The most unloved of all POV choices! The bastion of choose-your-own-adventure novels and self-insertion! The one that is reserved so firmly for terrible juvenile mistakes or one-off stunts that no one even warns you off writing in it, like they warn you off writing in first.
Here’s my confession of the day, internet: second person is my favorite POV to write in. It is the POV I have to school myself out of. Almost every story I start has a hesitation-mark version where it is in second person. Usually I immediately get over myself and my fascination, because second is not the best tool for every job — it is a specialist POV, certainly, I am not going to argue that we should throw over the cleaner, stabler classics of third and first in favor of a new order where all stories are addressed to you — but I’ve spent a lot of time with it, and I think it’s a tool with more uses than we tend to acknowledge. Some of those uses are interestingly subtle and worth unpacking.
I’m thinking about this right now because I am working simultaneously on two pieces which are both in second. There’s a bit of fanfic I’m writing for sheer self-indulgent fun, whose protagonist and POV character is habitually in second; and then there’s the revision of one of the stories I applied to Viable Paradise with, All The Colors You Thought Were Kings. I sent that story to VP for two reasons: I thought it was good, and I thought that it would prove that I was good. Good at writing. Because I had written a 6000-word story in second person and I had pulled it off. If I convinced the VP staff to take me on, after making them read 6000 second-person words? Well. Clearly I was a clever creature, with actual talent. I couldn’t fool anyone if I was stacking the deck so high against myself as to have transgressed the functional norms of short-story writing by putting a fairly standard bit of space opera political romance in second person for no good goddamn reason.
Except to see if I could. (And one other reason, which I’ll get to in a minute.)
Spoilers: they took me.
More spoilers: My god did that story get mixed reviews.
Some of the less-pleased reactions were of the usual kind that second person gets: a frustration with being addressed, as a reader, with you. A sense of disconnect between the reader (you, direct address), and the POV character, who clearly is not doing what the reader is doing. I remember one of my classmates put it quite succinctly: “But I didn’t do that,” she said. “The character did.”
What an utterly clear argument against second person. No, you didn’t do it. The character did. So why on earth did I tell you that you did it?
The trick is, I didn’t tell you. I told him. Well. The narrator told him. The narrator told the POV character, you did this. (And, to complicate this entire situation further, in the case of All The Colors, the narrator and the POV character are the same person.) And here’s where second gets interesting, because there are actually three kinds. At least. Three that I’ve figured out names for. I’m going to call them audience-oriented, coersive, and transparent.
Audience-oriented is the kind that my classmate was expecting. It’s the choose-your-own-adventure second, where the narrator is in fact addressing the reader with you. It’s got a couple of assumptions built into it which are not immediately apparent on first glance but which might be why people who expect audience-oriented second person get so annoyed with second-person narratives in general. The biggest of these is the idea that the reader is in fact intimately involved with the process of the progression and resolution of the story. The reader’s reactions have an effect on how the story functions: you are the protagonist, you turn to page 25, you move your avatar through Norrath (– and there I go showing the last time I was seriously involved in MMORPGs, ha), you are Shepard making choices in Mass Effect. There’s a collapse of narrative space between character and reader.
No wonder people who either don’t want to be responsible for the movement or the story or (more commonly) feel that they have been promised a level of control over the narrative by the POV and then are denied this degree of influence by the actual progression of events feel that second person is incredibly irritating.
But collapsing space between character and reader is not the only thing second person can do.
It can also collapse space between narrator and character and between narrative and character.
I strongly believe that the spatial collapse inherent to second person is the same thing that’s going on in epistolary literature, where author and reader, separated by space (at least) and time (usually) are brought into intimate contact by a medium of written communication which addresses the reader with the intimate you. Letter-writing is about spatial collapse. That’s why people do it. It closes gaps. And now I’m getting into the subject of my academic work — we’ll avoid the detour about Byzantine epistolary topoi and how they’re almost always concerned with exile and ameliorating its effects — but I think that a good number of the weirdnesses inherent in our expectations of what second person can do come from the conceptual intimacy which is associated with letter-writing. Letters are a kind of telepathy; they bring the I-writer/narrator to the presence of the you-receiver/reader; the letter itself is an image of the soul, to quote one of my Byzantines (Michael Psellos, epistula 11). When a writer uses ‘you’, there’s an expectation of having the speaker right here, at least to our trained Western reading minds.
So, the other two kinds of second person.
Coercive. This is a second person where the speaker of the ‘you’ is the protagonist or visible narrator in a story, and the addressee of the ‘you’ is another character in the story, explicitly. This second person is engaged in telling the You what is going on in the story, dictating the actions, feelings, and sometimes the internal life of the You, but the You is also fictional and wholly contained within the story.
Okay, let me show you an example. Here is some fanfic I wrote for Welcome to Night Vale (which is in general a great example of coercive second being exquisitely mixed up with audience-address second: great recipe for horror.)
Behind Cecil’s even white teeth his mouth is black and tongueless, the same featureless obsidian as each of his eyes, like the sigil of a microphone. Beatific, he waves at you from the other side of the recording-booth glass. It is very natural to wave back, with the hand that isn’t clutching your clipboard and your materials detector, which is going off like gangbusters. Your nerves and – perhaps, oh, perhaps even this early – your heart are also going off, a jangle of electrochemical impulses, exquisite and overwhelmingly loud. Naturally you feel fear. Fear is the common heritage of all citizens of Night Vale. And you are a citizen now – you’ve been a citizen since you called a town meeting! If not since slightly before.
