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Aaaaah, Second Person Perspective. Perhaps the greatest trial in any writer's life; a perspective that flips everything you ever learned and loved about writing on its head. It seems easy, oh, it does.

But it's anything but.

First, a little bit of explanation. Second Person perspective is, best put, the reader is the character. Whoever is reading the narrative is stepping into the narrative's world; they are your main character. A puppet, just as any other character would be - in a sense - in that you determine - again, in a sense - where the reader goes. What they do, when they do it.

But, this is also Second Person's biggest problem. No matter how many times you try, you just can't get other people to want to be told what they're doing! As it turns out, willing suspension of disbelief has its limits, and you just can't have the reader place themselves in this world you have created and expect them to see things the same way you do. You could have the most brilliant piece of writing ever crafted - and it will fall simply because you wrote it in Second Person.

That is, unless you can pull off the impossible: Writing a good story while abandoning everything you know about writing.

Writing from THEIR Angle

I'm exaggerating, of course. But you do have to alter a lot of practices in order to make it work.

Lets start off with perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle: The reader. Your character. Your main character at that. They will be the biggest hurtle you have in writing your work; they are a character more dynamic than even the most well-written novel hero, more un-changing than the most timeless pieces of literature, and yet still change more times than the Big Show turns heel.

This is because you are not just dealing with one reader as you would be with any normal character. Circumstances and identities differ from person to person - for example, you may own a switchblade, but your reader may not. You can't base the reader off of what you would do.

When writing your narrative, you have to construct it around the reader, and around multiple readers at that. Think of it more as being the Dungeon Master of a D&D game than being a writer - don't railroad your reader. Don't tell them what they are, what they do and don't like. In other words, you have to make absolutely sure that no matter who is reading your work, they can fit themselves into the environment and world that you have constructed. Design the environment and guide the reader along the plot.

This is the primary theme of Second Person; the ultimate 'reader stepping into the character's shoes.'

Be Vague

The next thing to remember; be vague. The character didn't eat steak and beans for lunch; they ate lunch. They didn't go to work at an office building on third street; they went to work. Their friend Tim didn't come over; their friend came over. Being vague in this sense allows you to design the world but leaves small enough blanks that the reader is able to fill them in with the closest things they do on a regular basis. It goes with writing from their angle; by being vague, the reader becomes the character and is able to suspend their disbelief. It turns what would otherwise be implausible into something entirely plausible - your reader is no longer being told they are the character in the story, they are the character in the story.

This isn't saying not to be descriptive; you just want to pull off the narrative in a way that your reader becomes the character, not creating a character that by extension is themselves.

I've been saying to design the world around your reader; when I say this, I mean you take the reader's world and insert it into the story, making small little edits here and there. This is the reason you want to be vague; there isn't a possible way you can describe the reader's world to them - they're in that world, you're not.

Which Brings Us to the Settings and Motivations

The best Second Person Narratives are irregular things happening on a regular day. Your reader has absolutely no reason to decide that they want to visit a haunted house. They have no reason to decide to suddenly marry someone. They have no reason to decide to pursue a serial killer. You don't decide your reader's motivations like you do with any normal character - what motivation do they have to not just pick up their ball and go home rather than follow the blood trail and find that their friend Tim just got ate by a werewolf?

Explanation is a key item here. If you don't want your reader following along a regular day where spooky things happen, you have to explain why they are where they are. Your reader didn't decide to explore the haunted house; the house itself kidnapped them. They aren't there because they want to be. They are there against their will. This is the significantly hard part; now you have to figure out what your reader - and by extension, the majority of people - would do in a situation of such pressure. And the hook had better be straight up amazing; simply by removing that 'regular day' setting, you are lowering the reader's willing suspension of disbelief.

There are good and bad versions of every question. Your reader should be asking 'Why am I here?' inside of the story rather than out of it.

Note that by no means am I saying not to take the risk; I'm saying that taking the risk of essentially 'railroading' your reader is a hard, hard thing to pull off which is best done subtly.

Would You Kindly?

Aaah, the great twist of Bioshock. Yep, I'm talking about the game.

You want to make the twist of a Second Person narrative subtle; 'Would You Kindly?' is a great example of this. Hint at it, but make it something that the reader doesn't start viewing with too much importance until it hits.

And when it does, it should jolt them. Keep in mind though; willing suspension of disbelief is by far the most important part of a Second Person narrative. The reason 'Would You Kindly?' worked so well is because it made all of the player's actions a result of the main antagonist's wishes for them to do so. It's entirely believable in context because the character is set up in such a way through backstory and character development.

However, it's also a good example of what not to do. Again, 'Would You Kindly?' works so well because of the context and characters behind it - things you have little access to in a good Second Person Narrative. Your reader knows full-well that they aren't being controlled by it - you're just telling them they are. That's not to say something similar couldn't work - if you pull it off just right; though, that's about as likely as taking 'AND THEN A SKELETON POPPED OUT' and turning it into a proper horror novel. It can be done, but chances are not in your favor.

The point here is that the twist needs to subtly jolt the reader. They need to come to the slow, agonizing, and horrifying realization, rather than a sudden shocking swerve. When writing in Second Person Narrative, the last person you want to be is Vince Russo.

So You're Writing Your First Story and Want to Write it in Second Person


Even with everything I've covered here, Second Person is extremely difficult to write. You can't make deep characters; your reader's emotional connection depends upon immediate story immersion that is almost impossible to pull off and nearly gauranteed to fall flat simply because it has to be described well but vague enough to apply to your reader.

Your setting has to be a world you can't truly imagine. Character development and progress is essentially impossible. You have to conform your world to your reader and make it their own. Above all, almost nothing can be predictable. Subtle is key. You have to, at all costs, avoid 'I wouldn't do this. Why is the story telling me I'm doing this?' responses.

Second person is best left for when you have the skill to take on bigger challenges. When you are really able to truly write. When you can mold your situation into any world your reader would be in and they're still able to see it - and themselves - in it. It takes skill beyond that of a first time writer.

Chances are that I haven't covered everything here, and it's not the perfect angle to take things from. Unless you're damn good and your story has what it takes, stick to 1st and 3rd person instead.