Creative Writing In The Second Person
The awkward middle child of narrative point of view
You open a book nowadays, and 99 times out of 100 it seems the author has taken to a narrative voice and it’s all I, I, I in the first person. When it isn’t, there’s a third person narrative: the all knowing, perhaps unreliable narrator looking on, describing the action to the reader, in the minds of the characters.
But what ever happened to the second person point of view?
So let’s say you, as an aspiring writer always eager for a challenge, always wanting to try something different, decide to give it a whirl, and with an idea in your mind that seems to fit the second person narrative perfectly, you decide to give it a go.
At first you find there is something extraordinarily free and liberating in shaking off those chains of ‘I’ and ‘he/she/they’ and start telling the reader directly: you did this, this is your fault, you are saying these terrible things, you are making these terrible decisions… what’s wrong with you?
Sounds exciting, right? As a reader wanting a bit of escapism, or even as a reader simply wanting an interesting experience, being spoken to by the author in that way is different, and different is inherently exciting for most people.
So you get your ideas down, do some planning, maybe even finish a first draft. You find it enjoyable writing this way, such a break from the norm that you kick yourself for not trying it sooner. The direct engagement with the reader, almost like a one-sided conversation with them, all through the medium of this character you have crafted to embody an audience.
Then you sit down to start editing what you’ve done so far, and the realisation begins to set in why no one else seems to write this way. It was a trap: an alluring, enticing siren calling to you from the rocks, and like so many writers before you, you have been tricked and now you face your doom.
The problem with a second person narrative
Thinking back before you started, you did find it odd that only a handful of truly successful second person narratives seem to exist in the world (at least long form stories). You realise that this narrative form isn’t liberating at all, it’s painfully constricting, and you haven’t stumbled upon some genius untouched vein, but a well trodden path to frustration and abandoned stories.
Why is it so constricting? First of all, as tempted as you are to make your protagonist a gigantic jackass with tonnes of flaws, you realise that as they will be embodying the reader they have to be partially likeable, or at least not so utterly repulsive, because if they are then your reader, who is essentially standing in their shoes being guided by your words, will come to dislike this association and want to end it by closing the book and no longer looking at your words.
And you’ve written these words for them to read, so that’s no good at all.
No one wants to read 300 pages of an author telling them how awful they are. We have enough people doing that without some writer saying it too.
No one wants an utterly unlikeable character, even at a distance (i.e. in first or third person), so why should they like them so close up? This isn’t an individual you are observing, or being told about, this someone awful is you, the reader. And that is an uncomfortable feeling.
When you think of various examples of detestable protagonists in fiction, they all had a sympathetic element to them (atrocious flaws mixed with relatable humanity) and they were all at a distance: Humbert Humbert was strangely likeable, wasn’t he? Despite everything he did, everything he stood for, you still read Lolita wanting him to get his just desserts but also sort of rooting for him at the same time, don’t you? Fine, that’s from a distance. Now imagine if Nabokov was pointing the finger at you and saying you were Humbert Humbert. You wouldn’t finish that book. You wouldn’t be able to see the strangely endearing elements of yourself in that situation. You would just feel uncomfortable, close the book, wash the dirty feeling off your hands and read something else.
So, with all this in mind, you decide you have to make your protagonist a likeable individual, and therein lies another limitation. You want to give your character depth and layers, and you believe the beauty of a character, fictional or otherwise, lies in their flaws and faults and shortcomings and how they deal with them and possibly even overcome them. No one likes a perfect well rounded do-gooder, do they? But the reader, having the finger pointed at them as they read, will be affronted if they are presented any other way.
Inevitably, then, if you’re not careful, in your struggles to avoid your protagonist being completely abhorrent, and making your readers uncomfortable, you must also be careful to not make your character agonisingly boring (perhaps a far worse crime to commit), so the reader isn’t hearing how great they are and wonderful they are and gee whiz what a handsome boy or girl etc.
That isn’t relatable, and it certainly isn’t interesting.
The third limitation you find is the voice. How do you write something in second person and not drown your reader in a sea of ‘you’s? You’ve spent so much time trying not to make the reader be repulsed or bored by themselves, that they end up struggling to catch their breath, because here is the most troubling issue of all, one that you possibly only realise after you have sunk hours in to your story already: in second person narrative, there is only one personal pronoun.
Suddenly, in a fit of panic, you rush through your story and delete every other instance of ‘you’ with something else. You replace decent writing with messy, awkward work-arounds just to limit your ‘you’ usage. Initially, you think it isn’t a big deal, until you realise that the real essence of what you’re writing — in fact, the entire point of this whole thing! — has been chipped away at and is now pointless.
The case for the defence of second person narrative
Likely by now, you would not be blamed for wondering why the hell you’re even bothering with this voice, and maybe you should just take the easy road out so many people take, put some distance between you the author and them the reader, replace those ‘you’s with ‘I’s and be done with it.
Well, why don’t you? Because something draws you to push boundaries, challenge expectations, and try something new, do something no one else is really doing, not for the sake of it, but because in your eyes everything else seems like a rehash of something that already exists.
Change Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City from a strange second person narrative in to a first or third person, and it might seem a paint by numbers story of a man losing their mind on drugs in the 80s. There’s been countless of them before. But tell them that they are thinking these bizarre things, grieving for their mother, and yes, that’s you doing line after line of cocaine as well — that’s different. That’s new. That’s an experience for the reader unlike anything else, and that’s why you sat at this table and not the others.
You read a lot of fiction, and as all aspiring writers, when you read you also assess: you look at the style and substance, how that fits around the plot. First person often seems an easy kop out to shuffle a reader along an interesting set of circumstances in an approachable way. “Hi,” the narrative voice says, “I am the main character, so let’s pretend this book you are reading is written by me even though the dust sheet says it is written by someone else. Look at me and my perspective.”
To be clear: you are not against first person narratives. They each have their place and can be very interesting in themselves with the right story. Sometimes a particular style or plot would only work with first person, and that’s fine, because you’ve written many stories in the past that way and will continue to do so.
But you still feel they are a bit cookie-cutter. Often a bit of a one-size fits all.
Then there’s third person, which today’s reader needs to have an identity to make sense of: who is this observer and how do they know these things? You have been declined before by traditional publishers who have said something akin to “I spent the whole time reading the story wondering who the narrator was, and never got an answer”. And you screamed at your computer: “Right! There was no answer to be had! The narrator wasn’t a character. I am the author and I am the narrator! Why can’t a story just have an all seeing third person narrator anymore!”
So you remain seated at the second person narrative table: the awkward middle child of point-of-view, the one with no friends who sits there picking his nose.
But that’s fine. Creative writing is all about trying something different. So you try something that makes you feel awkward. You try something difficult. You worry about nonsensical things like personal pronoun usage, and find a way to make it all make sense.
The line between drowning your readers in a sea of ‘you’s and boring them to death is a fine one, and that’s where the challenge lies. The real sweet spot, you’ll hopefully discover, is keeping them just above the water long enough until they reach the shore at the end of your story. Move them along as quickly as possible before they eventually run out of stamina and sink. Keep them interested long enough that their legs keep kicking and their arms keep splashing.
Just whatever you do, don’t let them drown.
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(P.S. Discounting this Post Script, this article contained 83 uses of the word out of the 1693 total words before you. I hope you’re still afloat!)
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