after all, are activated when we watch *others* do things, and then we recreate the experience inside ourselves.

When you read "You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head"* you know you're not there; you're actually on the bus or in the bath or sitting under a tree. You know it's a lie. You distrust the narrative. I think that's partly the point in many second person narratives: the author wants you to know right away that you are dealing with an unreliable narrator. With the Aud books I chose first person because I wanted readers to get her perspective--and to not understand for quite a while that she isn't wholly reliable. (No one is, really, but, hey, that's a discussion for another time.)

It's not only point of view and pronoun that influence our engagement. Tense makes a big difference. Many of my students come to a class believing that present tense is more immediate, more real, more involving for the reader. It can take a while to convince them that present tense is actively disorienting in written stories. It's the language of dream and hallucination. It's a distancing mechanism. I used it for Lore's childhood in Slow River.

For Hild I'm back to my very first stamping ground (see Ammonite) of third person past tense. The irony is, the book begins with Hild at the age of three, when all children live in the now dreamtime. It's also set in an almost mythical past--fourteen hundred years ago, in a time and place from which we have no reliable written records. (Not just 'not many', not just 'a few', but none. Oh, nearly a hundred years later we have Bede, and we have a few Celtic language poems that may or may not be contemporary, but nothing from the hand of an Angle living in the north of Britain. Not a thing.) Also, I've decided upon an untethered third person--omnicience without the Voice of God the Narrator--which makes the whole thing feel...slippery. I honestly don't know what readers will make of it, but my sincered hope is that it feels natural, that it snares you, bewitches you, enthralls you, that--to go back to the mirror neurons thing--I get to run my software on your hardware.

* Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay Mcinerney.

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