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Second Person Point of View

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Second Person Point of View is the polar opposite of First Person: here, the Reader is a character within the story, and the Narrator exists either alongside them or outside the narrative altogether. As this category name indicates, the Narrator uses second person pronouns as well as the Imperative Mood to describe actions and events.

2nd Person Personal Pronouns chart: Row 1 (singular pronouns): Subject, you; Object, you; Possessive, yours; Possessive adjective, your; Reflexive, yourself; Row 2 (plural pronouns): Subject, you; Object, you; Possessive, yours; Possessive adjective, your; Reflexive, yourselves.

This point of view is more common in non-fiction—self-help and motivational books, instructions, cookbooks, and so forth. Within fiction, it’s the designated POV for Choose Your Own Adventure books and Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, where the Reader or Player expects to be an active participant in how the story progresses.

Self-help and Motivational Books

By necessity, these categories of books address the Reader directly.

second person quote from KEEP GOING: 10 Ways to Stay Creative by Austin Kleon: "Creativity is about connection—you must be connected to others in order to be inspired and share your own work—but it is also about disconnection. You must retreat from the world long enough to think, practice your art, and bring forth something worth sharing with others. You must play a little hide-and-seek in order to produce something worth being found."

Often, though, books in this category will create a hybrid first-and-second person POV. The narrator addresses their second-person audience while mingling first-person experiences to bolster their message. For purely second-person writing, though, look no further than

Recipes and Instruction Manuals

Because I’m a giver, I’m going to share one of my saintly great-grandmother’s recipes, exactly how she recorded it for her family to have forever. She trained as a cook in Stockholm during the 1910s and later emigrated with her parents to the US, where she worked as a professional cook for decades.

Meaning, this recipe is Authentic. Get ready to screenshot.

from the recipes of Edith E. Johnson: LUTFISK

Whole lutfisk
	Drop lutfisk into salted water and cook 7 to 10 minutes.
	Drain, skin, and remove all bones.
	Cut up and set in top of double boiler.
Make a thick cream sauce of:
	3 Tablespoons butter
	3 Tablespoons flour
	1 & 1/2 cups milk
	1 cup cream
Pour over the fish.
	2 Tablespoons butter

As far as recipes go, this one seems to be missing some steps. Most prominently, the one at the end where you dump it all in the trash. (Look, I’m already under condemnation for sharing The Family Lore. I might as well go whole hog and kick my Swedish ancestors in the face. Sorry, Grandma1.)

It’s a lovely example of utilitarian Second Person POV, though. Just feast your eyes on all the straightforward imperatives. (I mean, you certainly won’t be feasting on anything else here. I’m sorry, Grandma. I like fish, but not lutefisk, okay?)

Long story short, this POV is great for telling people to do stuff. And if you make the lutefisk, drop me a comment on how it was. Presuming you live to tell the tale.

Choose Your Own Adventure

In fiction, the classic Second Person application appears in any RPG-style narration. This POV is great for leading your Reader into the wilds of not-so-serious literary exploration.

quote from LOST IN AUSTEN by Emma Campbell Webster (2007): 

The news that nearby Netherfield Park has been let to a man of above five thousand pounds a year greatly pleases your mother, who is utterly convinced that this will immediately enhance the prospects of one or another of her daughters marrying well.
You learn from your neighbors Sir William and Lady Lucas that Mr. Bingley is quite young, wonderfully handsome, extremely agreeable, and to crown the whole, he means to be at the next assembly with a large party.
Not a bad start. Collect 10 fortune points.

This ability to guide is, in fact, one of this POV’s main appeals: it makes the Reader an active participant.

Other Applications in Fiction

When it appears in genre and literary fiction, Second Person POV is unique. It can create a fresh, innovative, or otherworldly narrative effect. It’s rare to have purely Second Person POV, however, in fiction that is not of the CYOA variety.

Sometimes, the narrator is another character in the story, and they use a hybrid first-and-second POV to describe the story events. This is the situation in ALL THE TRUTH THAT’S IN ME by Julie Berry:

quote from ALL THE TRUTH THAT’S IN ME by Julie Berry: 

You didn’t come.
I waited all evening in the willow tree, with gnats buzzing in my face and sap sticking in my hair, watching for you to return from town.
I know you went to town tonight. I heard you ask Mr. Johnson after church if you could pay a call on him this evening. You must want to borrow his ox team.
But you were gone so long. You never came. Maybe they asked you to supper. Or maybe you went home another way.

The narrator, Judith, interweaves first- and second-person pronouns as she unravels the mystery of her trauma and longing.

Contrast this with N.K. Jemisin’s THE FIFTH SEASON, which shifts between second- and third-person, depending on which Viewpoint Character takes center stage. Essun’s accounts are solidly and exquisitely Second Person POV, interspersed to allow breathing room while drawing the Reader into her life.

quote from THE FIFTH SEASON by N.K. Jemisin:

You are she. She is you. You are Essun. Remember? The woman whose son is dead.
You’re an orogene who’s been living in the little nothing town of Tirimo for ten years. Only three people here know what you are, and two of them you gave birth to.
Well. One left who knows, now.

Second Person: a caveat

This POV is unique in long-form fiction because it’s difficult to maintain in writing where its audience can’t interact. If not handled carefully, it can feel like a gimmick rather than a legitimate storytelling device.

This is an artisanal Point of View, requiring careful craftsmanship when used outside of its primary habitats.

  • Where have you encountered 2nd Person POV in fiction?
  • Why might this be a compelling POV to read or write?

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  1. For the record, my great-grandma was a superb cook. I don’t recall her actually making lutefisk. I like to think that, as a Swede, by law she had to include it with the rest of her recipes. ↩︎