Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Second person - that means *you*!

Have you ever heard someone say, "I hate stories written in second person"?

I've heard it a lot - second person tends to give people an immediate, visceral reaction - but not everyone knows what second person is, or how it can work. Essentially, if first person narration is told by "I," and third person by "he" or "she," then second person is "you." The reason I believe so many people have difficulty with second person narration is that it requires the reader to stand in the position of the protagonist.

You do this, says the author, and the reader's reaction may be, "No I don't!" or "I don't believe that at all!" Second person can sound accusatory, because the reader must act simultaneously as the source of the narrative and its intended recipient (for more on this topic, see my article on point of view).

Second person can be used effectively, however. I want to bring your attention to two recent stories, both quite successful, that use second person narration:

And Their Lips Rang with the Sun by Amal El-Mohtar
The Button Bin by Mike Allen

The most important thing to point out about these stories is that even though they use second person narration, neither of one is trying to make the reader act as a protagonist. Both stories have identifiable protagonists who are not (definitely not!) the reader. The thing that second person does for these stories is that it allows the identity of the narrator to remain a mystery without having the narrative become ungrounded. In fact, in both stories, the question of the narrator's identity plays a critical role in the story's development.

In each case, there's a specific moment when the author defines the narrator for the first time. In El-Mohtar's piece, it looks like this:

Come, stranger, come, admire the wealth of our nation, the pride of our city, the joy of our people's eyes.

I find this actually a very user-friendly way to approach the second person, because "you" are a "stranger." That means the reader isn't actually being asked to commit to a particular identity. In this story, the narrator isn't actually "you" but someone speaking to "you" and telling "you" a story (which itself is narrated in third person). It gives readers an interesting sense of security, I find, due to the fact that their comprehension of the story doesn't depend on any commitment to the identity of "you." Readers can thus enjoy the story without stressing about accusatory tone, and then be marvelously surprised at the end when they learn the identity of the person listening to the story (the person in whose chair they've been sitting all along).

In Allen's piece, he defines his narrator like this:

You know he’s the one who made your beloved niece disappear.

This is the more adversarial second person stance, only inasmuch as Allen is relying on his readers to accept a specific identity and the actions associated with it:

You stand from behind the trash cans with your arm held out as if you’re warding off a demon, pointing the black pistol you took from your father’s gun safe.

The thing that makes this choice of narrative style effective to my mind is the fact that Allen's story is horror - and the development of the second person narrator's identity is part of what makes this story so creepy. Yes, Allen demands that the reader consent to play the part of "you" - but if the reader chooses to accept it, that then allows Allen to make the creepy effects of his story more invasive and personal than they would be if they took place in the third person, or even first person.

After reading and analyzing these stories, I come to the conclusion that the choice of a second person narrator allows an author to do things that he or she would not be able to accomplish with other narrative styles. The central piece of this is the way that second person narration makes a mystery out of the identity of "you" - thus allowing an author to withhold information without losing the sense of grounding in the story.

Watch out, though: the mystery of the "you" narrator's identity will become a foregrounded question, and if it isn't resolved, the story may not work as well. Furthermore, there's really no way to anticipate the reader's actual identity, so attempting to create a second person narrator who actually resembles the reader is not likely to be successful. Even in Italo Calvino's novel, If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, where the narrator starts out being "you" reading Italo Calvino's book, the narrator does turn out to have a singular identity, and the farther you go in the book, the further it diverges into its own characteristics, distinct from those of the reader.

I hope this gives you (my blog readers with your various mysterious identities!) something to think about when you consider using second person narration in a story.