Writing in the second person is extremely unusual in fiction, but not unheard of. Unlike the widely-used first and third person perspectives, the second person is trickier to get right, and more suited for certain niches as well as technical and professional documents.
The hallmark of the second person perspective is the primary use of pronouns such as ‘you’ and ‘your’. Like first person, it’s a narrow point of view – but in this case the focus shifts from the narrator to the reader: Instead of experiencing the story’s events through the eyes of a character, the reader is being told the experiences as if they happened to them.
As you can imagine, this is an extremely powerful way to immerse the reader in the story. That’s why it’s so commonly used in marketing. The reader is made the hero of the story, just as we all are in our own lives, and made more able to visualize themselves interacting with the product.
It’s tempting to categorize blog posts and other non-fiction as written in the second person, as you’ll often see ‘you’ and ‘your’ being liberally employed in those pieces. This is false, however – in these cases the protagonist is still the author, and they’re only directly speaking to the reader. The real test of writing in the second person is describing events as if they were happening to the reader in real-time, and this is precisely why it isn’t often used.
It’s disconcerting on a subliminal level to be told for hours on end that you’re in a dungeon trying to escape, fighting insurmountable odds or even in another city with new sights and smells – and that’s just in the present tense! A story in the past tense would state events as if they’d already happened to the reader, causing more confusion.
Another problem is that readers generally don’t want to read about themselves – or at least, not without a proxy. By experiencing events through the protagonist’s eyes, we’re at enough distance to imagine ourselves in their shoes without being constrained by our own personalities.
That said, in the short term at least, second person narration isn’t just for advertising and help documents. Choose-your-own-adventure is a continuously popular genre of fiction, and it employs a second person narration with all the ‘you’ and ‘your’ you could wish for to put you directly into the story. The difference is that its principal form of narration is spelled out on the cover. We expect to be told we did this, or we do that.
We’re prepared for it. We also have choices to make, which is more comforting – and feels more realistic – than finding ourselves steered down a single track where no-one knows the ending but the author.
The second person point of view generates instant, complete empathy because the reader is in fact the protagonist – and this is a very powerful balance between entertainment and manipulation. You have to anticipate your reader’s every emotional response and match their actions – which is no mean feat, but can be done.
Overall, second person perspective works best in small doses. Choose-your-own-adventures, short stories or even standalone chapters scattered throughout a novel to highlight the issues you feel your readers will connect with most…
But be careful – because when you’re asking your reader to step into the shoes of a completely different person whilst addressing them directly, you have your work cut out for you if you’re to completely convince them to accept the role.
What do you think about the second person perspective? Have you tried tackling it before, and how did it turn out? Share your personal tips and tricks in the comments!