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.
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 linked 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 than consistent demands, can lure new readers into this style of storytelling and ease them into this new way of thinking.
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 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?