Eight Points of View -- Second Person22 Aug 2018
This is the sixth and final part of my series on point of view. If you haven’t been following along, I recommend starting from the beginning with part 1. If you want to catch up, you can read part 5 here.
Throughout this series, I’ve described the relationship the writer has with the story – the roles they assume to write it. The reader’s relationship to the story has been irrelevant. That’s not the case with our final two points of view: second person and second person observer-narrator. You can even say these points of view swap the emphasis between reader and writer.
Stories written in second person aim to place the reader in the role of a character within the story. That is the “you” that the story is actually addressing – the character, not the reader themselves. In contrast, the writer doesn’t have a distinct persona that they are narrating as. The writer becomes the filter through which the reader experiences the fictional world – both the external events and setting and the inner world of the character they’re assuming.
Anyone familiar with tabletop RPGs (like Dungeons & Dragons) will recognize this voice. Second person is the voice of the Game Master, guiding the players’ imaginations through the fictional world they are interacting with.
“Blood stains the snow ahead of you, and the bodies of two Varnholme watchmen sprawl in the snow at the entrance of the Maw of Black Ice. The frozen blood seems fresh, and footprints lead upward into the seemingly abandoned keep.” – Oath of the Frozen King by Absolute Tabletop
In this example, it’s not the Game Master nor the players who see these dead bodies in the snow. It’s the players’ characters who see the corpses. The Game Master is simply acting as a filter, informing the players of what their characters are seeing so they can understand what’s going on and respond appropriately.
While second person does require practice, I don’t feel that writing it is the POV’s greatest challenge. It’s dealing with reader reaction. Second person is rarely seen outside of gaming. So most of your readers have never encountered a story that demands this much of their imagination and investment. Some don’t enjoy the mental exercise; others simply can’t for whatever reason. And these readers can be passionate in their distaste.
In 2014, I posted a short story on LegendFire, and all of the critiques I received made some remark on my choice to write it in second person. Most were confused. A few could appreciate how I handled the unusual POV. But many identified this choice as the weakest part of the story. One called second person “a gimmick” and urged me to never use it again. This is a pretty extreme stance in my opinion – one I heartily disagree with – but I’m not bringing this case up to critique the critique. Rather, I’m presenting it as an example of the backlash you can expect if you share a story written in second person.
Out of all of the POVs we’ve discussed in this series, second person is the one I enjoy experimenting with the most. It’s a shame that it’s not more widely accepted since it can foster the reader’s empathy, particularly for characters they may not otherwise identify with.
Second Person – Niles Vasco
You’re rubbing alcohol onto the blade of your dagger – the ritual demands a clean blade – when you notice a change on the monitor hanging above your desk. The security cammeras catch three people entering the warehouse. One is Professor Ellar. You watch them weave their way across each camera’s view. Should you stop them? Maybe not. Maybe witnesses are the missing element you’ve been seeking. Either way, it’s too late for anyone to change anything.
Your three guests disappear from the monitor. They must have found the ritual chamber. You stop your work and wipe your hands on the hem of your work shirt.
Upon entering the chamber, you find Ellar’s teenage sidekick Garrett studying the array of 660 skulls a bit too closely. “Don’t touch those,” you tell him. “Old bones are awfully fragile.”
Garrett spins around. “You!” he shouts.
Behind him, you see Professor Ellar stand up. Was he admiring the summoning sigil you drew on the floor? You also see Dora – one of the town’s newer residents – tense and pale.
You walk past Garrett, unrolling the sleeves of your work shirt, and say, “Professor Ellar, I’m not surprised you’re here. Unfortunately, you’re too late.”
“Where’s Dr. Allen?” Dora asks, hysteria creeping into her voice. “What have you done to her, you monster?!”
Ellar and Garrett step in to protect her. Chivalrous. The professor says, “I know you are behind the kidnappings, Mr. Vasco. What I don’t understand is why.” You never asked to be understood. “What is this place? Why did you bring your victims here?”
