Second Person Narration

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Most of the books you've read are written in the first person (referring to the protagonist as "I") or in the third (referring to the protagonist as "he"/"she"/"it" or by name). Occasionally, though, you run across something written in the second person, YOU.

Second-person narration is very rare. On one hand, like first-person narration, it has a very intimate feeling. On the other hand, while the intimacy of first-person narration is that of storytelling, the intimacy of second-person narration is that of telepathy (or hypnosis): the book is telling you what you think and feel. You may find this rather presumptuous unless it's done carefully.

You've often found it used in conjunction with a Featureless Protagonist. Both serve the same function: they attempt to identify you with the protagonist.

Sometimes, if you look hard enough, you will discover indications that the second-person narrator is not supposed to be you the reader. You will likely want to ask why the author of such a work would dare try to make you identify that intimately with a second-person narrator who is, um, not you. But you probably will never ask the question aloud because the person you want to ask isn't there. How can you speak your piece when you have no one to tell it to? Talking to yourself would make you look crazy, so you'll just have to leave it an internal monologue for now.

You've frequently seen second-person narration in Choose Your Own Adventure novels as well as Interactive Fiction games -- so frequently, in fact, that you don't feel any need to list specific examples from these genres in this page. In fact, now that you think about it, some examples are specifically trying to evoke the feeling of these media in you. You will almost never find second-person narration in works older than these.

You will also find second-person narration in a few literary novels, especially ones written outside America.

Special note on music examples: just because a song uses second person pronouns (you, your, yours, yourself) a lot does not make the song Second Person Narration. It's only Second Person Narration if the "you" refers to the character who is singing, not the character who is being sung to. If the song also has first person pronouns—even many fewer than second person pronouns—it's almost certainly not Second Person Narration. ("You're so vain, I bet you think this song is about you" is not Second Person Narration; "I" is the person singing, and "you" is the person being sung to.) Imperative sentences—commands—directed at "you" are also a sign that it's probably not Second Person Narration. ("Eat your peas," is not Second Person Narration, but "You eat your peas" might be.) The same is true of questions directed at "you"—if the singer is asking questions of "you," in most cases that means the singer is not "you" and the song is not Second Person Narration. (Unless "you" are just talking to "yourself" in which case it might be.)

Sibling trope of First Person Perspective.

Examples of Second Person Narration include:

Comic Books

  • Spider Girl, though they dropped it with the last relaunch a couple years ago. Very annoying, too, since it addressed the protagonist.
  • One story in the Tales From the Crypt comics used this in the caption narration to hide the fact that the narrator is a vampire.
    • EC Comics stories do this a lot—in another story, it's used to hide the fact that the narrator is dead. In other stories it's used for effect rather than to hide the twist; for instance, the well-known story "Master Race" places the reader into the role of a former Nazi death camp commander.
  • The narrator of Marvel Comics's Dracula summarizing the previous issue: "Your name is Frank Drake and you are having a bad day. Your girlfriend has just been killed, turned into a vampire, and you had to kill her again (or something like that). You have came to the bridge to commit suicide."
  • The Sentry 2000 and 2005 miniseries apparently use Second Person Narration to represent the protagonist's internal monologue, which creates a claustrophobic effect: the Sentry is a character metaphorically and somewhat literally trapped in his own head. This is kind of weird when the perspective shifts to Reed Richards or the Hulk in the crossover issues, because it begins to feel like the author dictating to them the mental tongue baths they are giving the Sentry, but then becomes awesome again in The Sentry vs. the Void, which wraps up the 2000 miniseries, when it becomes apparent that the Sentry is supposed to be a Canon Sue:

You're the last line of defense, arriving in the nick of time with one second left on the clock.
You're better than Jesus. Tick.

  • Morpheus' wake in the "The Wake", the tenth volume of The Sandman, is narrated this way, and to great effect.
  • Shade the Changing Man, waking up the day after Kathy's death.
  • Man-Thing has this due to his limited understanding of human ways.


Fan Fic

  • There's a whole genre of Fanfic like this. In those fics, "you" tend to be a Mary Sue. Mostly it occurs among people who think they're being truly original by saying "then you put on your sparkly ballgown and you asked out Draco and then you made out for a while", not realizing that there's more to writing in the second person than just calling your character "you". Pottersues has an entire category devoted to these.
  • On the other hand, sometimes it's used as a narrative device, with the narrator (whoever the narrator is) addressing whichever character the story happens to be about. These tend to be rather angsty for some reason.
    • Usually, the narrator and the "you" are implicitly the same: the fic is the character talking to/mentally berating himself. Which is why it works so well with angst.
  • The Neon Genesis Evangelion fic And If That Don't Work? has a scene with 2nd-person Gendo Ikari. The experience is... strange.
  • Rising Sun is written in second person. It's a rare example of this technique being used effectively.
  • The Sandman fanfic "The Taste of Honey" uses this kind of narration to great effect too. (In fact, even saying this is already kind of a spoiler to how the story goes, so I won't say any more on the subject.)
  • The The Hunger Games fanfiction life a fact above all others gives a second-person narration to the enigmatic Foxface, allowing her to remain nameless, but by no means a Featureless Protagonist.
  • Jbern's Harry Potter fics Bungle in the Jungle and its sequel Turn Me Loose are both written (and written well) in the second person.


