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Second Person Point of View: A Writer's Guide

Posted in: Perfecting your Craft on May 8, 2019 2 Comments 💬

second person point of view

If ever there was a rule that most editors and publishers agree on, it’s this: don’t write a novel with a second-person point of view. In fact, that’s exactly the feedback Jay McInerney got when he was drafting his debut novel.

“I wrote the first draft in six weeks during the summer of 1983. When I told my best friend and future editor Gary Fisketjon what I was doing he said that he hoped I wasn’t trying to write an entire novel in the second person. I was too embarrassed to tell him that that was precisely what I was doing.”

However, McInerney persevered, and in 1984 he published Bright Lights, Big City to great acclaim. Set in the coke-fuelled party scene of 80s New York, the novel is entirely written in the second person, with the reader/protagonist relating their story in real time.

You are in a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder.

This novel took the literary world by storm. But in the three decades since, it’s a feat that has rarely been replicated. And in fiction, Bright Lights is often cited as the exception that proves the rule: it’s been done already, so don’t bother, okay?

In this post, we’ll be looking at the possible effects of a second-person narrative. With the help of experienced editors on Reedsy, we’ll provide examples of authors who have used it effectively. From there, you can better understand what it means to experiment with this point of view.

What is the second-person point of view?

Here's a quick definition: Second person is a point of view where the reader is addressed directly. In fiction, a second-person narration is often used to transform the reader into a character, as a means of drawing them closer to the story. When writing from this POV, authors will most commonly use the pronoun, 'you' — as opposed to 'I' in the first person and 'he,' 'she,' 'they,' and 'it' in the third person.

Most contemporary novels are written from first- or third-person perspectives, but many prominent writers (such as Junot Diaz and Lorrie Moore) have written short stories from a second-person POV on more than one occasion.

If you'd like to look beyond second-person of view, we recommend reading this post that has 50+ examples of point of views in literature.

What is the effect of using second person?

In other words, what is an author trying to achieve when they write their novel, chapter, or short story from the second-person POV? Let’s start with the most obvious reason...

1. To bring the reader closer the story

When we talk about narrative POVs, we often mention intimacy — in particular, how first-person narratives tend to be more intimate than third person ones.

“Second-person is a cut closer than that because readers actually are the character,” says Joel Bahr, a developmental editor at Amazon Publishing. “Even the minimal distance created between reader and character with the phrase, “I thought" is refined even further in second-person. In this closer POV, there is no "I thought," but rather this is how you (we, really) think.”

In the example of Bright Lights, Big City, a level of immediacy and intimacy quickly emerges as the reader is thrust into the role of a serial cheater.

“There is no level of interpretation or justification. Consider if McInerney instead opted for first-person, and we had: ‘I'm not the kind of guy who would do this, but I'm at a club…’

“In this instance, first-person is inviting the reader to believe what they're telling them. Second-person takes the ask off the table. There is no debate about what kind of person you are or if these actions happened. You are, and they did, and we know that because there is no functional difference between the reader and the character.”

Bright Lights Big City Second Person POV

Michael J Fox in the 1988 adaptation of Bright Lights, Big City (image: United Artists)

As Bahr hints, the second-person narrator can bypass the ‘unreliability’ of first-person narrators. When characters tell their own tales, we often wonder how the truth of the story might be filtered — either by their selective memory or lack of 20-20 introspection. With a second-person narrator, readers are told what to feel, think, and see — and they usually have no reason to doubt it.

A more recent example you could look at is N.K. Jemisin’s Hugo-winning The Fifth Season. Set on a dying world, the story is told from the viewpoints of three women, one of which is in the second person.

You’re the mother of two children, but now one of them is dead and the other is missing. Maybe she’s dead, too. You discover all of this when you come home from work one day. House empty, too empty, tiny little boy all bloody and bruised on the den floor.

Reedsy editor Tricia Callahan worked on Jemisin’s book as a proofreader and sees it as a prime example of how this form can benefit a story.

“The second-person POV brings the reader closer to the narrator, making the reading experience more intimate and less detached. When the narrator turns the reader into one of the characters, the story feels immediate and surrounding.”

