It’s been a long time since I posted a new Pro-Tip, so I thought I’d jump at the chance while there’s a lull in my schedule (read: my printer is SO slow).
Second Person Point of View is the least commonly utilized POV for fiction, and the hardest to use well. Second person POV is the “you” form of narrating or discussion. This POV places all of the actions of a text on the reader, as if he or she is the one doing something. This method is useful for creating suspense in text, as well as to discuss the “general you” of human-kind. It’s also a helpful tool in marketing and how-to writing, like a lot of my advice on this website. In addition, second person also effects some suspension of disbelief because it requires the readers to pause their individual worldviews and personalities and inhabit the mannerisms, emotions, actions, and context of the text’s “you.” For advertising especially, it entreats the reader to say, “Yeah, I DO need to go buy this/do that.”
Fiction Ex: You pull up to the curb and cut the engine, noticing there's already a light on inside. You know you left the house dark when you went out hours ago. The sight is alarming. Your hairs raise. As you approach the door and extend your key, each step brings you closer to confirming your worry. The door is ajar. You can hear your heart thumping in your ears, a symptom of the fight or flight response. Responding with the former, you kick the door wide and enter, shouting, "I'm calling the police." Advertising Ex: You can't miss this sale. Find all the great styles you'll need for that beach vacation. Come shop TODAY!
Notice in the examples that the narrator doesn’t draw any attention to himself. This differs from a first person, “I,” point of view and from a third person point of view where, though the narrator doesn’t interject his own worldview, the narrator also doesn’t discuss the reader.
Sometimes first and third person narrators will occasionally talk directly to the reader. It’s a unique method of storytelling similar to breaking the third wall in film. Whether the primary POV is first or third person, a narrator makes personal interjections directed at the reader. This isn’t an easy voice to pull off, and I generally allow the reader to feel as much a part or observer of the text as he or she desires depending on their own levels of empathy, introjection, and interest in suspending reality. However, I won’t be the one to say, “Never do it!” Talking directly to the reader lends a certain casual feeling to a story, and can be very inviting to a reader because it asks the reader to join the conversation or play a role in the events. Read the example below to see the difference in tone provided by talking to the reader while using first person POV. Notice also that the first example is in present tense and this example is in past tense. I did this to display that tense choice does not exclude any POV options.
Ex: I pulled up to the curb and cut the engine. I noticed there was already a light on inside. You know, I'm pretty forgetful, but I'd bet you $50 I hadn't forgotten to turn it off. I'm sure I left the house dark when I went out hours before. The sight was alarming. My hairs rose. As I approached the door and extended my key, each step brought me closer to confirming my worry. The door was ajar. I bet you saw that coming. I could hear my heart thumping in my ears, a symptom of the fight or flight response. I don't know if I made the right choice; you'll have to be the judge of that. I kicked the door wide and entered, shouting, "I'm calling the police." You're going to laugh at me when I tell you what happened next.
Essentially, a text doesn’t qualify as second person POV just because “you” is used in the narrative. The designation of POV is most easily assigned by looking at who in the narrative is completing the actions of the story.
First Person: I, as the narrator (and often main character), do things within the story, and the other characters are seen through my eyes and worldview.
Second Person: You, the reader, do things withing the story, and the other characters are perceived by your worldview.
Third Person: They, the characters, do things within the story, and they are perceived by a named OR unnamed narrator that, depending on limited or omniscient knowledge, has varying degrees of insight into each character’s worldview.