Why second person doesn’t work in fiction

Last time we talked about first versus third person in light of this item on our checklist:

The chosen grammatical person is suitable to the story and the POV characters.

I glossed over second person, in which the reader is addressed as “you,” noting only that it is Not Recommended.

One type of fiction in which second person does work is children’s fiction, especially the “choose your own adventure” book. Back in the day, this type of book would have a scene that ended with something like this: “You reach a fork in the road. Which way will you choose? If right, turn to page 63. If left, turn to page 67.” New stories of this type are put in e-book form with hyperlinks, and can be very effective, especially when the book is carefully aimed at a market that’s eager to fill the shoes of the story’s protagonist.

Second person works less well in traditional novel-length narrative fiction. Here’s an example, from Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, in which the protagonist, known only as “you,” is a drug addict in a bar in the wee hours of Sunday morning:

You are a republic of voices tonight. Unfortunately, that republic is Italy. All these voices waving their arms and screaming at one another. There’s an ex cathedra riff coming down from the Vatican: Repent. Your body is the temple of the Lord and you have defiled it. It is, after all, Sunday morning, and as long as you have any brain cells left there will be a resonant patriarchal basso echoing down the marble vaults of your churchgoing childhood to remind you that this is the Lord’s Day. What you need is another overpriced drink to drown it out.

Anyone who knows me knows that in the wee hours of Sunday morning I’ll be sleeping so I can get up on time to teach Sunday school. So the problem with second person is that it’s a little too personal. It tells “me” I need things that I actively don’t want. I fight this story at every step.

second person writing you
Photo by Reubén las Palmas

Although McInerney writes well and has some clever turns of phrase, for the most part I found this book unreadable because it’s unrelatable. I gave up within pages because I resented being put in the skin of such an unpleasant person. Had the protagonist been an I or a he, it would have been easier to take.

I am not one to take a literary tool completely out of a writer’s hand. Second person can be a valid storytelling tool. McInerney certainly had commercial success with that book, which tops Goodreads’ list of “Popular Second Person Books.”

But that list contains mostly obscure literary novels. At least one book on the list, The Monster at the End of this Book, is a children’s book, and another, Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries No.1 Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers, is mis-shelved. Whose Body? is written in third person. Altogether, there are only about 20 books on the list. That says something about the efficacy of second person in novels. Or the lack thereof.

Where second person is most effective is in nonfiction. When Dave Ramsey says you need a budget, he really is talking to you.

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  1. I agree that second person is one of those things that should not be tackled unless you really have a knack for it, and probably not even then most of the time. It’s very jarring.

    I will say, though, that I’ve read one of the books on that list: All the Truth That’s in Me by Julie Berry. And, wow. It is incredible. It took a few pages to get used to, but the style quickly began to feel natural. I think the reason it worked is that the main character is not the “you”–it is the character talking to the “you,” the boy she is in love with. The reader feels less talked to and more as if they are reading someone’s diary that is written as if to a real person. The “you” in that story feels like a separate entity, and the reader connects with the narrator.

    Anyway, interesting post!

    1. Thanks. The book you describe sounds like a cool application of second person — the “you” being part of a dialog between someone in the book and the reader. That’s how it’s often done in children’s books. And a lot of the old writers used to do that once in a while: “You must realize, Dear Reader, that…” But in small doses, not through the whole book.

      Whether to use second person not only depends on the skill of the author, but whether it’s necessary to the story. Bright Lights could easily have been written in first person without changing the story much. The book you describe sounds like a really good application of second person, and changing it would have changed the story too much. It’s all about the story…

  2. […] Not Recommended. It’s experimental and kind of awkward. I could go on, and probably will, about why second person is a bad idea for fiction. For now, let’s focus on first and […]

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