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Second Person Point of View: What Is It and How to Use It

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Writing from a second person point of view is extremely unusual in fiction, but not unheard of. Unlike the widely-used first person and third person POVs, the second person is trickier to get right. It’s more suited for certain niches and 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 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. There, the reader is made the hero and is more able to visualize themselves interacting with the product you’re selling.

 

Why Second Person Point of View Can Be Challenging

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 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 that you’re in a dungeon trying to escape, fighting insurmountable odds or even in a 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 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, and it employs a second person narration with all the ‘you’ and ‘your’ words you could wish for. The difference is that its principal form of narration is clearly spelled out. 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.

 

When Does Second Person Work?

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. It’s no mean feat, but it can be done.

Overall, writing in the second person works best in small doses. Think 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 while addressing them directly, you have your work cut out for you if you’re to convince them to accept the role.

What do you think about the second person perspective? Have you tried tackling it before? How did it turn out? Share your personal tips and tricks in the comments!

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Join the Discussion on “Second Person Point of View: What Is It and How to Use It”

  1. John Nichols says:

    Writing in second person.
    I have seen many discussions of writing in the second person with examples that are really a faux-second person. The faux second person goes something like this. Let’s say someone is writing about life in the army. “You hear the bugle blow and try to figure out where you are. You crawl out of bed and the drill sergeant wacks you with his riding crop until you stumble to the crapper. You have never been treated like this before . . . .”
    To me, that is a substitute for the archaic use of third person “One hears the bugle blow and tries to figure . . . “ or “ A person does this or that. It is also a substitute for first person plural. “ We would hear the bugle blow . . . .”
    Any of these could be difficult to sustain for long, but some have done it.
    My favorite example of the purest use of second person is The Portrait by Iain Pears. His protagonist is the speaker. He has lured an old acquaintance, competitor, and enemy to a secluded cottage on a wild island to paint his portrait. The author sustains second person through the whole short novel as the artist speaks to his victim, scolding him, accusing him, and reminding him of all his faults and misdeeds before leading him to his death. Although the speaker may sprinkle his sentences with first and third person references, all those sentences are eerily addressed to the second person victim.

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Now THAT sounds like an excellent use of the perspective. Thanks, John! *Adds to reading list.*

  2. Greg says:

    I was really hoping for an example of a good 2nd-person story. I don’t think I’ve ever read one. In any case, interesting article, very well-written.

  3. David Kilner says:

    Far too hard and disconcerting

  4. I’ve never tried it. If I could clone myself and have more time, however, I would tackle this interesting and challenging POV!

  5. GF says:

    There are not many writers who decide to write in second person perspective. I’ve only read one Japanese novel (the title of which I obviously don’t remember:() that was written that way. It was a definitely interesting experience.

  6. Cheryl Wheelright says:

    Thank you, John, for providing us all with a good example of writing in second-person voice, i.e., The Portrait by Iian Pears. Will get a copy and read! 🙂

    Another good example of the use of second person: Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life by Abigail Thomas. Through a series of eloquent vignettes, Thomas describes her life through her three marriages. Her use of first-, second-, and third-person voice provides different points of view and do not jolt; she is subtle. Thomas’ memoir is a study of the use of shifting points of view, brevity, and emotional honesty from a gifted, intelligent writer.

  7. Betti says:

    Cheryl – your suggestion to read Abigail Thomas was very insightful. I’ve read the first pages of her books, and her writing is superb. Thanks to you, I’m adding a few to my library. Happy writing!

  8. Mike Pascale says:

    Good stuff. Although for me, the most familiar and common use of second person is when the reader is a character. This is much better suited for horror (and horrors of war) tales. “You rise from your grave and you hunger! The taste of human flesh seduces you…” and so on. I used it in a short zombie tale for an anthology and had a blast.

    EC’s horror line was one of the best–and my favorite–at this occasional usage, with legendary writers like Al Feldstein, Carl Wessler and of course Harvey Kurtzman (in his classic war titles FRONTLINE COMBAT and TWO-FISTED TALES). Later, Stan Lee made entertaining (if scarce) use of it for his Atlas titles, and later Marvel monster tales.

    I’ve never read a novel-length use of it, though; as you note, it would be a difficult slog for both writer and reader to sustain.

  9. anon says:

    Homestuck is written like this (second person present tense) this in a parody of text-adventures games, but with “you” typically referring to a clear viewpoint character, often with a distinct voice and perspective. It works surprisingly well!

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