The Second Person

The vast majority of mainstream literature is written from one of two main points of view.

  • A first-person narrative is where the narrator talks from their own perspective; for example, ‘I saw the fight,’ or, ‘He hit me first.’
  • A third-person narrative describes what other characters are doing; for example, ‘Greg saw the fight,’ or, ‘Joey hit Greg first.’

Within these points of view, there are variations, and some writers even use a combination of the two within the same work.

But what is a second-person narrative? Quite simply, it’s where an author uses you rather than I, he, she, or they. Depending on the context, the second person can be used with different intents. The author could be:

  • addressing the reader directly. This is common in choose-your-own-adventure stories, where the reader is asked to select from different potential outcomes.
  • treating the reader as a character by describing how they look or what action they’re taking. A few novels are written in this way.
  • writing an open letter or similar to a third party, but the reader is privy to that letter. This is common in poetry and song.

It’s a personal opinion, but I find the second of those three intents to be the most jarring.

An author might write, for example, ‘You’re a tourist. You’re wearing a summer dress and sipping coffee in a bistro on an autumn evening.’ I find it difficult to suspend my disbelief to such an extent that I can inhabit that character.

On the other hand, if the author had described a third party so richly, I would find it easy to inhabit that character’s world. I don’t think twice about the other intents when I encounter them.

Here’s a short story by Paula Morris written in the second person. Have a read and decide for yourself whether it works or not.

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