The Notorious ‘You’: An In-depth Look At Second Person

The Notorious ‘You’ – An In-Depth Look At Second Person

In this post, we look at the notorious ‘you’. We hope this in-depth look at second person viewpoint, and its uses in fiction, helps you with your writing

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‘You think, as you walk away from Le Cirque des Rêves and into the creeping dawn, that you felt more awake within the confines of the circus. You are no longer quite certain which side of the fence is the dream.’ – Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus

‘You remember how you counted your steps as you planted: one step, one potato. The years God gave you babies, the steps were smaller with the weight in your belly, on your back. The years He took them away before you could count a single breath, the steps were smaller still, the potatoes fighting for space and soil. Those years, you ate such small potatoes.’ – Johanna Robinson, Blessings, 1849

The Notorious ‘You’ – An In-depth Look At Second Person

Second person viewpoint tells the story from the point of view of a ‘you’ rather than the more usual ‘he/she’ or ‘I’. It’s a controversial tactic, but it has many interesting uses… 

[Suggested viewpoint reading: How Viewpoint Works – 10 Ways To Tell A Story]

Reading a story that’s written from the viewpoint (point of view/POV) of ‘you’ does something funny to our brains and our hearts.

The naked directness of that ‘you’ makes us feel addressed, implicated, even accused. It’s as if the story is reaching out and grabbing us by the throat. ‘You’ breaks the fourth wall, a bit like being called up on stage at a comedy gig.

The relationship between author and narrator is notoriously ambiguous already. But positing the reader as the narrator or protagonist adds new layers of complexity. The whole relationship between reader and author, subject and object, starts to become deliciously problematic.

Sometimes the ‘you’ feels like a universalised ‘one’, an everywoman – as if the story is saying: this could happen to anyone. But sometimes we wonder if the narrator/author is addressing themselves, as if in a mirror or in a letter to a younger self.

Sometimes the ‘you’ is poking me in the chest, and sometimes it’s whispering in my ear. The effects are varied and fascinating. Intensity, intimacy, creepiness are always possible, but also forgiveness, redemption, and imaginative empathy, or again distance, ambiguity, and mystery.

There are examples of novels written completely in the second person, such as:

  1. Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel by Drew Gummerson
  2. You by Nuala O’Connor
  3. Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern uses second person in some chapters, and in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Italo Calvino uses second person in the first section of each chapter.

But perhaps because of its rarefied, intense quality, we find it especially prevalent in short fiction. ‘I think it works best when the writer is going for intense, borderline-claustrophobic interiority,’ says Megan Carlson.

Second person narrative voice is a very Marmite thing: some love it, some really don’t. ‘I hate it. It’s distracting and pretentious and annoying,’ says writer Flic Everett, and there are many who share this view.

In this piece, I want to look at some of the different uses of ‘you’ in shorter fiction, with lots of examples. If you think you hate it, perhaps you’ll look at it again. If you’ve never tried it in your writing, perhaps you’ll be encouraged to give it a go.

8 Ways To Use Second Person In Your Fiction

1. In Love & Desire

The ‘you’ of love stories is naked and intimate. It’s as if the narrator is saying: I love you so much, I don’t want to tell this on my own.

  1. Cranky Pants by Kate Tooley is a wonderful story of how love and friendship can redeem the taunting expectations of a world with fixed ideas about who you should be and how you should look. ‘Your work friends see you coming, look you up and down, and sigh deeply, like that guy in the bar who is fundamentally disappointed that every woman is not Margot Robbie.’ But later the ‘you’ is seen: ‘She pulls you into bed and reminds you of the reasons you like your body and you fall in love with the taste of her for the three thousand, six hundredth and twenty-forth time.’
  2. Celestial by Kim Murdock relates a journey from pain and loss to loving acceptance, this time imaged in doodles, first forbidden and later celebrated. ‘Years later, spun in another world, you will take a lover who lets you draw on his body. Droplets of sweat, earthbound and sweet, will rise from his core as you map out your world in constellations of words and images.’
  3. Ten Things by Leslie Pietrzyk is part love story and part eulogy. Its intimate and moving reconstruction of a relationship is all the more powerful for detailing the flaws and the faults as well as the magic. Says Leslie: ‘I use second person to find/create emotional distance for the narrator who’s revealing hard things and can’t quite see themselves as “that person”.’