Greater intimacy, however, is not always the only result of this viewpoint.

2. To create more ‘distance’ between the narrator and the character

We’ve looked at how second-person narration can bring readers closer to the story. But often, it’s actually used to create a greater sense of distance between the true narrator and the story they’re telling — as editor Matthew Sharpe suggests is the case with Bright Lights, Big City.

“It's almost as if the narrator's conscience is writing the novel, and there's a bit of self-accusation there, like, ‘You screwed this up, then you screwed up this other thing,’ and so on.“

Similarly, you can see this level of detachment in Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help. “How to Be an Other Woman,” like many of the stories in that collection, takes on the form of a self-help guide. It tells the story of a woman who has started an affair with a married man.

When you were six you thought mistress meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet. Now you are older and you know it can mean many things, but essentially it means to put your shoes on the wrong feet.

(Faber & Faber)

The protagonist here is not meant to be you, the reader, or Moore, the writer. Instead, she has a name, Charlene, and we perceive that she is a narrator who feels intense shame. In this case, the second person POV has the same effect as an alcoholic asking about a recovery program “for a friend”: we know she’s referring to herself, but we can see how hard it is for her to talk about it.

But second-person POV is more than just a mechanism that guides the dynamic between readers and characters...

3. To give your narrator someone to address

Now, we’re entering a gray area. Some novels directly address the reader as a character — but they are not strictly written in the second-person. Books that fall into this category include epistolary stories that take the form of letters written by one character to another. These include works like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why.

The effect of reading epistolary narrative is often an intimate sense of voyeurism —  we’re peering into the lives of others. The intention, in most cases, is to bring us closer to the characters.

second person POV Reluctant Fundamentalist

Riz Ahmed in the 2012 adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist (image: IFC Films)

Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist takes this even further and blurs the lines between first and second person. The protagonist, a Pakistani man on the streets of Lahore, speaks to an American stranger — you, the reader. As the book progresses, we are given clues as to who ‘we’ are in the book and what role we might play in the story.

Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America. I noticed that you were looking for something; more than looking, in fact you seemed to be on a mission, and since I am both a native of this city and speaker of your language, I thought I might offer you my services.

Unlike a straightforward first-person viewpoint, this type of narrator may have some agenda with ‘us’ — something they want to convince us of or an attitude towards us. Cast in the story, we feel more involved in the discourse.

4. To reinforce the ideas that drive the story

Here’s a piece of advice from editor Kate Angelella: “If an author wanted to try writing in second-person POV, I would encourage them to do so — so long as it's a purposeful choice. Is there a reason why this POV works best for your story, other than style and a desire to be Literary with a capital L?”

Iain Banks’ Complicity contains two viewpoint characters: a journalist and the murderer whose killings have been inspired by his writing. The chapters told from the murderer’s POV are in the second person:

You hear the car after an hour and a half. During that time you’ve been here in the darkness, sitting on the small telephone seat near the front door, waiting. You only moved once, after half an hour, when you went back through the kitchen to check on the maid.

Author and editor Tim Major points out that this choice of POV ties with the novel’s primary theme (which is spelled out in the title). “The second-person perspective makes the reader complicit in the murders, experiencing them as if he or she is carrying them out, and therefore the reader is involved in a very unusual manner.”

This uncomfortable intimacy in the ‘killer’ chapters brings the reader into the headspace of the journalist — who himself is dealing with this acute sense of complicity. It’s interesting to note that Complicity, like The Fifth Season, uses the second person as just one of its viewpoints.

Editor Eleanor Abraham also points to Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, which begins:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.

(image: Vintage)

As the book unfolds, more assertions are made about the reader (“You’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything”). According to Abraham, Calvino’s book is ”very self consciously and brilliantly about the writing and reading processes, and about narrative itself. About spectator and spectacle. About reality and unreality.”

As this book is a metafiction that delves into the nature of literature — and is very much about the act of reading — the use of second-person POV is not just appropriate but an intrinsic part of what makes it work.

Now that we’ve seen the effects of second person point of view, let's address the elephant in the room.

Should you write your novel in the second person?

