11:53pm, 8th December 2015
Like all right-minded people, I think the second person is a pretentious and wanky way to tell a story, so I hate myself when a story ends up written that way. But it's ok! I've figured out I'm not really writing second person at all.
First: a brief overview, to ensure everyone knows what the hell we're talking about here.
- First Person:
"When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold." (The Hunger Games)
I this, I that, told inside the head. Popular in YA fiction, for reasons I'm not qualified to theorise.
- Second Person:
"Would you be the first to climb onto the device? Would you proceed if you fully understood the scientific principles upon which it is based?" The Subatomic Fiber-Optic Deconstruction/Construction Transportation Chamber)
You this, you that. Really uncommon, hence having to link a random short story that's taken me ten minutes to track down again with Google.
- Third Person:
"He inched his way up the corridor as if he would rather be yarding his way down it, which was true." (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)
He/she/it this, he/she/it that. Told "over the shoulder" and the way most books are written e.g. your Game of Thrones, your Discworlds, your anythings.
(There's also omniscient, but let's not muddy the waters any further.)
So first and third likely strike a chord, but not second, because second is really bloody hard to do, and so any time it's done it's probably the author deliberately trying to use it to be arty and original and ending up pretentious and wanky, as previously mentioned.
So why do I find myself writing it occasionally? Because that's the way a story comes out sometimes. And I try re-writing them to third, I really do! But they never quite work the same. And so I wrestle with myself about whether I really can live with myself for writing something second person.
But it's ok! In going through the critiques from critters.org for a story I had feared was second person, I just realised I don't write it at all. Nuh uh. Not ever! I write first-and-a-half person.
First-and-a-Half Person: a salve for tortured souls
Relevant here is the first story up on this site, Elm & Sorrow. This is a first-and-a-half person story. Here's the first paragraph:
"I am waiting for you. In the grove where you made me, in the tree I am carved in, I stand and I wait. The season turns to autumn and the leaves gather round my feet, but I will not forsake you."
Lots of "you" in there, right? So it's second person. But there's also lots of "I" in there--so it's first person. Aha, but it's both--so it's first-and-a-half-person.
Alright, enough waffling. Let's get to the meat of it.
Pure second person is attempting to put you in the story. Exactly you, as you sit there reading this. It is making you the protagonist of the story--the main character, the central hero, the hub around which the wheel of plot turns. This is part of what makes it so difficult--there are seven billion potential yous out there, all unique, all of whom would react to any situation differently. It's bloody hard work plotting a story around a character you control utterly, so imagine the nightmare of doing it around a character you don't even know.
First-and-a-half person, though, is putting you in the story in a specific character. There is a shape for the you, a defined role. In Elm & Sorrow, it's the unnamed carver the protagonist is waiting for. It's not you, whoever you are, still reading this nonsense (congratulations, by the way. That's some staying power). It's using "you" to make the story more intimate, to bring you in closer, but without breaking your suspension of disbelief by having literally you act in a way you wouldn't.
For example, if we re-write the above:
"I am waiting for her. In the grove where she made me, in the tree I am carved in, I stand and I wait. The season turns to autumn and the leaves gather round my feet, but I will not forsake her."
That just... lacks a certain impact, no? Trust me: I rewrote an entire draft that way. It didn't work.
And so I don't worry about second anymore. Because the reason I hate second is that it's putting form over function: it's prioritising an aesthetic choice over what would work best for the story, because a story is its characters, and a story where you can't rely on anything about the main character is fundamentally crippled. But first-and-a-half isn't that choice: it's choosing what is best for the story. It's a choice based in strengthening the story, not in some arbitrary aim of the writer determined to tick a writing exercise off their list, reader enjoyment be damned.
In summary: first person is "I". Second person is "you". First-and-a-half is "I, talking to you, but just a character referred to as you, not literally you. I mean, the world doesn't revolve around you. God. You're not that special. Get over yourself!"