Writing from a second person point of view isn’t very common – but it can be very effective.
Tutors, editors and fellow writers might all tell you to avoid it, dismissing the technique as difficult to pull off. But if you look closer, you will find a recent shift in this attitude. Writers are embracing the technique that allows you to play with your narrative and to get deep into your character’s psyche.
So let’s unpick this tricky point of view and I’ll show you how you can best use it in your own writing. I will explain what the second person point of view is in writing, when you might use it, how to use the technique to its greatest advantage, and provide some second person point of view examples.
What Is Second Person Point Of View?
As writers, when we are setting out a plan for the masterpiece we are about to write, we have a little internal discussion with ourselves that usually starts with the question: Is this story going to be better told in first or third person? Rarely do we even consider writing in the second person, and this is probably because we are told to never use it. But as a literary technique in the right hands, it can be very powerful indeed.
So, what exactly is a second person point of view in literature? There are many definitions, but broadly it is the use of the second person pronoun, you, to refer to the protagonist or another character. For example, let’s take the novel that broke down the perception that the second person narrative was a bad thing – Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney:
You have friends that actually care about you and speak the language of the inner self. You have avoided them of late. Your soul is as dishevelled as your apartment, and until you can clean it up a little you don’t want to invite anyone inside.Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
A second person narrative asks the reader to become the character, as in the McInerney example above, or become the character the narrator is addressing. It is instantly intimate. There is an urgency about the second person point of view. And for the reader, this can feel totally immersive.
So now we know what the second person point of view is, let’s think about when you should use it.
When To Use Second Person Point Of View
Second person narratives work by talking directly to your reader. The wonderful Kathy Fish says that writing in the second person is ‘the literary equivalent of making good eye contact.’ I couldn’t agree more!
Writing in the second person acts as a deep dive into the character and forges a link between the narrator and the reader, breaking down that so-called fourth wall.
And the strength of this point of view is its versatility not just in fiction, but in non-fiction and self-help books, for example. As a form, it is well-used in short stories and flash fiction, too, where you can be much more experimental with your writing.
One excellent example of this is Girl by Jamaica Kincaid (read the full piece here). At only 650 words or so, it is a long list from (presumably) a mother to her daughter on how to be a girl. With lines such as this – “this is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile to someone you like completely” – the prescribed list of rules and how-to’s becomes personal. She could be talking to me. She could be talking to you. As a reader, I feel affronted by her and her assumption that she can tell me what to do and how to be. And there lies, I believe, the point of the story. I don’t think I would have had the same emotional reaction to this piece if it had been written in the third or even first person. This is the eye contact that Kathy Fish is talking about.
Let’s consider the differences between the other points of view that are on offer to you as a writer:
- First-person uses the I pronoun. The story is being told through the eyes of the narrator. This can be limiting, though, as we only see the world through the eyes of the character whose head we are in.
- Third person uses the he/she/they pronouns. The reader observes the story. This is generally much more distant for the reader, especially when using an omniscient narrator, but you can play with this form much more by considering the psychic distance with which you write.
Second Person Point Of View Examples
I’ll now take a look at some books written from the second person point of view, each of which uses the technique in a different way.
The Night Circus By Erin Morgenstern
Erin Morgenstern scatters her use of the second person throughout The Night Circus, which is mostly told in third person. The magical novel about two rival magicians flits back and forth through time and is told from the point of view of various different characters. But occasionally Morgenstern will place the reader themselves in her magical world with little vignettes such as this:
You are amongst them, of course. Your curiosity got the better of you, as curiosity is wont to do. You stand in the fading light, the scarf around your neck pulled up against the chilly evening breeze, waiting to see for yourself exactly what kind of circus only opens once the sun sets.The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
This is the first use of the second person narration in The Night Circus, and here she places you, the reader, at the door of this mystery circus that has suddenly appeared without warning. You want to know as much as the people that stand around you. The opening ends:
Some in the crowd smile knowingly, while others frown and look questioningly at their neighbors. A child near you tugs on her mother’s sleeve, begging to know what it says.
‘The Circus of Dreams,’ comes the reply.
The girl smiles delightedly.
Then the iron gates shudder and unlock, seemingly by their own volition. They swing outward, inviting the crowd inside.
Now the circus is open.
Now you may enter.The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Do you feel the same as me? Do you want to walk through those magical gates and enter this magical world? Of course, you do! You have been invited.
