The Advantages and Disadvantages of Second-Person Perspective
Second-person perspective is writing from the point-of-view of talking to the reader, putting them in a central role in the story. This allows the writer to include the reader within the narrative. The narrator can be a character, but does not have to be, as the reader represents a character themselves.
Typically, like first-person, second-person falls into two categories: second-person singular, where the story is told directly to one individual reader; and second-person plural, where the narration is directed towards a group. Both use variations on ‘you’ to include the reader in the story and impart opinion and decisions.
Second-person singular is the most frequently used form of second-person perspective, where the words speak to the reader to dictate who they are and what they are doing.
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.Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City
The protagonist of Bright Lights, Big City is being reminded in these opening sentences of where they are, allowing McInerney to set the scene through a series of simple instructions. The ‘you’ addressed here is not the reader, but a character within the story.
On some occasions, writers choose to combine second and first-person points-of-view, allowing dialogue to open between the two main characters: the person telling the story (first-person) and the person reading it (second-person), which can create a doubly immersive narrative.
Standing near me are some who whisper about your father’s slide into his pit of drink. They whisper that you’ll do the same, but whisper only. When you approach, they smile and clap your back and say, What a fine farm, Lucas. What a fine wife she’ll be, Lucas. You’ve got a man’s shoulders now, Lucas.Julie Berry, All the Truth That’s In Me
The narration here is directed at the reader, who is Lucas, a character in the story, yet the narrator is also a key character who is interacting with other individuals. In that respect, Berry writes simultaneously from first and second-person points-of-view.
Second-person plural is considerably rarer, and often the second-person character is a side reference as opposed to the main character.
Like a job interview, your appearance, demeanor and responses either fit into the check boxes or they don’t. And like a job interview, whether or not you’re qualified means next to nothing.Craig Clevenger, The Contortionist’s Handbook
This novel is written from a first-person perspective, yet the reader is often spoken to as if they were one of a group, or perhaps a whole group. The internal dialogue Clevenger writes, such as this extract, is an aside in the narrator’s thought process, not a direct discussion with the audience.
The Advantages of Second-Person Perspective
Second-person puts the reader into the story, and if done right can submerge the reader into the narrative completely. You can effectively communicate how each moment feels, delivering sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch directly to the narrator. You can tell them what to feel and how to react.
By default, there is already a strong sense of empathy in the reader, as the reader is part of the story. Much like first-person, you can also put across the motivations of your main character, although this is a little trickier from a second-person perspective without coming across as instructional or clunky.
Second-person allows you to converse with the reader, asking questions that remain unanswered on the page, giving the reader the opportunity to fill in the gaps mentally. This builds a level of interaction that can strengthen a bond with a story.
The Disadvantages of Second-Person Perspective
Writing in second-person has to be done carefully to avoid poor writing. There is a danger that the narrative can come across as a choose-your-own-adventure-style piece of writing, or even an exercise in technique, rather than a definitive story.
The main issue with a second-person point-of-view is how much character you impart to the reader. Embed too little and they become a bland audience surrogate with no development, too much and the reader may fight back. By telling the reader what they are thinking and how they are feeling, you can sometimes alienate them as they rebel against the character you are forcing them to become.
There is no opportunity for an unreliable narrator in second-person unless you combine it with first, giving you two main characters.
The Balance of Second-Person Perspective
Second-person perspective is definitely the most limiting point of view, and many writers find it difficult to maintain due to its limitations. Successful second-person storytelling involves creating a strong enough character whilst also allowing them to be somewhat passive so as to not overwhelm the reader. It is a perspective that can be exploited for dramatic effect, but ultimately is more of a challenge in form than a natural style.
You move your hand, in the dark. The blind corner is held by a press stud. You frown. Nobody has ordered you not to touch it.Keith Roberts, Molly Zero
The protagonist of Roberts’ novel is considering opening a blind on the window of a moving train, and in this extract the weight of ownership of making the decision is imparted through the second-person narrative onto the reader. The trick is to lull the reader into believing they too are experiencing those emotions.
Second-person perspective is a way of putting the reader inside the story, though its limits are enforced when the character the reader represents acts or thinks in a way significantly different to the reader. It is an experimental narrative style, though one worth trying out to flex the writing muscles if nothing else.