The Advantages and Disadvantages of Second-Person Perspective

A series looking at the positive and negative aspects of writing from each point of view. This essay deals with second-person perspective.

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© 2016 Epytome / Used With Permission

Follows: First-Person Perspective

Second-person perspective is writing from the point of view of talking to the reader, putting them in the central role in the story. This allows the writer to include the reader within the narrative.

The gun sat on the table, inviting you to pick it up. It felt cold in your hand and was heavier than you expected. Your hand gripped it as if it belonged in your palm; your finger wrapped around the trigger as you aimed.

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.

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.

The Advantages

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, all 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 in second-person 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

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 second-person 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.

Second-person perspective is definitely the most limiting point of view, and many writers find it difficult to maintain due to its limitations.


Next: Third-Person Perspective

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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