Variations On YOU: Writing Second Person Point Of View

Second Person POV is the style of “you.” Maybe you’re familiar with Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Books, or text-based games, tutorials, articles like this one, or people who really dislike this form of narrative choice.

Telling a story in second person can be tricky. Difficult to do well. Has pros and cons. Is a stylistic preference.  So basically it’s like everything else in writing.

And like any other POV choice, second person is not a monolith. Not all first person narrators sound the same (or one hopes they wouldn’t), not all third person narratives sound the same, not all omniscient narrators sound the same. (#notallnarrators) Second person needs a voice. The second person point of view in your story will, one hopes, be distinct for that narrator. It will have sparks and tone and subtext unique to the story, traces of the author’s fingerprints. Voice helps a story breathe.

SUDDEN PLOT TWIST: now the narrator is in first person!

So all that lead-up was, well, preface to an interesting thing I realized just now.

No one will be surprised that I adore second person POV. I’ve written it, I love reading it, and I think it’s a valid and exciting style choice in fiction.

So picture this. Thunderstorm! Lightning! Booms! The rain is lovely but all the noise is hard to sleep with. So Merc is noodling around at 2 a.m. Just before bed (not very many hours earlier), they had been doing weekly organizational clean-up of files and folders on their laptop.

Merc notices something particular: they have two short story WIPs that are in the second person. (You may also notice the narrative has switched to third-person here.)

First story is an expansion of until-recently-abandoned writing prompt, of which the origins are lost to time and failure to keep notes. It’s a postapocalyptic thing full of hard-edged images and Possibly Feels. There’s a maybe!werewolf. It has a solid voice, one that sticks out in Merc’s brain as clicking for that particular story. It’s missing half its plot and an ending, but hey. The voice is there! (I’ll figure out how it ends eventually.)

Then there is the second story, a metafictional horror/SF thing about video games and monsters and really bad decisions. This one has a narrative reason it’s in second person: it’s mimicing gameplay in which “you” would be the user, controlling a character. It’s also the POV of the game’s title character, who’s achieving awareness, and is really unhappy with what the game developers think she should do in the narrative.

This one has plot, has an ending, and is sitting in the ‘currently revising’ folder. And as much as I like the concept and how things unfold, I found myself dissatisfied. It occurred to be right before bed that the dissatisfaction? It’s coming from the lack of compelling voice in the story.

Or rather, the first half of the story. As it develops, the narrator begins to gain some sense of self. But that first part? Where she’s more or less a blank slate a la video game character creation phase? That’s tricky. Because even if the narrator is a blank slate, I need to be able to convey that while also engaging the voice of the story right away.

“But Merc, surely the conceit of the story–that it’s a game–will be enough to sustain the first third until the voice kicks in?” a hypothetical you may ask.

To which I reply, “Oh, man, I wish.”

See, for me, the conceit is not enough. I need to have a strong, compelling voice pulling the narrative along; a way to draw the reader in to the self-discovery-then-chaos plotline. And like everything writing-wise, this is so much easier to say than do.

Because fact is, right now I don’t know how to fix the voice problem. I give myself two points for realizing that is is a voice problem and not, say, just the rampaging doubtroaches swarming like an apocalyptic nightmare over the hill towards my brain.

Now, let’s shift gears a moment and talk about that thing that will invariably pop up regarding second person POV: some people dislike it and think it should not be used.

Here’s the thing. Personal preference is great. You don’t like it? That’s okay! You’ll be happy to know that the vast majority of narrative out there is still in first and third person. Really! Second person didn’t take an eraser and go destroy all the lovely first and third person stories written since the beginning of time. Go ahead and check.

Here’s the other thing: second person POV is a narrative choice that is not inherently good or bad. It is neutral. It is a grammatical and stylistic choice in how to tell a story. This isn’t a dichotomy like the Sith/Jedi.

It’s like anything else in writing: how you do it is what matters. There are terrible examples of first, second, and third person out there. There are utterly fantastic examples of first, second*, and third person out there.

*TW in the “The Button Bin” for very disturbing material and rape; it’s horror, and one of the first stories I read where I really understood how 2nd POV could be used to such effect.

Second person is a tool in the writer’s kit. If you don’t like it, that’s okay! You are not obligated to read it, write it, or promote it. You also don’t have to be That Guy who goes around bashing what other people like because their tastes don’t align (or follow) his. Second person is not the devil trying to buy your soul at a competitor’s coupon discount. Show class and good sportspersonship and let other people enjoy things, all right?

I love second person. I know other people do, too. And that’s great! We are allowed to like this form of storytelling. There is nothing wrong with liking, reading, or writing second person POV.

There is room in the world for all kinds of prose, all kinds of styles. We have space to celebrate and explore and experiment with words and ideas. Go forth and create your narratives, tell your stories, unspool your dreams. Let us share our excitement and hopes and adventures. We can all benefit from more voices, from more stories, from more truths.

I’d love to see what you write. 🙂


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