Difficult Empathy. The Effect of Narrative Perspective on Readers’ Engagement with a First-Person Narrator

Caspar J. van Lissa, Marco Caracciolo, Thom van Duuren, Bram van Leuveren

Abstract


Many claims have been advanced about the effects of specific narrative strategies on readers’ engagement with characters, but the available evidence is still limited. One question in particular stands out in the current debate. Is first-person narrative more or less conducive to empathy and trust for the protagonist than third-person, internally focalized narrative? This essay tackles this question by examining the effect of narrative perspective on readers’ responses to a complex, and potentially unreliable, character. To this end, we conducted an experimental study with 76 Dutch high-school students. Contrary to our predictions, the manipulation of narrative perspective did not affect empathy for the character, but did affect trust. We suggest that the increase in trust in third-person narrative depends on the external narrator’s authority, which validates the perspective of the protagonist. The essay discusses these and other findings, combining experimental research with a qualitative analysis of readers’ comments on the character.