Garrett jumps in with “Why are we too late? And what about these?” He motions to the skulls. “Are they your victims too? Do you keep their bones as some kind of sick trophy?” Garrett’s voice climbs higher with each question, cracking till it’s little more than a squeak.
You can’t help but chuckle. The boy’s outburst is cute, and he’s giving you too much credit. “Those people are long dead, kid,” you reply. “I simply gathered them here for tonight’s ritual. My victims, as you call them, have an important role to play.” They are the final six you need to attract the only being that can bring this town to justice.
“What kind of ritual?”
All of them would see soon enough. Why waste time divulging the details? Instead, you answer, “You’ve seen how divided this town is.” How it treats outsiders and those who don’t live up to their expectations. “How it hides its rotten soul.” You know the gossip people spread about Professor Ellar and Garrett – how they are more than friends. “That ends tonight.”
You step on a pressure plate hidden in the floor. The door at the far end of the chamber slams shut, and a metal grate falls down in front of it. Dora screams and runs to the door. Blue electricity leaps onto her, and the shock knocks her backwards. If you both survive this night, you can thank her for confirming that your security system still works.
Garrett rushes to her side. Ellar’s face hardens. “What is the meaning of this?” he demands of you. “Why are you locking us in?”
You didn’t expect to hear so simple a question from Ellar. “I can’t have you calling the police. You know too much.” You check your watch. It’s nearly time. “Excuse me. I have a lot of work to do,” you say and quickly leave the chamber, mentally reviewing the list of things you have left to prepare.
A combination I had not thought about until I started planning this series was second person observer-narrator. Most of the examples of second person I’ve seen out in the wild, both in the gaming world and outside of it, put the reader in the shoes of a main character. Yet as I practiced with it (and as the example below shows), the combination is a viable POV.
What I also discovered is that the observer-narrator variant could serve as a gentler introduction to second person for the reader. Like I mentioned in my post on the other observer-narrator POVs, the plot happens around the character, not to them. A reader assuming the role of the observer-narrator is still a witness most of the time – a very familiar and comfortable position. However, the reader also gets tastes of being in this setting and being this character when the observer-narrator does engage with the plot. These periodic invitations to play a role, rather consistent demands, can lure new readers into this style of storytelling and ease them into this new way thinking.
Second Person Observer-Narrator – Garrett Morton
You, Dora, and the professor reach the center of the warehouse and enter the strangest room you have ever seen. In the dim light, you can make out hundreds of skulls lining the walls. They must have belonged to Vasco’s previous victims. You knew that Vasco was a monster, and now you have proof.
You notice Dora standing frozen, her eyes wide, her arms crossed tightly. Is she seeing what you’re seeing? But then you remember what she told you about scaring easily and how it wasn’t a good thing. “Dora?” you ask her.
The professor seems concerned too. “Are you alright, Ms. Marcel?”
“We have to find Dr. Allen,” Dora says. “We have to get her out of here now.”
The professor doesn’t reply and leaves her alone. You follow his lead and turn back to the skulls. You walk along the stacks and see numbers carved into each of their foreheads: 331, 573, 646. How many are there?
You hear a familiar voice say, “Don’t touch those. Old bones are awfully fragile.” You look over your shoulder and there he is – Niles Vasco – the criminal. He’s wearing an oversized shirt that is splattered with dark stains. You guess that it’s dried blood.
Vasco walks forward, unrolling his sleeves, and says, “Professor Ellar, I’m not surprised you’re here. Unfortunately, you’re too late.”
Dora shouts, “Where’s Dr. Allen? What have you done to her, you monster?!”
You and the professor step in front of her, shielding her from Vasco. “I know you were behind the kidnappings,” the professor begins. “What I don’t understand is why. What is this place? Why did you bring your victims here?”
You add your own questions. “Why are we too late? And what about those?” The skulls lining the walls. “Are they your victims too? Do you keep their bones as some kind of sick trophy?”