During a commercial break, Cecil invites you inside the booth so that you can test his equipment. He says this slightly off-color phrase with an entirely straight face, which he hopes you find endearing, or at least respectful of your personal space. You clench your strong jaw, nervous. While you detect, bringing your blinking box close to the microphone and its tangle of wires which descend into the dark void beneath the desk, Cecil’s voice tells you about the silent apparitions of the traffic and the new Pinkberry. Cecil’s voice emerges from the radio without the benefit of Cecil opening his mouth. This is probably due to the magic of pre-recording, but you cannot be sure. Your materials detector screams like a thousandfold flight of baby birds, each one falling into that vast void into which the wires flow. This concerns you somewhat.
Cecil, in deference to your concern and to the perfection of you, dearest Carlos, does not point out that he is, as ever, unsure if the wires of his microphone are connected to anything at all.
All right. Protagonist and narrator here is Cecil (who is not exactly human) but POV character is Carlos, Cecil’s boyfriend. Cecil is telling Carlos how Carlos felt, behaved, and experienced; yet we-the-reader are consistently aware that the narrative voice belongs to someone who is inside the story. Cecil is manipulating Carlos or describing Cecil’s idea of what Carlos is thinking.
Coercive second is a party trick. It’s a really fun party trick, but it is pretty narrowly useful: it’s good for conveying that a narrator is supernatural (like Cecil here), it’s good for conveying that psychological fuckery is going on inside the POV character’s head (or at least that there is something peculiar happening in terms of the POV character’s relationship to their own perceptions), and it’s good for a kind of internal direct address, a nearly epistolary form, where Narrator A addresses POV Character B, you.
I actually think coercive second (and its weird child, which I guess I’ll call epistolary second) is a case of using a POV to accomplish a particular task. It is not neutral at all; it’s stunt writing, as the inimitable Elizabeth Bear would say. But it’s damn useful for that task, which is to remove distance between narrator and POV character.
But what if the distance you’re trying to collapse, as a writer, is between the narrative and the POV character? Well, you could go with bog-standard first person — but that means that your POV character is also your narrator. What if you wanted to have a POV character who is so close to the narrative that they can’t tell they’re unreliable, but you want a narrator who has a different agenda than that POV character?
Third kind is the weirdest, and also the one that I love best. Charles Stross’s Halting State is written in this, and so is the story I sent to VP, All The Colors — and so is a surprising amount of fanfic lately, for which I blame, entirely and completely, Andrew Hussie’s epic webcomic Homestuck, which is written in audience-address second person — much in the style. However, somewhere in the transition between source material and fanfic, the fanfic writers who started writing Homestuck fic skipped the audience address part of the second person and started writing a kind of incredibly tight, internal POV which just … happens to be in second.
It looks like this. (Here’s the first paragraph of All The Colors, in its current unedited state.)
Moonrise glitters dull on the sides of the ship that’s gonna take you away. She’s been down by the water half the afternoon, belly kissing the sand and skinny landing-legs all stuck out like a spider’s. Fucking gorgeous ship, strange as anything you’ve ever seen. You and Tamar watched her come down, stayed up half the night to do it like you were kids staring at your first meteor storm, peeking over the railings of her balcony and marveling at how the falling star-glimmer lit up the lights under your skins like an echo. You two’ve been full up with starstuff for nearly as long as you’ve been old enough to go outside the crèche by your ownselves. Now you’re almost home.
There is perhaps no good reason for this to be in second, except for the fact that it immediately makes the reader aware of the fact that the POV character is being told a story about how they are in the world, and that they are not conscious that this story is not entirely true. It doesn’t have the design of first person — a first person narrator makes choices about what they tell the audience, and the audience is aware of them making those choices.
Here, I’ll do that paragraph in first.
Moonrise glitters dull on the sides of the ship that’s gonna take me away. She’s been down by the water half the afternoon, belly kissing the sand and skinny landing-legs all stuck out like a spider’s. Fucking gorgeous ship, strange as anything I’ve ever seen. Tamar and I watched her come down. We stayed up half the night to do it, like we were kids staring at our first meteor storm, peeking over the railings of her balcony and marveling at how the falling star-glimmer lit up the lights under our skins like an echo. We two’ve been full up with starstuff for nearly as long as we’ve been old enough to go outside the crèche by our ownselves. Now we’re almost home.
This narrator is a hell of a lot more confident about all of the things they’re claiming. They sound — to me, anyhow — younger and more arrogant. My hypothetical reader is more inclined to think that they’re an ambitious asshole and an unsympathetic one.
Not that Elias, the POV character here, is not an ambitious asshole. He is. But in transparent second, the audience gets to doubt that. To wonder about it. To wonder why the narrative doesn’t belong to the POV character and yet there is no space between them.
Transparent second hints at the possibility of the POV character being wrong and not knowing that they’re telling the wrong story.
The problem with it is, audiences react to it with a general sense of what the fuck, why did you do that. It’s not so clearly purposeful as coercive second. It’s totally weird, in fact. I kind of wish it wasn’t an intensely natural voice for me.
The revision of this story is staying in second. But it’s going to be a more coercive second than the first draft … which is already having plot repercussions.
Someday I’m going to figure out how to write a story in transparent second which can’t possibly be in any other POV.