In a word: no. In the opinion of almost every editor we spoke with, if you aim to start a career as an author, then 99.9% of the time, writing a novel in the second person is a bad idea. Here are some of the reasons they give:

It's an additional set of hurdles you don’t need

“I think an entire novel in second person POV would be a difficult undertaking as it can be hard to get right — it’s easy to lose your way and write a confusing scene. Those repetitive pronouns can tie you and your story up in knots.”

— Ben Way

It can be a lot to ask of your reader

“In second person, I think it's crucial to consider what spaces you're asking the reader to occupy intimately, and how you're going to get them to suspend their disbelief. Sometimes, it's actually an increased distance between the character and the reader who's watching her that can cultivate the empathy you need.”

— Ashley Strosnider

It can get tiresome

“I rarely tell an author not to do something, but an entire novel told through second person can become wearying, especially when the protagonist of the story is unpleasant, as is the case in Bright Lights, Big City. To be honest, I've never been able to finish that book.”

— Kristen Stieffel

Your editorial resources may be better used elsewhere

“An author’s money and an editor’s time is better spent when his or her editor is able to focus on core tasks rather than constantly getting distracted by POV issues. Because if we’re distracted by the POV, it’s a sure bet that readers will be, too.”

— Jim Spivey

It may affect your chances of finding representation

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to secure a literary agent and get a publishing deal if you are a new author. If that is your dream, don’t create any extra barriers for yourself that might put industry professionals off publishing your novel.”

— Amy Durant

The few editors we spoke with who don't actively discourage authors from writing in the second person, like Ryan Quinn, are careful to qualify their advice:

“Margaret Atwood, one of our most prolific popular writers, has only occasionally found it advantageous to wade into the second person. That should be instructive on approximating the ratio of how much time an author should spend experimenting with the second person. That being said... my number-one piece of advice for aspiring authors is: Don't listen to other people's advice. Trust your gut. If your gut isn't working, neither will your story.”

Remember that this is your book. If you intend to self-publish, if you don't mind that it will limit your potential audience, and if your novel just can't be told in any other way, then, by all means, ignore the naysayers. Take a deep breath, and jump into the deep end of the pool that is writing from the second person perspective.

Examples of second person point of view

Here is an excellent list of titles that are written either partially or entirely in second person which come recommended by our panel of editors. To see how the finest writers pull off second-person POV, start right here.

Novels

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Complicity by Iain Banks

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida

Short Stories (Free to read)

“How To Date A Brown Girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)” by Junot Díaz

“The Cheater’s Guide to Love” by Junot Díaz

How to Become a Writer” by Lorrie Moore

Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid

“Black Box” by Jennifer Egan

“Orientation” by Daniel Orozco


Have you written anything from a second person viewpoint? What challenges did you find, and what do you think was the effect on the reader? Let us know your thought and questions in the comments below.


Many thanks to Reedsy editors Aja Pollock, Sue Copsey, Jim Thomas, Gene Hult, Shelly Stinchcomb, Deborah Heimann, Geoff Smith, Gary Almeter, Jessica Gardner, Alan Durant, Kelly Lydick, Scott Pack, Laurie Chittenden, Katie McCoach, David Keefe, Suzanne Johnson, Elizabeth Evans, Rachelle Shaw, Will Tyler, Katharine Sands, Sarah Cypher, Williamaye Jones, Trinity McFadden, Claire Rushbrook, Amanda Rutter, Natalie Hanemann, Brittany Dowdle, Thalia Suzuma, Gareth Watkins, Maria D’Marco, Cindy Marsch, Sarah Smeaton, and especially Gillian Rodgerson for their input and suggestions.

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Wesley

Really? The very fact that this article encourages writers NOT to use the second person viewpoint gives me even more reason to do it. The argument "it's already been done, so don't bother" is the most discouraging thing anyone could ever say to an artist. It's like saying there are plenty of books out there, so don't bother writing another one. Where would we be if every writer followed this dictum? The fact that second person is so rarely used is even more reason to explore it. Self-insert or second person POV stories have a dedicated following in some online… Read more »

Linda

Second person has worked really well for me in flash fiction. Really, the whole article seems a bit discouraging.

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