Film

  • Brief Encounter is presented as Laura's confession of her affair to her husband who she refers to as "you" throughout the film.
  • The 1961 film Blast Of Silence.


Literature

  • Any number of poems.
  • If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino has a frame story (about "the Reader") as well as descriptions of the novels the Reader is reading. The Reader is referred to as "you"; the narrators of the internal novels are referred to as "I". Then there's an interesting section where the Other Reader (the love interest of the Reader) becomes the "you" for a brief while.
  • Halting State and its sequel Rule 34 by Charles Stross are written in the second person despite having multiple well-defined, named narrators, as an homage to text adventure gaming.
  • The Gospel of the Knife by Will Shetterly is also written in second person.
  • Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney is one of the more famous English language examples.
  • Half-Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins, but completely not a Featureless Protagonist - information about "you" gets revealed slowly over the course of the book.
  • The last part of the novel Some Other Place. The Right Place by Donald Harington is written like this, but the "you" is not the reader but the first-person narrator of the previous chapters, whose "eye" has been confiscated by a new narrator who speaks in first person plural.
  • Ann M. Martin's California Diaries books are mostly written in the first person, being fictional diaries, but Ducky's books are in second person. The explanation is that he doesn't feel comfortable writing about his feelings or whatever in first person, so he uses it to distance himself).
  • The Frangipani Gardens by Barbara Hanrahan starts off like this. but it's dropped after the first chapter.
  • In The Stand, by Stephen King, Fran at one point muses about Harold's very unusual fiction writing style: second person, present tense.
  • Carlos Fuentes' short novel Aura is written in second person, future tense. It gives you a sensation of inevitability on what the protagonist is going trought, with it adds to the other themes of the book.
  • Tim Waggoner's Portrait of a Horror Writer.
  • A book on writing, rife with examples, said that second-person rarely worked. The example used, which did, implied that there was an "I" which somehow never came up. Paraphrased:

You walk about the cabin. Hearing a noise, you peer out the window, but you see nothing. Out loud, you say, "It's Probably Nothing," but your voice is shaky. The light silhouettes you perfectly in the window.

In fact, it was called the "second person" when McInerney became the second person to get away with it and it became clear he would also be the last.

  • French novel 99 Francs, a satire on the world of publicity by Frederic Beigbeder, is divided in sections in which the narration is built around the pronoun which is the title of the section: Je, Tu, Lui, Elle, Il, Nous, Vous, and Ils.
  • Rosamond Lehman's Dusty Answer sometimes switches to this from third person, forcing the reader to closely identify with the heroine. Could this be why it was her most insanely popular novel, leading to multiple marriage proposals? Could be.
  • Used to very good effect by Matthew Stover in the novelization of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. While most of the book is written in third person, Stover breaks out the second person narration when he moves into an in-depth character study, which he always signals with the phrase "This is what it feels like to be X."
  • "The Parable of the Shower" by Leah Bobet is written not only in the second person, but in the second person singular ("thou" rather than "you").
  • Dave Barry in Cyberspace contains a non-comedic, English-major-y short story written from this perspective of a housewife, new to the Internet, who starts an online romance.
  • Cut by Patricia McCormick is written in second person; the you is Callie's counselor.
  • The Crimson Petal and the White, where "you" is the reader as we're told where the characters are going, what they're thinking at the time, etc. This is often acknowledged by telling the reader to pay attention, hurry up so they don't miss something, and a moment early on when a character's daughter walks into the room and the narrative says, "all this time you were following him, you never would have thought he had a daughter."
  • The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing, which is a series of related short stories that collected form a novel, switches to second-person in one story/chapter for the female protagonist/narrator.
  • Roald Dahl dips into extended uses of this at times, notably in the nonfiction chapter "Lucky Break" from The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, when he describes what it was like to be caned at his school.
  • The first chapter of The Elric Saga is written in this manner, as a way of establishing the title character and his court.
  • David Brin wrote a story, "Reality Check," in which you really are the main character. You're supposedly in a Lotus Eater Machine, and the narration gets increasingly frantic as you fail to snap out of it. A clever experiment in writing, but one that can be easily defused by reading the story backwards.
  • Kage Baker's short story/FramingDevice "The Hounds of Zeus", found in Black Projects, White Knights.
  • Damage by A.M. Jenkins; it works extremely well as the protagonist is severely depressed and the writing style helps underscore his disconnection with himself and his feelings.
  • The first chapter of Winnie-The-Pooh uses a Framing Device in which A. A. Milne tells Cristopher Robin a story about himself and Pooh, so in the story, Cristopher Robin is constantly referred to as "you." This is only used for the first chapter, however, and the rest of the book uses conventional third-person narration.
  • House Made Of Dawn, to help give some clarity with the extremely non-linear narrative, describes all of Abel's childhood in this fashion, though it's blatant obvious the "you" is just Abel.
  • A few chapters in Fight Club do this, in order to show that the narrator didn't live his life, but lived the life he was told to live.
  • Orson Scott Card's novel Hart's Hope is written in the second person, but the "you" in the story is not the same as the "you" reading it; rather, it is being narrated to someone else, whose identity only becomes clear at the end.
  • If You Give a Mouse a Cookie tells "you" all about what will happen if "you," well, give a mouse a cookie.
  • Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Places You'll Go! is written in the second person...it's right there in the title!
  • Several stories - or the narration between the stories - in the Warrior Cats guidebooks are written this way. Occasionally it will be as if the reader is a cat interacting with the characters. Other times, it will be from one character speaking this way to another specific character that appears in the books. At times - notably the "so-and-so speaks" portions - the identity of the "you" isn't necessarily clear.
  • Cut is told by Callie to "you", her therapist.
  • The Paul Jennings story Thought Full is done like this, part of the narrator's (somewhat unnecessary) attempt to put the reader in his shoes.
  • The first chapter of Circle of Flight is done like this, as Ellie comes home to find Gavin is missing.
  • The entire genre started by the Choose Your Own Adventure series is based on this.


