Pros And Cons Of Second Person Point Of View (Point Of View Post No. 2)

Second person point of view is often used in self-help books (and blog posts) but rarely used in fiction. Because it's so rarely used, though, it can have a striking effect.

But first, let's talk about what it is and it's not.

Quick Look At Second Person Point Of View

Second person uses “you” as the viewpoint character:

You rushed into the room, afraid you’d make a poor first impression by being late.

In contrast, first person uses “I” and third person uses pronouns such as “she” or “he” or character names.

The best example of second person I've found in a novel is Bright Lights Big City by Jay MacInerny.

The author uses not only second person but present tense, which creates a greater urgency. Here are the first few lines:

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 train is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.

When I went looking online for examples of novels in second person, I again found Bright Lights Big City in a string in Quora.

There were a few others, but two of them were what struck me as first person in disguise or at least hybrids. The “you” was not the narrator but the person to whom the narrator was writing:

Stolen: A Letter to My Captor by Lucy Christopher

You saw me before I saw you. In the airport, that day in August, you had that look in your eyes, as though you wanted something from me, as though you’d wanted it for a long time.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Come, tell me, what were you looking for? Surely, at this time of day, only one thing could have brought you….. Have I guessed correctly?

A third, interestingly, was a novel told as if it were a self-help book. From the samples pages I saw, it is told in second person:

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia: A Novel by Mohsin Hamid

Your mother has encountered this condition many times, or conditions like it anyway. So maybe she doesn’t think you’re going to die.

It is a little easier to find short stories told in second person. The Power of You: 5 Stories Written in Second Person on Bookish.com lists five that look good.

The Pros Of Second Person Point Of View

The pluses of writing in second person include all those I talked about last week for first person:

  • Closeness/intimacy between narrator and reader
  • Simpler mechanics because you as the writer know from whose point of view each scene will be told and know you can only share what the narrator knows
  • The need for creative solutions due to those limitations

So why not simply use first person?

Second person creates a greater intimacy and immediacy as the Bright Lights Big City example shows. The reader is plunged right into the scene.

The reader is not simply in the narrator's head, the reader is the narrator. 

Second person also tends to make a writer less inclined to ramble on about backstory or engage in unnecessary flashbacks. Something about writing as if you’re talking about the reader inhibits that, because if you were actually writing about the reader, the reader would already know the backstory.

The Cons Of Second Person Point Of View

As with the pros, the cons of second person include those of first person:

  • You can only share with the reader what the narrator knows, which means some ways of creating suspense are gone
  • It's harder to develop side characters and sub-plots about them
  • If the reader dislikes your narrator or the narrator's voice, the reader will likely dislike the book regardless of its story

(For more, see the Pros And Cons Of Writing In First Person.)

An added disadvantage of second person over first person is that it is uncommon enough that it may initially be distracting to the reader.

All the same, if it's a type of writing that seems compelling to you, give it a try. Most readers forget about the “you” after a few lines.

Until next Friday, when I'll talk about third person, both limited and shifting

L.M. Lilly