Writing advice blog: Second person point of view

Susie Helme

Photo by Carolina on Unsplash

The second person could be the most difficult point of view to use in a novel because it ‘can feel trite or gimmicky’, requiring a Voice which is ‘hard to sustain for the length of a novel’.[1]

It’s a very effective point of view (POV) to use in how-to nonfiction, of course, as the Narrator is inviting the reader to experience as they read the learning process of, say, building a greenhouse. In fiction, it is best reserved for short bursts—poems, short stories or flash fiction.

Having said that, there are a number of reasons why you might want to use second person in your novel.

By writing in second person, the Narrator is inviting the reader to BE the Protagonist, thus most closely engaging with and empathising with the story.

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney is considered the classic example of this, and even considered the ‘exception to the rule’ of ‘don’t use second person POV’.[2]

“Things happen, people change,” is what Amanda said. For her that covered it. You wanted an explanation, an ending that would assign blame and dish up justice. You considered violence and you considered reconciliation. But what you are left with is a premonition of the way your life will fade behind you, like a book you have read too quickly, leaving a dwindling trail of images and emotions, until all you can remember is a name.[3]

The Narrator here draws the reader into the story, so intimately that they purport to be inside the reader’s own head. This can seem quite strange, at best, or uncomfortable, at worst. Notice how the eight instances of the word ‘you’ here are particularly jarring.

It can also be quite challenging for sustaining the suspension of disbelief. The reader might read the above and think, ‘not me, I never considered violence’.

This POV can represent character’s conscience, or a way for the character to dissociate from themselves. It ‘bypasses the unreliability of first-person narrators’,[4] cutting out the ‘filter’ we might expect if the Narrator were speaking in first person.

Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancée, but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.) She could have caught you with one sucia, she could have caught you with two, but because you’re a totally batshit cuero who never empties his e-mail trash can, she caught you with fifty! Sure, over a six-year period, but still. Fifty fucking girls? God damn![5]

In this example from Junot Díaz’s The Cheater’s Guide to Love, the Narrator’s conscience is talking to himself, creating a dissociation that allows him to criticise his behaviour. This can be useful in conveying how hard the Narrator finds it to talk about his experience.

It can serve to distance Narrator from the story they’re telling, making the reader complicit in the Narrator’s experience.

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.[6]

In this example from The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, appearing during the height of Islamophobic craziness after 9/11, the Narrator has an issue with ‘us’ the reader, something he needs to teach us.

In Complicity by Iain Banks, a murderer is influenced by the writings of a journalist. The chapters in the murderer’s point of view are written in 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.

Author and editor Tim Major commented, “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.”[7]

Although editors advise against second person POV in general, these examples show how this POV can create specific effects.

[1] Gabriella Pereira, Reedsy Learning course ‘Understanding Point of View’, Lesson #9.

[2] Reedsy blog, ‘Second Person Point of View: Should Anyone use it?’

[3] Bright Lights, Big City Quotes, Goodreads.

[4] Reedsy blog, ‘Second Person Point of View: Should Anyone use it?’

[5] Junot Díaz, ‘The Cheater’s Guide to Love’, The New Yorker, July 23, 2012.

[6] Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

[7] Reedsy blog, ‘Second Person Point of View: Should Anyone use it?’

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