Voice and the elusive 2nd person

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November 8, 2016 by bradcharlesbeals

voiceNarrative voice refers to the different forms that point of view can take in story telling. Most fiction, whether classic or modern, employs first- or third-person forms.

It’s that rare second-person form that’s got me interested. But first, here’s how they all breakdown:

  • First-Person Protagonist: The “I” character relates events that happened to him or her.
  • First-Person Witness: The “I” character is relating events that happened to someone else.
  • First-Person Re-teller: The “I” character is relating events second-hand. The distance between events and their re-telling can make this form difficult.
  • Second Person: The narrator addresses the protagonist as “you.” More on this one later.
  • Third-Person Omniscient: The narrator knows all events as well as the thoughts and feelings of all characters.
  • Third-Person Objective: The narrator only relates things that can be seen and heard. Thoughts and feelings of all characters are only expressed through words and action.
  • Third-Person Limited: The narrator is limited to the thoughts and feelings of one or a few characters.


I wrote my first two novels in first-person protagonist. Both times the decision was a no-brainer. Though there are things to consider when using the first person (e.g. Is the story being written down? spoken? thought to oneself? Is it private or for an audience? How much time has passed between the events and the telling? Why is the story being told?), it is still considered the set-it-and-forget-it voice. After all, I is humanity’s default point of view. It’s fixed there, so we don’t wander from it, not even accidentally. This innate quality of first person makes it a good choice for writers making their first attempts at fiction; As long as you know your protagonist well, there’s just not a lot that can go wrong with first person.

On the other hand, there are lots of things the first-person voice can’t do. Being fixed inside one head means that all other heads are off limits. I can only show what the other characters think through their words and actions. I’m also fixed in terms of narrative location. I’m tied to the first person’s movement through the plot, and there can be no parallel development unless it’s through some mechanism like letter writing (I used that to tell Jack’s story in Catastropolis), or it’s a part of first-person witness or re-telling, where the narrator can move between plot-lines (and these forms have their own set of limitations).

For my third novel, Blood Bound, I chose third-person limited because I knew I would be working with at least three parallel and concurrent plot-lines. Each of these had its own “sub” protagonist so my form of limited meant that I would shift between characters by chapter. And where my sub protagonists share the space, which they do increasingly as the story brings them together, the internal view shifts between them by chapter.

So I’ve written in first-person protagonist and in third-person limited, but I’ve never attempted anything in second person. In fact, as a high-school English teacher, I have never even taught a piece of literature that employed it.

It’s that rare.

In second person, the protagonist is addressed as “you.” That can be difficult for the writer to pull off because the reader will have to buy into it, and buy in early. Here’s an excerpt from Leo Tolstoy’s Sevastapol Sketches:

“You choose the skiff nearest you, pick your way over the semi-decomposed carcass of a bay horse that is lying in the mud beside the vessel, and make your way to the tiller.  Now you have cast off, and are away from the shore…in front of you an old seaman in camelhair coat…You listen to those oars, with their even beat, to the sounds of voices carried across the water towards you, and to the majestic resonance of the firing in Sebastopol, which , it seems to you, is growing in intensity.”

You can see right away the challenge. It’s YOU, reader, who chooses a skiff and steps over a dead horse and gets into the boat that takes you into a war zone. But at the same time, it’s not really you, it’s the narrator, a Russian soldier in the Crimean War who’s asking you to be him, or at least to walk in his shoes.

The second person’s real identity, of course, may not be the reader at all. For example, an older version of the narrator may be addressing a younger “you.” But if that’s the case, as the writer, you will need to establish that early, and you may need to include ways of reminding the reader of this periodically. In fact, whoever the intended “you” is needs to be made clear early on; your reader needs to trust what you’re doing.

But at the same time you may not want to give too much away. Maybe you want to pull the reader more closely into the story, maybe even cause the reader to have to identify with the narrator. Establishing any of that too early might be tipping your hand.

All such decisions, of course, depend on the WHY of the writing. All of this requires wisdom.

I had originally thought I might use the second person in my next novel just because I haven’t yet, but I’m seeing now that there’s much more at stake. So unless I find myself with a compelling reason for second-person voice, I think I’ll stick to first or third.

It’s still early though, and I have a lot to think about….

You’ve written two books in a series. You begin to loosely pull together ideas for a third and final installment. You’re making the big, essential decisions like theme and narration, decisions that will shape your writing life for the next few years. You….

Nope. I can’t do it, not for a hundred thousand words anyway.

So there. The first essential decision has been made, or at least narrowed down. I’m back to the common first and third, the tried and true.




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