Second person is a difficult and rarely used one; in simple terms second person is ‘you’, so you put the reader in the story as a character. There was a trend a few years ago that I recall where there were books that used the second person and allowed the reader to pick the ending by giving them different pages to flip to depending on their choice of action. I vaguely recall a Goosebumps book that did it though I can’t recall the title. Italo Calvino uses the second person in If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller in a completely different way but not for the entire book, only in segments. It cast the reader as a reader who buys a book that doesn’t turn out to be what they expected, I think he actually gets through the entire range of narrative perspectives in a book that’s only 260 pages long.

The fact that I can only think of two books that use the second person perspective perhaps says something about the difficulty people have with it. Both writing and reading. I remember when I first read Calvino’s book while at university opinion was divided about it, largely based on the second person sections. Personally I think it’s a fantastic book but the issues that arose seemed to revolve around some people not liking the ‘you’. The directness of ‘you’ seemed to bring out an element of ‘Well, perhaps I wouldn’t do that’ or ‘I can’t relate to that’ and similar feelings, which might also suggest why writers don’t use it very often.

As I write this I have to say my feelings on second person are divided, though I’m not sure I would use it myself I don’t mind it in a story or book. An element in this though could simply be that when we open a book we don’t expect ‘you’, it is a jarring thing to be addressed by the writer as the character in a book so it could immerse a reader or put them off. However, I would say this is true of any narrative voice, I know I’ve picked up books and thought there’s something about the prose I don’t like and put it back.

Perhaps if more people wrote in second person then more people would read it. Perhaps the world is simply waiting for a really good second person novel to come along and suddenly we’ll be inundated with them. Perhaps there’s an empty book cover with your name on it if that’s the perspective you wish to write in. As I said in Making The New From The Old, maybe that’s how you make your story new.


For more writing advice see my archive page.

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