Vasco chuckles. He thinks this is funny? “Those people are long dead, kid. I simply gathered them here to witness tonight’s ritual. My victims, as you call them, have an important role to play.”
“What kind of ritual?” Anything that involved skulls is bad.
“You’ve seen how divided this town is. How it hides its rotten soul.”
You admit – he has a point. The people in town said some awful things about you and the professor, all because you were outsiders. You don’t care what the professor thinks; you’re glad that you set the record straight.
“That ends tonight.”
How does Vasco plan to that? Is he evil and crazy?
The door you came through slams shut. Metal bars appear, blocking the door. How it happened, you don’t know. The professor doesn’t believe in magic, and most days, you agree with him. But tonight, who knows?
Dora screams and runs to the door. Two blue bolts of electricity zap her so hard that she falls backwards. She doesn’t get up.
You rush to her side. You shake her and call her name. She’s breathing, but she doesn’t answer you. You hear Vasco and the professor arguing. “Dora, wake up,” you repeat, but it’s no use.
Someone is walking away. You look up and see the professor at the far end of the room, alone. Vasco had gone. What was going on? “Professor?” you ask.
“Stay with Ms. Marcel,” he tells you. “I’ll come back.”
He must have seen Vasco leave and wants to follow him. Even though Dora is unconscious, the mystery still has to be solved. “Be careful,” you say in reply.
The professor nods and leaves through a door you can’t see.
So how do you write in second person?
There’s surprisingly sparse advice out there to answer this question. (Or not-so-surprisingly, given how this is “niche” POV.) I hope the examples above have given you some clues about how this done. Beyond that, I follow a couple of firm guidelines to make my writing effective and palatable.
1.) Avoid outright stating what the character is thinking and feeling.
As the writer, you are encouraging the reader to play a role in your story. They can’t do that unless you leave them room to do so. The easiest way I’ve found to leave space for the reader is to not focus on the character’s mental and emotional state. If you remember my post on omniscient third, readers don’t like being told they should feel a certain way when that isn’t what they’re actually feeling. An omniscient narrator saying that what’s happening is sad is presumptuous; telling the reader that they are sad in second person is manipulative. Overtly trying to manipulate the readers’ emotions is the quickest way to lose their interest and trust.
Instead, manipulate your prose to suggest what the character is thinking and feeling or to evoke these emotions naturally. A phrase like “the goddamn cereal bowl” can suggest a range of things. It’s up to the reader to decide what emotion this corresponds to and justify for themselves why the character is feeling this way. Coming up with this justification is how the reader plays the role, making it their own. Rhetorical questions are another trick I love; I use them to suggest confusion, curiosity, panic, and the like. Asking questions can persuade the reader to think about what’s going on instead of just watching the plot unfold, leading them to invest more deeply in their character and the story.
2.) Minimize how often the pronoun “you” is used, especially at the beginning of sentences.
All English speakers are sensitive to this pronoun. It won’t fade into the background like others do. Seeing the same word in the same place over and over again isn’t pleasant to read.
So as the writer, you need to get creative with your sentence structure and the subjects of your sentences. The reader’s character need not be in focus all the time. If writing longer, more complex sentences allows you get rid of a “you” or two, roll with it. Grammar will prevent you from deleting most of these pronouns, but taking steps to limit the number of times it appears will keep your prose interesting and palatable for the reader.
Now for the final writing challenge. You know the drill. Take the scene you’ve been working with this whole series and write one more version in second person. Place the reader in the shoes of a character you haven’t focused on yet. If they’re the antagonist, all the better. For extra credit, write another version where you place the reader in the shoes of your observer-narrator.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series on point of view. Now you have more options to consider and play with in your writing. I’m not sure if a long summer series will become an annual tradition, but if you have any suggestions for future deep dives, please let me know down in the comments.
Share your scene, or a link to your scene, in the comments below. Have you seen second person out in the wild? Did you enjoy working with it for the challenge? Out of the eight we talked about, which POV did you enjoy experimenting with most? Which one was the hardest for you? Which POVs will you use for future stories?