Reader autonomy and second person narrative

I was answering a question yesterday about writing different points of view, ie: first, second or third person. My interviewer Morgen Bailey is a big fan of second person stories, but I’ve always had a problem with them and I haven’t been able to work out why, until now.


It’s all about choice

As I’ve mentioned, I love roleplaying games, and I’ve recently started running a Mouse Guard game for a couple of friends. Mouse Guard takes the lovely world from the comics and creates a really simple, engaging set of mechanics for roleplaying as a bunch of mice heroes. The only problem is, if you’re a big fan of player autonomy, the system is pretty broken. It makes very little allowance for players to go off and explore what interests them. Rather, the GM’s (Game Master) role is all about directing them along the ‘correct’ linear path, simply twisting whatever the players do to make sure they don’t stray. I think this is a mistake, because some of the most enjoyable games I’ve played have involved us going entirely off-script. A good GM will learn to improvise as the story develops, to ensure that players still find what they need to, even if they go about it in a totally different way.


What’s second person got to do with it?


Second person stories necessarily involve putting the reader right there in the character’s head. ‘You walk into the duty room’. That’s you, the reader. The main problem here is that the author is telling you what to do. This feels really false, especially if the character ends up doing something that you wouldn’t do, or you think is stupid, or can’t sympathise with. It feels like the author is trying to pull one over on you. They’ve taken away your choice.

Now this is fine when you’re reading first or third person, because you’re a passive listener, you’re having the story narrated to you. When the author opts for you, it places the reader at the centre of the action. If they can’t choose what happens, it’s very easy for the story to feel wrong. This is why Choose Your Own Adventure books are awesome; it combines a fun, engaging narrative with the ability to make choices about where the story goes.


Think like a reader

Some writers really can pull off second person, but it’s difficult, and I haven’t read very many successful attempts. In fact I’m struggling now to think of one. If you’re writing it, just be aware of the position it puts your readers in, and try not to take away their autonomy.


About sarahgracelogan

Sarah Grace is an itinerant scribbler and general layabout. She runs a writing group called CAKE.shortandsweet, because any form of procrastination from actual writing is always attractive to the serious author of refined taste. When not distracted by laser pens, Sarah Grace writes novels, short stories and flash fiction, poetry, stage scripts and screenplays. She has performed her work at Stirred Poetry, Bad Language and Tongue in Cheek Manchester. Her first publication, Humping the Boonies is a self-published chapbook available directly from the author, or from Travelling Man, Manchester. You can find more details about her ongoing projects, not to mention a selection of free stories up for grabs right here on her blog. She also likes to talk about theatre, film, books, photography, and especially games and other things that involve collaborative storytelling. Sarah Grace likes feedback, in whatever form it comes.


  1. I’ve never been a fan of second-person narrative on the handful of occasions I have read it. The idea is that it is supposed to build tension but it does not work for me. I have subconsciously thought to myself “I wouldn’t do that” and as you point out “don’t tell me what I’m doing!” It is like playing a video game composed entirely of cut scenes.

    • It is like playing a video game composed entirely of cut scenes.

      Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like. You feel like you should be able to participate and influence the action somehow, but you can’t!

  2. I think the problem with second person is that people seem to feel the reader has to be the character and you’re just narrating what the character/reader is doing. When second person works, I think, is when the narrator and “you” are different characters. Like, when I do second person it’s usually one of my characters speaking to the other one (though usually not directly, more like when you’re talking to someone in your head instead of actually speaking to them), and the reader isn’t anyone at all, just privy to the one-sided conversation. … If that makes sense. Not sure I explained it very well. XD Of course, you couldn’t really write a whole novel in that style, at least not easily, but for shorter pieces I’ve found it can be a pretty powerful tool.

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