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Is Second Person Point of View a Smart Choice?

Second person point of view is so rare in novel writing that you’d have to conclude there’s no market for it. But let’s not dismiss it so fast.

True, virtually no one writes in the “you” of second person. But balanced against that, consider the following…

  1. To succeed as a writer, you need to find some way of standing out. Choosing a little-used viewpoint would be one way of doing that.
  2. You may not view success in commercial terms. Achieving critical success (as judged by professional reviewers and the folks who leave feedback on sites like Amazon) may be more important to you.

If taking a gamble isn’t your thing, forget about second person point of view. Stick to the “safe” choices of first person or third person.

If “safe” for you means boring rather than sensible, and if you’re willing to turn your back on the mass marketplace in favor of being more of a cult novelist, keep reading.

Who Is the “You” In Second Person?

Understanding the logic behind whatever viewpoint you choose for your novel is critical to writing like a pro. In the case of second person point of view, that means understanding just who the heck the “you” is.

To help us figure that out, here’s a brief extract of typical second person writing…

You first notice him in the Harbor Lights Hotel at 10 p.m. on a cold Christmas Eve. It’s the day you turn forty. He is standing at the bar, talking on his cell phone while he digs in the right-hand pocket of his jeans for change. You’re watching him from the dark booth beside the piano, taking slow sips from your third vodka martini.

The implication is that you, the reader, are the “you” in the story. And that’s a problem. How come? Because most people on reading that passage would say…

  • It’s mid-July, not Christmas Eve!
  • I’m at home, not sitting in a hotel bar!
  • I haven’t even turned 30, thank you very much!
  • I’m male and happily married, so I’m hardly going to hit on the guy at the bar!
  • Oh, and I prefer my martinis with gin!

On the face of it, then, second person point of view isn’t the smartest choice for a story. Instantly, you’re alienating your readers (or in publishing terms, your customers).

But here’s the thing…

Stop to think about it and the “you” in the novel is clearly not the same person as the reader. How could it be when there are thousands of readers, all of them different?

Instead, the author is inviting you to merely imagine that you are this fictional character.

Suspend your Disbelief

All fiction, whatever point of view it’s written in, demands a so-called willing suspension of disbelief. When you pick up a novel or watch a movie, you know that none of it is true. But you’re still willing to put your disbelief to one side for the next hour and pretend that it is.

In that context, imagining that you’re a different person entirely, and that you’re being addressed in the “you” of second person, isn’t such a huge stretch. Like in this passage, for example…

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head…

It’s the opening of a novel called Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. It was a big-seller in its day (making it an exception to the “not commercial” rule). And it’s probably the most famous example of a second person narrative.

Notice how the author deliberately plays on this disconnect between you-as-reader and you-as-character…

  • Starting with the words “You are not the kind of guy” is as good as saying that you, the reader, are about to enter a world that is very different from your own.
  • But then he immediately tries to minimize your resistance by saying that this world you’ve entered is not entirely unfamiliar. It’s “fuzzy,” yes, but nothing you can’t understand with a little imagination.

Second Person is All About Imagination

Accepting that you’re a character in a novel is a tough ask of any reader. It goes way beyond the usual identifying with a first or third person character (which we all do when we read a book or watch a film). Instead, you’re being asked to actually become that character.

But when the writer invites you to imagine that you’re a second person character, it’s less of a stretch. Once you’ve given in and decided to play along, it’s actually very engaging…

  • In first or third person prose, it’s like you’re an invisible witness to someone else’s story. Sure, you can put yourself in the hero’s shoes. But you’re clearly not a part of the unfolding events.
  • In second person point of view, the story is your story. And even though the person whose body and mind you inhabit is totally unlike yourself, you can nevertheless use your imaginative powers to become this other human being. And that’s kind of cool!

Of course, engaging the reader is only one factor to consider when you decide on the best viewpoint for your story. Another is not alienating the reader. In other words…

Although you may lose a touch of engagement when writing in a traditional viewpoint (like first or third), you’ll more than make up for it in familiarity.

Second Person Mechanics

Let’s switch from looking at “you” as the reader of a novel (and character within that novel) to “you” as a writer. How do you create a character and a plot in a second person narrative?

In precisely the same way as you would for any story you write.

As a matter of fact, a second person novel is essentially the same as a first person novel, but with a different pronoun. The opening of Bright Lights, Big City, for example, is simple to translate into first person…

I am not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here I am, and I cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. I am at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head…

Okay, it’s a little more complicated than simply turning every “you” into an “I.” Some passages won’t translate directly and will need heavier tweaking. But it’s not much more complicated. And it wouldn’t be that difficult to turn it into a third person story, either, like here…

He is not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here he is, and he cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. He is at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head…

Second Person and Tense

The biggest decision to make if you write in the second person is which tense to use.

In a regular narrative, the safest bet is to stick with the past tense, because that’s what readers are familiar with (which makes it unobtrusive). Present tense is an acceptable alternative, provided you have a good reason to tell the story in the slightly more awkward “here and now.”

In second person point of view, though, your best bet is arguably present tense. Why? I think it boils down to the “willing suspension of disbelief” again…

It’s easier to imagine yourself doing something right here and right now, while you actually read the novel, than to imagine yourself doing something last week. Or last year. Or back when you were an eight year old.

So is second person past tense a no-no?

Absolutely not (hey, if it works, it works, period). In general, though, present tense is more effective (at least to my ear). Take this extract from Winter Birds by Jim Grimsley, for example…

You brush bits of powdered grass from your fingers. You dread going down to the river while your brothers are there, so you wait until you see them walking home on the road that divides the fields, three small figures swaggering through the dust.

It’s easy enough to translate that into the past tense. For me, though, it works better as it stands, simply because the past tense would dilute the heightened level of engagement and immediacy that second person point of view creates.

Incidentally, the extract quoted above is interesting because it works on two levels…

  • First, it’s about the narrator as a boy. In other words, the “you” is the storyteller’s younger self.
  • Second, as we’ve discussed, the author is inviting the reader to “be” the character. He’s not just saying, here is a story that happened to me as a young boy. He wants you to actually become that kid.

Weird, yes (at least at first). But still a very interesting approach to telling a story.

Wrapping Up

Bottom line? Experiment for a reason, not for the sake of being experimental.

I said at the top that second person point of view is rare, and I wasn’t kidding. It’s just too offbeat, for writers and readers alike.

That said, some folks are drawn to the offbeat (writers and readers). So if this article has inspired you in any way, it’s worth at least running with the possibility of using second person point of view, even if you drop the idea somewhere down the road.

Just don’t choose second person for the sake of being wacky.

Story and viewpoint should always go hand in hand. So there needs to be a good reason to write in second person. In other words, your choice should add something to the story…

One possible reason could be that second person fits perfectly with your theme. If your novel is all about the struggle to discover your true self, say, second person would be a neat way to add an extra dimension to that exploration.

Or you could have a first person character in mind who’s in danger of coming across as too weird or too big-headed (or too whatever). Inviting the reader to be this character would be one way of making them more sympathetic.

Final advice? Have you considered all the drawbacks (not least, the lack of mainstream appeal)? Are you still happy to write your novel in second person point of view? Go for it!

Hey, the world needs its mavericks.

But if you have the slightest doubt, do what 99.99% of novelists before you have done. Stick to one of the “safe” viewpoints.

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