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.