Try looking for these small moments where you want to place the reader directly into the heart of the action. Morgenstern uses it sparingly. You can too.
The Push By Ashley Audrain
Ashley Audrain uses the second person perspective really well in The Push. The novel is written as a long letter to the main character’s ex-husband as she (Blythe), tries to pick apart the events of their life that led them to where they are now. The novel starts:
You slid your chair over and tapped my textbook with the end of your pencil and I stared at the page, hesitant to look up. ‘Hello?’ I had answered you like a phone call. This made you laugh. And so we sat there, giggling, two strangers in a school library, studying for the same elective subject. There must have been hundreds of students in the class – I had never seen you before. The curls in your hair fell over your eyes and you twirled them with your pencil. You had such a peculiar name.The Push by Ashley Audrain
How intimate is this? Confessional, almost. Audrain puts you deep into Blythe’s memory, and what better way to understand a character? But in addition to depicting the deconstruction of their relationship, Blythe is calling on her ex-husband, Fox, to see their daughter the way she sees her. As a reader, we know Blythe isn’t addressing us, but by writing in the second person, she gives us the urgency that she herself feels. She is begging him and us. This is the urgency I mentioned above. We feel everything she feels deeply because she is talking directly to us through the use of ‘you’.
As a technique for a full novel, the second person POV can feel draining, but Audrain cleverly breaks it up with chapters about Blythe’s family history. These are written in third person and are a welcome relief from the deep perspective. If you have an unreliable narrator, like Blythe, consider letting the readers see inside their head like Audrain does.
You By Caroline Kepnes
You by Caroline Kepnes is at the opposite end of the scale to The Night Circus. Kepnes uses the second person narrator for the entirety of the novel which takes you deep inside the mind of a stalker and murderer. The writer could have achieved this by using the closeness of the first person, but by writing this from a second person POV, Kepnes makes you feel like you are the object of his obsession. Let’s see how she achieves it:
You walk into the bookstore and keep your hand on the door to make sure it doesn’t slam. You smile, embarrassed to be a nice girl, and your nails are bare and your V-neck sweater is beige, and it’s impossible to know if you are wearing a bra but I don’t think that you are.You by Caroline Kepnes
Wow. This is a pretty immersive opening, don’t you think? Not only is the creepiness on another level, but you see straight into Joe’s mind as the narrator. He is making assumptions about the person he is watching; he is looking at parts of her body that he shouldn’t be looking at. He is looking at you. We instantly know that we are in the head of a dangerous person.
Kepnes gives you no respite from the head of Joe – she keeps you in his head all the way through. It’s a clever novel. She shows the narcissistic and psychopathic thoughts and behaviours of Joe, whilst trapping the reader in his claustrophobic world. And she shows you just how easy it might be for you to become a target. She even manages to secure sympathy for Joe, because to be so far in his head is to understand why he does what he does. And for you, the reader, that puts you in an uncomfortable place. I’m not sure this would have been achieved in any other point of view.
Committing a full novel to the second person perspective is a big deal. Here it works well because the character is so flawed. So, if you want to give your readers an uncomfortable ride, with the right character, this might be the way to go.
How To Write In Second Person Point Of View
Writing in the second person definitely doesn’t work for everything, and you should think carefully before using it. But to help you figure out when and where it might work best for you, let’s look at ways you can explore it.
Key steps and tips:
- Think about who your second person narration will be addressing. Is it the reader, and are you therefore are asking the reader to become your character? Or are you addressing a second character and thus you want to invite the reader into the psyche of the narrator? It’s a tricky concept to get your head around, so be very clear about this before you set out on this path.
- Ask yourself what it is you want to achieve. Do you want to draw the reader into an uncomfortable place? Do you want the reader to be a part of the story? What will the second person voice achieve for your story, your characters and your readers’ experience?
- Be sure that you have a character who is interesting enough that your readers want to be inside their head.
- Experiment – have a play around with your narrative. There may well be parts that become stronger and deeper in the second person.
- Try writing some flash fiction and short stories to really perfect your second person voice. I believe this is the key to writing from this point of view. It takes practice. It takes real commitment and consistency in the same way that writing from the more conventional points of view does.
Second Person Point Of View
As writers, we want to push boundaries. We want to set ourselves apart from everybody else. We want to create memorable and long-lasting characters that feel as real to us as the person you last shared a meal with. Using the second person point of view might be the way for you to achieve that. Be brave. Be bold. But always be sure that your story benefits from it.
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