2.In Love Spurned

Happiness writes white, and thwarted love has many fictional expressions.

  1. In You sign the papers on Sunday by Megan Lunny, a divorcing couple divide everything they have in two with King Solomon-like literalness. ‘You scissor roughly through plants, bedsheets, corduroy stockings. He saws cleanly through the leather sofa, bicycles, most of the appliances.’ The feelings of the ‘you’ in this story are not easy to pin down. There is a certain pride at dealing with the situation better than their ex, a desire to conceal feelings from him, and a cool determination to see the process through and move on: ‘In the cereal box you discover a cockroach and you have no choice now but to crush it between your thumb and index finger, noting the way the body crunches, that final and inconsequential resistance that all things have to being split from themselves. Then you stand up and stretch—yawn, the full circle of your mouth…’ The circle is full and you will move on, even after all that cutting and sawing.
  2. In 42 S. Deacon St. #5, Michael Grant Smith’s narrator tries to rationalise heartbreak into casual hate. But the telltale signs of protesting too much are everywhere. ‘A year passes and you’ve begun to doubt she is coming back. Her stuff is still all around the apartment as she left it. You think so, but you’re not sure. You don’t remember what is hers and what is yours.’
  3. In Night Circus, by Joy Baglio, a narrator finds that her ex-lover, a handy, artisanal type, has built an entire circus outside her house, and filled it with wondrous attractions and creatures that he conjures with his new lover. The narrator can’t help but follow her in. ‘You stalk her through the coils of a human labyrinth, with walls that frown and grin back at you. You know she is leading you to the very heart of the circus, to him.’ The story feels like a nightmare of jealousy and loss, but also like part of a process of moving on and self-repair. Noting the lover’s ‘bad breath’ feels like a good sign! Still, it’s not easy to see him so happy and creative with another, and there is the sting of remembered intimacies: ‘There is something about his face, dark hair, light skin, that never left you. He was the first man who sketched you naked. The first for whom you avidly baked. Once, over Christmas, you sewed him an entire quilt, and you’re not the domestic type.’ Joy Baglio says: ‘I love second person and use it often – I find it’s like a wrench that helps pry the lid off of voice, allowing me to more easily access a voice’s raw directness. I often switch the piece to another POV in a later draft.’ This switching of persons is something many writers told me they do. Either they start in second to get the story going, and switch later. Or they start in first or third, but find the story only really comes to life with ‘you’.

3. In Righteous Accusation

Shoddy or abusive behaviour by men towards women is one of the dominant themes of shorter fiction. The ‘you’ of stories that give voice to feelings of hurt or injustice may be directly accusatory or more sadly reflective.

Sometimes it is as if the narrator is setting out charges that would for various reasons be impossible to confront the perpetrator with directly. Depending on how the story is framed, the ‘you’ can be the offender, and sometimes the accuser.

  1. In Ember by Erika Nichols-Frazer, the narrator ruefully reflects on the disappointments of an illicit relationship, but must also battle with the expectations of others. ‘Your mother told you recently, out of the blue, to guard your reputation, that it is the only real currency you have. You didn’t know what to say to this.’ But it is too late for such platitudes, and as a serious fire necessitates evacuations, the lover’s indifference to ‘you’ is no less painful for being predictable: ‘He took his wife and daughter, who is only four years ‘younger than you, to their house in the mountains. He hasn’t texted to make sure you’re alright. You decide that, even if he does, you won’t respond.’ But the ‘you’ of the story won’t leave him, or not yet, and we leave them suspended in disappointment. Here we see the self wrestling with the self, struggling to take its own good advice.
  2. Rosmaund Davis likes second person for the ‘unique possibilities for intensity and intimacy combined with distance’. Her story, Love Eternal, pinpoints the exact moment a lover’s narcissistic charm runs out. ‘You wish that he had not come because now that he is here, sitting across from you, taking your hand, leaning in close to you, you are seized only by the numb, gray realization that you no longer care.’ It feels almost like the disappointment here is not just with the individual lover who turns out to be a jerk, but with the inability of love to live up to its ideal. ‘Your heart sinks, and you wish that you could go back to those moments before he arrived, back to staring at the door.’
  3. In the extraordinary visceral imagery of His or Yours, by Alexa T Dodd, a wife tries to comfort her husband after a rare show of emotion, and gets an unexpected response: ‘There is a sound like a joint popped out of place, and his hand emerges from his chest cavity holding a pumping mass of flesh. It takes you a moment to realize what it is. As he holds it out to you, the smell is metallic and yeasty, simultaneously repugnant and intimate.’ The wife responds in kind, but comes to see that marital empathy is very much a one-way street, and a depressing pattern emerges. ‘How can someone live like this? you think, realizing, of course, that it’s the question your mother asked herself every day.’
  4. Darker still is Debbi Voisey’s Love by Gaslight: A Preview. The title pretty much speaks for itself. ‘You won’t know how to stop the vomiting but it will make you skinny the way he likes you so you won’t want to stop it.’
  5. I’ve always assumed that Milestones by Janice Leagra is a daughter addressing a father, but reading it again I can see that no gender is specified. ‘Maybe you knew it when I was three and still wearing diapers and you were convinced that I was either doing it out of spite or because I loved walking around in my own piss.’ That’s how this incredibly powerful story starts, and it never lets up.

