Second Person POV: What The Heck Is It?

When it comes to choosing a point-of-view for a fiction story, most people show a preference for either first person or third person. First person point-of-view is when the narrator tells the story and is a character in a story. The narrator will refer to himself or herself as “I” and everything is seen through his or her eyes only. Here’s an example:

It’s a hot day and I hate my wife.

     We’re playing Scrabble. That’s how bad it is. I’m 42 years old, it’s a blistering hot Sunday afternoon and all I can think of to do with my life is to play Scrabble.

Excerpt from “Death by Scrabble,” a short story by Charlie Fish

Third person point-of-view is when the narrative is relayed through the perspective of an all-knowing being, or a “he/she” perspective. The narrator will tell the story of others without being physically present for the action. The Harry Potter series is written in the third person point-of-view. Here’s an example:

Harry Potter rolled over inside his blankets without waking up. One small hand closed on the letter beside him and he slept on, not knowing he was special, not knowing he was famous, not knowing he would be woken in a few hours’ time by Mrs. Dursley’s scream as…

Excerpt from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling

You’re probably very familiar with first and third person points-of-view. Mark and I just debated Katniss Everdeen as a first person narrator a few weeks ago, and every month at Full Sail I find myself explaining the differences between first and third person point-of-view to a new batch of students. Being familiar with narrative mode is as important as anything else in creative writing, especially since newer writers have a tendency to want to jump back and forth between the two choices in one story, which only succeeds in giving me a headache. As I always say, consistency is key.

Have you ever heard of the second person point-of-view, though? You probably have, even if you didn’t know what it was called. I call the second person point-of-view the Choose Your Own Adventure point-of-view, because those Choose Your Own Adventure books that were popular when I was a kid were always written in the second person. Second person is when the narrator speaks directly to the reader—to you. It’s much less popular than first and third person, but it does have its place in the realm of creative writing. I’m personally a fan of second person when done correctly, but it can be difficult to pull off. The biggest risk with writing a story in the second person is that the reading can become tiresome if the story is too long. Also, if the reader cannot relate to the plot of the story at all, it can be difficult to keep the reader’s interest. I always provide a second person point-of-view story as supplemental reading in my creative writing class and it’s interesting to get feedback from students about their preferences.

Here are a couple of second person short stories for you to explore and think about:

“The Guide to Being a Groupie,” by Lisa Gabriele

“How to Become a Writer,” by Lorrie Moore

“Notes to My Sixth Grade Self” by Julie Orringer (this is an audio file of the author reading the story)

“Things You Can Do With a Can of Campbell’s Soup,” by Brock Adams

“Travels With the Snow Queen,” by Kelly Link

I’ve written a few short stories in second person myself, but I think there’s definitely a greater challenge with making second person as readable as first and third.

What do you think of second person? Do you find it tiresome or interesting? Do you think you could ever write a story in the second person point-of-view? I suggest giving it a try. Sometimes changing tenses is all you need to get a story moving.

 

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About Jaclyn Sullivan

I'm a full time Instructional Designer and a sometimes adjunct professor of English Composition. I have a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida and I'm a published fiction and non-fiction writer. Check me out on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jaclynmsullivan I'm a big fan of post-modern literature and swear by the lessons of Kurt Vonnegut. Some of my favorite writers include Lorrie Moore, Antonya Nelson, Grace Paley, Flannery O'Connor, Louise Erdrich, and Raymond Carver. I like Tom Waits, Andrew Bird, actual birds, pictures of cats, actual cats, animals in general, polka dots, exercise, iced coffee, reading, writing, tv-viewing, the Internet, and food. I dislike rain on days when my hair looks good, sweating, t-rex arms, public bathrooms, books being made into awful movies, and when The Walking Dead is on hiatus.
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8 Responses to Second Person POV: What The Heck Is It?

  1. In my experience second person is rarely pulled off well because people don’t use it correctly. It CAN work as a narrator telling the reader what the reader is doing (“you went here, did this, thought that”) but I’ve never been able to get into a story like that because I’m NOT the character doing those things. You see this on DeviantArt a lot right now and it’s… well, to be blunt it’s pretty atrocious.

    I think second person works well if the narrator is a character speaking to another character, almost like a one-sided dialogue or a letter (without the dear so-and-so part) and the piece is relatively short. I do this a lot with my two characters, usually as one’s inner dialogue concerning the other, and also directed to them without their knowing. Second person can be a good way to get into a character’s head, I just don’t think it works well as a full length narration outside of choose your own adventure type works.

    • I definitely agree, second person can be successful when done correctly, but doing it correctly is very difficult. I love seeing it pulled off well, though. I think the stories I linked to each do it pretty well, some better than others.

  2. Jeyna Grace says:

    I dont like writing in 1st person.. theres that limitation of not being able to describe what the other characters see, feel or do. But 1st person tends to have more impact.

    I remember 2nd person books. Goosebumps was one of them. I would always keep a bookmark on my last choice so i can go back. LOL! Im actually doing that in my blog now, for one of my stories.

    • So funny you say that, Jeyna, because I prefer writing in first person and third person is near impossible for me. I’m actually better at writing in second person than I am in third! I don’t write in second too often because I feel that too much of it can be gimmicky, but I definitely find myself gravitating toward the first person. In my collection of short stories I have one story in second person, one in third, and the rest are in first. I love seeing how different writers differ in their narrative perspective choices. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Also, those Goosebumps books terrified me when I was a child!

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