Live Action Television

  • The introduction to most episodes of The Twilight Zone is in the second-person; this, along with the hypnotic visuals (which include a floating eyeball, a swinging pendulum, and a hypnosis spiral) and the weird snake-charmer music, are intended to bring about a real or simulated hypnotic state in the viewer. "You are entering a dimension not only of sight and sound, but also of the mind..."


Music

  • "Creepy Doll" by Jonathan Coulton.
  • "Ballad of a Thin Man" by Bob Dylan, for the purpose of disorientation: "Something is happening here, and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?"
  • One example of second person narration is the third vocal section of Tool's "Disgustipated."
  • Taylor Swift's "Fifteen" uses mostly second-person narration despite clearly being an autobiographical song.
  • "For No One" by the Beatles.
  • "Once in a Lifetime" by Talking Heads. "You may find yourself... living in a shotgun shack..."
  • "Baker Street" by Gerry Rafferty.
  • "Sultans of Swing" by Dire Straits. "You get a shiver in the dark/it's raining in the park but meantime/south of the river you stop and you hold everything"
  • Ricardo Arjona's "Si usted la viera(el confesor)" recounts to you a conversation between the narrator and a priest during confession, the whole discussion is about you ("you" being a woman of doubtful reputation).
  • The song "Mineshaft 2" by rapper/singer Dessa.

He knows how bad he acted, knows he can't have you back
But the fact is he can't be happy when you're angry
And you're so angry...He says you stayed so mad
And he heard it on the street that you moved back in with your dad
You were drinking something awful and that makes him sad
Then he says it's good to hear your voice again
And that it's hard to ask it, but he's calling with a question...

    • The chorus and first two verses are entirely in second person, with only the last verse switching to first person in a way that makes it clear the song is about Dessa herself.


New Media


Radio

  • Used in the World War II radio series The Man Behind the Gun.
  • The radio version of Dragnet uses this in the opening narration: "You're a Detective Sergeant working out of Robbery Division..."


Tabletop Games

  • Dungeons & Dragons from 3.0, wrestling with Gender Neutral Writing.
    • And many of the followers, of course. The disadvantage being that specifically in RPG it invokes the image of posers claiming they are "SO in character" to the point of split personalities.


Video Games

  • The chapter-opening narration in Baldur's Gate uses this, as do the dreams- not surprising, given the provenance of the game.
  • Duncan from Dragon Age: Origins provides some opening narration and at the end of the game in this style.
  • The narrations at the end of each episode in Doom are in second person.
  • In The Legend of Zelda games, with a few exceptions that can be written off as typos, the narration always refers to Link as "you", e.g. "You found ten rupees!".
  • Persona 3 and Persona 4 use this. It makes sense, though, since the main character is a Blank Slate, and you decide pretty much everything he does and says.
  • Omikron Nomad Soul is not about your character - it's about you. The player's soul is supposed to inhabit the bodies of the game characters.
  • The Fallout series has this in spades during Ron Perlman's opening and ending narrations.
  • Warlords Heroes uses this for its entire storyline, placing you in the minds of the characters themselves.


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