Sunday, October 3, 2021

"I am you" vs. "I know you" stories

 Lately I've been trying to read a book written by a friend. It's in a genre I love. The plot is interesting. The stakes are high. The characters are intriguing and realistic. Yet I've been struggling to keep reading.

I've been trying to define what it is that's stopping me from fully being drawn into this book. Perhaps because the author used a trope that's not one of my particular favorites? Maybe it's my fault--I have had a lot going on this month, culminating in a minor surgery a couple days ago--and I wasn't able to focus as well as usual. 

But I think one element of the story that might make a difference is what I call "I am you" vs. "I know you". Before I define this, I want to point out that this is a stylistic choice in stories--both books and shows--and it's not necessarily a bad thing to choose one over the other. 

"I am you" stories are my personal preference. These are stories that make you feel like you are the main character. Often times the main character will be a bit more generic so that more people can slip themselves inside of them--for instance, Harry Potter or Twilight. Some genres are more likely to use this style than others: romance or thrillers, for instance. Books written for middle grade and young adult audiences are more likely to target these types of stories.

"I know you" stories make you feel like you're reading about a dear friend. They can be wonderful, fascinating people that you love, but they are very clearly distinct from you, the reader.  For instance, I love the Nate the Great chapter book series, about a young detective, but I see little Nate as a friend, not as myself.Mysteries, books for very young children, and anything with a contemporary setting are especially likely to fall into this style.

Since people are all different, which category a story will fall into will depend on the person experiencing the story. For instance, when I first watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, I immediately connected with the character Katara, and experienced the whole story as her. My mother did not connect to any particular character and didn't enjoy the series as much as others in our family. I don't enjoy watching movies and shows as much as many other people, and I think that's because my preferences are so firmly on the side of "I am you" stories. Shows can still achieve this level of relatability--and again, every experiencer reacts differently--but it's harder for me to connect to a visual medium because they cannot show internal thought or a character's experiences in the same way. 

Here's a warning for writers. I, personally, despised the movie "10 Things I Hate About You". When the movie began, I related to Kat. She was a big sister who was unpopular at school and seemed to have higher moral values than her classmates, all things that we had in common. Immediately, this story became an "I am you" story. Then we got to the party scene where Kat gets drunk. I've never been drunk, never wanted to, and so I could no longer relate to her. I felt betrayed. I was not her after all, and from that point on, my trust was broken and I no longer cared very deeply what happened to the characters. That was over a decade ago. I hope that, since that time, I've become more tolerant toward people who make different lifestyle choices than I do... but I never watched that movie again. So be very careful about breaking your readers' trust, or you will never get them back.

So, I think the difficulty with my friend's story is that, for me, it's an "I know you" story. I'm interested in these characters in my head, but I haven't connected to one of them so deeply that I feel that this character is me. Which type of story do you prefer? What's an example of a story that you really connected with, and which type was it? I'd love to know your thoughts.

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