4. For Empathy & Redemption

Perhaps the most compelling use of the second person viewpoint is to express empathy, reconciliation, forgiveness. This ‘you’ reaches out to tell someone that their voice has not gone unheard, their pain has not gone unseen, even that their life has not been lived in vain.

Sometimes the ‘you’ is an ‘I’ split into two, with one part of a self reaching out to forgive or redeem another part, one that is perhaps trapped or suffering, or both. Sometimes this movement is retrospective, even posthumous.

  1. Each of Cathy Ulrich’s ‘Murdered Ladies’ flash fictions, collected as Ghosts of You, begins with a variation on the same refrain: ‘The thing about being the murdered extra/girlfriend/moll/classmate/witch/dancer is you set the plot in motion…’ The corpse of a murdered female is the casual plot device that launches a thousand films and TV shows. These stories indict a society that is inured to male violence against women. In each second-person story, Ulrich takes one such woman, and attempts to resuscitate something of her life, to un-erase its existence and restore some dignity and agency to her memory. Ulrich seeks to rescue each ‘murdered lady’ from the men who will seek to appropriate her, even in death. ‘The police will secretly prefer the photo of you dead, find something attractive in the parting of your lips, the bruising of your throat, something graceful in your death, something fragile, something precious.’ And again: ‘They’ll write a biopic about you. A man will. A man who knew you, tangentially, when you were still alive. A man who remembers, tangentially, the sound of your laughter, the tap of your footstep. He’ll write you the way he remembers you, the way the people do. He’ll write you larger than life.’ Each woman may set her plot in motion, but in each case she is not alive to explain how everyone around her gets her so wrong, often as a way of absolving themselves of any responsibility in her death. We see that this theft of the woman’s own story is another violence that is done to them, something the stories seek to redeem. As the author says: ‘Every story is looking for the lost girl from the title […] I am looking for the lost in these stories. I don’t know if I will ever find them.’
  2. In The Emptiness Walks With You by Katie Burgess, ‘you’ is a put-upon student at a community college with no money, nowhere to live, and a wealthy, divorced dad who doesn’t want to see them. The narrator bitterly resists the supposed consolations of fiction, only to find that there is nothing or no one else there for them: ‘Shut up, you think. Shut up, you piece of shit story. You don’t know me. You don’t know the first thing about me.’
  3. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Woman by Sannon Savvas, meanwhile, is a poignant travelogue about a woman who trails around Europe after her inattentive doctor husband, who’s always speaking at conferences. Her loneliness is exacerbated by the fact of being in so many beautiful and historic places without a partner to really share them: ‘Forget he does not love you anymore. Forget you have wasted thirty years to end up with nothing except the intermittent panacea of five-day jaunts to European cities and hotel rooms which all look the same, feel the same, melding into one anonymous city of churches, museums and narrow streets.’ There is a tremendous pathos to the narrative. ‘You want a cool beer but don’t trust yourself with the mix of alcohol, heat and sadness.’ The ending, which is marked by a significant shift from ‘you’ to ‘I’, appears to offer hope: ‘I love this city, you think. I love this room. I love this man.’ But so much bitter disappointment has gone before, that we can’t help wondering whether this is only a false dawn.
  4. Sarah M Jasat writes that she ‘grew up believing her family was very strange but later discovered she was Indian’. She writes short fiction ‘exploring individuals’ struggles within the constraints of traditional families’. When Meeting a Boy for the First Time powerfully evokes the conflicts between the idiosyncrasies of personal desire and the imperatives of arranged expectations: ‘Somebody may ask you what you are looking for in a partner. Do not say the Michelin man, because he’s strong with kind eyes that make you feel safe, and would be able to teach you how to change a tire. Do not ask if they know that the Michelin Man’s real name is Bibendum.’
