Second Person Point of View: Benefits and Pitfalls
Second person is widely known as the most difficult point of view to pull off as a writer. Using “you,” “your,” and “yours,” it makes the reader the main character and is not the same as when a narrator addresses a reader. For example:
Despite the coolness of the air above the water, sweat beads in the crevices of your palms. You grasp the metal wire, willing the swaying bridge to still. Spray from the cascading rapids below coats your skin, your clothes, and the bridge beneath your sneakers in a wet mist. The bridge swings harder.
In the above passage, the reader is the nervous character. Some successful books that use second person include Self-Help by Lorrie Moore (a collection of short stories), If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, and How to Babysit a Grandpa by Jean Reagan and illustrated by Lee Wildish (a children's picture book).
Pros for Second Person
When a writer wants the reader to not only live vicariously through the main character but become the protagonist themselves, second person is a good option. It provides the richest sensory experience of any of the points of view because the reader is in the story. Many writers also use second person because they want to try something new, different, and experimental.
Games and Players
By far, the most practical and successful uses of second person involve games. The storylines for video games, and often board games, are created by writers. People play these games to become the characters and experience the worlds themselves. Gamers want to make their own decisions and have a tangible impact on the story’s outcome. In fact, one of the primary reasons video games fail is the game makers lose sight of second person point of view, making other characters the protagonists instead of the character the gamer gets to be. The book equivalent of a video game is a Choose Your Own Adventure story. When the reader actually gets to decide what happens instead of having their actions dictated to them, second person is the most effective
Reader Becomes the Character
Second person point of view is also common in short, literary stories, like those found in Self-Help by Lorrie Moore, and in erotica. Both of these genres are trying to make the reader the character just like games. In Self-Help the reader is asked to walk in another person's shoes, to experience their life and perhaps better understand those kinds of people. This is true in the short story "How to Be the Other Woman":
After four movies, three concerts, and two-and-a-half museums, you sleep with him. It seems the right number of cultural events. On the stereo you play your favorite harp and oboe music. He tells you his wife's name. It is Patrica . . . When he says, "How do you feel about that?" don't say "Ridiculous" or "Get the hell out of my apartment." . . . say "It depends. What is intellectual property law?" (4).
Here the reader experiences life as a mistress to a married man, so the reader can better understand what it is like to be that person. Similarly, in erotica readers live their sexual fantasies without putting themselves at risk. Second person is all about the reader being the character and feeling like they have a tangeable part to play in the story.
Cons for Second Person
"I Wouldn't Do That"
Second person in writing is extremely difficult to pull off because the writer must create a character every reader can imagine themselves being and/or wants to be. When a character is too different from the reader, the reader is taken out of the story and think “I wouldn’t react that way/say that/think that.” Many people also don’t like being told what to do or think, which is exactly what second person does, and if a reader has never read second person point of view before, they often find the experience jarring and off-putting.
As the story becomes longer, second person point of view becomes more and more difficult to maintain and pull off. The writer has to find a way to continue developing the character while holding onto the character’s universality. Otherwise, the character will become too different from readers, causing the readers to become angry and possibly stop reading. For example, if the second person protagonist shoots and buries an innocent child, most readers will find the story difficult to continue reading. Generally, people don't want to become a murderer of children.
Second person is extremely unforgiving: It must be perfectly executed to have any level of success.
Cautions from an Editor Regarding Second Person POV
Second person point of view is rare for a reason, so authors should use it sparingly and with extreme caution. Although I have read and written second person, most of the stories didn’t have the quality necessary for publication. I would not, however, say never write in second person. I don’t believe in putting writers in boxes. If nothing else, second person can be an excellent exercise to test a writer’s skills or break someone out of a monotonous point of view rut. And if a writer has ambitions to craft stories for video games, it does them a disservice to say “never use second person;” these writers must be able to think and write through this unique and challenging lens in order to create successful games. There is a stigma against second person, so I caution authors not to expect such stories to be published easily if at all.
At the end of a day, the decision whether or not to use second person resides with the author. If they choose to challenge themselves through this point of view and wish to be successful, they must make the piece resonate with readers; they must Ignite Their Ink.
What are your thoughts on second person point of view? Please leave them in the comments.
If you're interested in taking a look at any of the books discussed in the post, click on their cover below.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.