  5. Kristina Ten’s Your Best Self is another satirical piece about the distance to be navigated or endured between the authentic self and a socially approved persona – in this case, one that will comply with the expectations of the workplace. Told by her reproving manager that she needs to start bringing her ‘best self’ to work every day, the ‘you’ of the story goes home and gets out all of the previous selves that she finds hanging in her wardrobe: ‘You pull your selves off their hangers and lay them side by side on the bed, then on the floor next to the bed. Their vacant eyes stare up at you, each a different shade of green, but none, you decide, any nicer than the rest.’ The story calls out work as a necessary fiction, a farcical game to be played in deadly earnest. But sometimes, there’s just nothing left in the locker.
  6. In some ‘you’-facing stories the scope of empathy extends across years or even a whole lifespan. Rebecca Field’s Traces of You is a poignant series of vignettes of an overlooked life. Lucy Goldring’s Blood, Water, Other charts the difficult relationship between a pair of step-siblings, working over decades through guilt and alienation to a possible reconciliation.
  7. Jessie Lovett Allan’s What Will Happen to the Fat Girl is, she says, ‘the only piece I have ever written in 2nd person. I imagine the narrator as a sort of omniscient fortune-teller.’ We see a person’s whole life play out, a life in which people seem able only to see her in terms of her size – even in extremis. ‘When you are old, you will get cancer in your blood. No diabetes, no clogged arteries, just one freaky mutant cell setting off the whole cascade. Your treatment will make you thinner, and your friends will make jokes about your secret trick for weight loss.’
  8. Dan Crawley’s Con Amore is a wonderful, funny-sad portrait of loneliness. Remi Sky’s A Sadness of Homes hints heart-breakingly at abuse. And there is a real sense of menace in Walking on Eggshells by Sharon Telfer. In this brief yet chilling drama, the fragility of a newborn baby is set against the brittleness of its father’s abusive temper.
  9. Sometimes 2nd-person flash can plunge us straight into another’s consciousness, as in Anita Goveas’ Let’s Sing All The Songs We Know or 24 by Becca Yenser. Here the ‘you’ may (we imagine) be the narrator’s younger self or a person in their life who has not received much attention. Says Anita: ‘I really enjoy writing second person, I feel that it puts the reader rather than the character into the story and sometimes that’s the best way to evoke an emotional response.’
  10. Queen Maeve’s Tomb by Rita Feinstein traces the impact of an immersive role-play game played by two teenage girls, the narrator and her friend Ercilia. The narrator identifies with the game’s Gothic girl-power vibe so powerfully that the friendship becomes to her an essential alliance of sensibilities. Sometimes the game washes over into ‘real’ life, but more often it simply replaces it. When her parents pick her up and ask if she had a good time, the narrator tells us: ‘You’re not sure. All you know is that you’ll never be the same.’ Reality cannot compete with the game. ‘Life isn’t a series of prewritten quests, combats, and cut-scenes, and you are not the most important person in the world. You are one mind in a seething sea of minds, all of them clustering numb as jellyfish, in contact but never understanding one another.’ As reality and game fuse, the narrator has to deal with Ercilia going to a different school and losing interest in the quest. She also discovers the game won’t be updated because it doesn’t appeal to boys. A therapist asks the narrator if she feels she has control of her life: ‘“I mean, who does?” you say, and she gives you this look, and for a fraction of a second you feel seen, feel known.’

5. For Grief & Bereavement

The ‘you’ viewpoint provides another natural use in stories about grief, where the intensity of emotion can find a refuge in the unique combination of distance and intimacy.

  1. Martha Lane often writes stories about parenthood and pregnancy loss. In the unbearably poignant Seagull Feather Rattle, a mother watches her daughter build a baby on the beach, while reflecting on another child who is lost.
  2. Along with the reader, the ‘you’ of New Old by Tara Isabel must process not only her own grief at the loss of her mother, but the eccentricity of her father’s response. Dad goes from stirring his wife’s ashes into his tea, to wearing her clothes. Where will it end? In grief, as the wonderfully ambivalent last line reminds us, there is no clearcut answer.
  3. Sometimes the sadness is anticipatory. The ‘you’ of Bruises by Catherine Ogston looks ahead to a time of loss which has not happened yet but cannot be far away. ‘She leans heavily again on your tender arms and you wonder how much time there is left to ask the unanswered questions.’

6. For Horror & Scares

As we know from many a ghost story, the immediacy of the second person makes it a great choice for stories that seek to scare and unsettle.

  1. ‘It’s my go-to way of heebie-jeebing the reader,’ says Gareth Durasow, whose Do Something Amazing Today manages to do just that in a couple of hundred words, starting with the first paragraph: ‘A blood van has just parked outside. Don’t look surprised; you’ve let the summonses pile up over the past fortnight or so. A man and a woman get out. He checks your house number. She opens the boot and gets the equipment for taking blood and, where necessary, bodily restraint.’
  2. Wolf Whistle by Cheryl Sonnier is a post-Covid, socially distanced take on Little Red Riding Hood with a liberating twist. In Triptych: The Dreamer by EA Fowler, as the world moves towards imminent eco-disaster, the story’s three sections move in turn from third to first to second person. By the end, the scenario of a computer game has become unavoidable real-life nightmare.
  3. Jacqui Pack’s Convincing But Not Real was written, she says, ‘after reading that it was “impossible” to combine second person with an unreliable narrator’. She refutes the claim admirably, with this story of a ‘you’ whose purchase on reality is slipping, unless it’s reality itself that is failing: ‘When you saw Dr Roberts before, at the hospital, there was a folder on his desk. You opened it when he left the room and you read what he’d written. Dr Roberts knows all about the differences between voices and thoughts.’

7. In Gender Journeys

‘I love the gender neutrality that can come from writing in second person,’ says Milagros Lasarte. ‘Depending on the plot line of course, it’s fun to try and erase all other traces of what could be easily interpreted as a marker of gender.’

‘As a trans nonbinary writer, you has opened space to characterize folx’ gender identity journeys with tenderness,’ says Levis Keltner.

8. Blurring You & Me

In Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Jamil Jan Kochai tells the story of a boy who starts to lose all sense of the boundaries between the computer game he’s playing and a fantasy of rescuing his father’s brother. In the story’s ‘real life’ (as indeed in actual real life), this uncle was a Mujahadeen who was murdered during the Soviet occupation.

The son’s life is sheltered and American, while his father bears the trauma scars of war. So the fantasy is the son’s way to try and connect with his father – with whom he struggles to communicate directly – by sharing some of his suffering.

‘I’ve always found the second-person point of view to be oddly intimate and alienating,’ says the author in a New Yorker interview. ‘In the process of reading, “I”, the reader, becomes “you”, the addressee. I’ve always had a similar feeling of intimate alienation while playing video games, especially first-person shooters, where […] you feel as if it were “you” in the game, shooting and running and being shot.’

Unusually, the computer game Kochai’s character plays has missions where you can assist Afghan mujahideen fighters. This is very different from most games, such as Call of Duty, where Kochai and his character experience the radical confusion of shooting at people who look just like them.

In the story, as the boy goes deeper into his fantasy, there’s a knock at the door: ‘You notice that your room is a mess and that it smells like ass and that you’ve become so accustomed to its smell and its mess that from the space inside your head, behind your eyes, the space in which your first-person P.O.V. is rooted, you—’

The boy ignores the knock, and the story moves on. But the opportunities for writers to populate the ‘you’-shaped spaces behind our characters’ eyes will continue to evolve and multiply.

The Last Word

I hope this in-depth look at writing in second person helps you decide if you want to try it in your fiction.

P.S. Thanks so much to everyone who shared with me examples of second-person viewpoint in fiction via Twitter.

TIP: If you want help writing a book, buy The Novel Writing Exercises Workbook.

Dan Brotzel by Dan Brotzel. Dan is the author of Hotel du Jack, a collection of short stories, co-author of a comic novel-in-emails about an eccentric writers’ group Work in Progress (Unbound), and a solo novel, The Wolf in the Woods.

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Posted on: 22nd June 2021