"the distance between reader and character or narrator"
November 30, 2021 7:31 AM   Subscribe

Using "second person" (using "you" for the point-of-view character) in English-language speculative fiction is often discouraged. "Why Writing Second Person POV Appeals To Marginalized Writers" by Valerie Valdes notes: "We often have to code-switch to engage with others, so it can feel more natural for us to accept and inhabit different selves without fear of losing the core of who we are." "thoughts on second person." by Arkady Martine suggests: "there are actually three kinds [of second person]... audience-oriented, coercive, and transparent."

From Valdes's essay:
While first and third person are functionally tourist approaches, in which the distance between reader and character or narrator is maintained to a greater extent, second person dissolves the barrier or renders it as transparent as possible.
From Martine's essay:
collapsing space between character and reader is not the only thing second person can do. It can also collapse space between narrator and character and between narrative and character.
Some recent short speculative fiction using the second person has won awards -- for example, "Immersion" by French-Vietnamese author Aliette de Bodard, and "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™" by Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo and African-American author Rebecca Roanhorse.

C. C. Finlay‘s “Your Life Sentence”, published in 2010, is a long dystopian story about the effects of criminalizing miscarriages, and is told in the second person. Content note for forced pregnancy and sexual assault.
Your name is Nicole Palmer, and this is the world you wanted, one where every unborn child is safe, protected by the law from the moment he or she is conceived. You practice what you believe. Through three pregnancies, you didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, and didn’t touch coffee or chocolate or anything else with caffeine or any other possible miscarrigens. And as of this morning, you’ve had three miscarriages.

You’ve reported every conception. You turned yourself in after the first two… accidents. You’re a good person and you do everything right. That’s why the courts gave you suspended sentences on manslaughter charges and released you to the custody of your husband. And none of it makes any difference. Under California law, you’re now a three-time felon facing a mandatory life sentence.
A short story Martine mentions in "thoughts on second person." was published as "All the Colors You Thought Were Kings" (audio).
Moonrise glitters dull on the sides of the ship that’ll take you away. She’s down by the water, her belly kissing the sand and her skinny landing-legs stuck out like a crab. You and Tamar watched her land, stayed up half the night like babies staring at their first meteor storm, peeking over the railings of Tamar’s balcony and marveling at how the falling star-glimmer lit up the lights under your skins like an echo. You two have been full up with starstuff for as long as you’ve been old enough to go outside the crèche by yourselves. Now you’re almost home.
posted by brainwane (22 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I phrased that first sentence as I did because I don't know that much about whether second person is more prevalent or encouraged in languages other than English, and in genres other than speculative fiction -- if you know, please comment!
posted by brainwane at 7:34 AM on November 30, 2021

Also, second-person is really useful for "choose your own adventure" branching narratives. When "you" are asked to make a choice, it makes more sense for it to be a choice "you" make, not the opposite of you making a choice for a character who is distinctly not you.
posted by deadaluspark at 7:42 AM on November 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

The first sci-fi story in second person I encountered was Harry Turtledove's fun "Deconstruction Gang," which doesn't seem to be online on any legitimate website.

Me-fi's own cstross used second-person extensively in his novel Halting State, as well as it's sequel Rule 34, to give them a game-like feel.
posted by indexy at 7:59 AM on November 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and interview with Jamil Jan Kochai

Q: Why not tell the family’s story directly? Why see it through the eyes of a spying outsider?

A: The story started with the agent. I figured out his voice and perspective before I actually knew whom he would be surveilling. It was only after I began watching this family through the eyes of the agent that their characters and relationships and conflicts became apparent to me. I discovered this version of this family through the outsider himself. He was absolutely essential.

posted by stevil at 8:58 AM on November 30, 2021

to give them a game-like feel.

I think Charlie's approach in Rule 34 was particularly interesting in how its use of second person reveals who the narrator actually is.
posted by tclark at 10:01 AM on November 30, 2021

Second person was my jam as a teenager. I drifted away from it because of all the reactions described above, but I still love to dabble in it. I have a lot of thoughts on these posts but not time to really put them together right now, but I will say this:

When autistic children are learning to speak, they often use "you" instead of "I" (pronoun reversal). This, of course, makes absolute, 100% sense. When you talk to a baby, you say, "You want juice?" or "You did great!" or "I love you!" Of course the baby learns that they are "you." You keep telling them that they are! So if the baby wants juice, they say, "You want juice!" and if they are happy with themselves they say "You did great!" etc. Essentially, second person is first person, because they are spoken to in second person, so of course that's what they learn until later experience or direct instruction shows them differently. Neurotypical kids don't tend to do this, for whatever reason.

I've always been extremely comfortable both reading and writing in second person. I wonder if being autistic contributes to that in ways that go beyond the general marginalized experience.
posted by brook horse at 10:33 AM on November 30, 2021 [7 favorites]

On which note: my mental shorthand for second person (not being BIPOC or using it for the purposes Valerie Valdez mentioned) is that it's like first person, only omniscient. The camera can point off-axis and reveal features of the stage backdrop that are invisible to the viewpoint character: you can show the reader the sign saying KICK ME you taped to the narrator's back. But there are gotchas. Describing the protagonist's internal verbal narrative is okay, but you can break willing suspension of disbelief if you tell the reader what the protagonist's current emotional state is and it's implausible. So I tried to convey emotional information indirectly, showing not telling.
posted by cstross at 10:35 AM on November 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

Rex Stout, the author of the Nero Wolfe mystery stories, wrote a novel in the second person. Titled How Like A God, it's a novel of sexual obsession.

Long before he invented Wolfe, Stout went to the Paris of Gertrude Stein et al with the ambition of being a great and famous writer. It didn't work out. Stout was, at heart, a very practical man with a solid notion of how the world worked unlike so man novelists.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:36 AM on November 30, 2021

As mentioned above for Choose-Your-Own-Adventure and its ilk, for interactive narrative (CYOA, parser-driven, hypertext, etc.), second-person perspective (and present tense) is in fact the norm, and first-person and third-person works tend to be the ones identified as formal experiments.

I've flirted with parser IF a lot, and never written a full-length work, but I've always wanted to do a work in the future-tense first-person plural, just for a change of pace.
We'll take the lamp with us.

We're going to try to flank the troll and see if one of us can get in under his guard, but then he'll retreat into a narrower place where we have to come at him single-file.
posted by jackbishop at 11:32 AM on November 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

That would well for something like the movie/comics character "Venom" who is a human bonded with an alien symbiote. Both the human and the symbiote have separate and distinct personalities but they inhabit the same body. The human side still thinks of *him*self but the alien very much thinks of *them*selves as one entity and uses the pronoun "we" when talking about itself.
posted by VTX at 12:05 PM on November 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

Only tangentially related, but if you listen to interviews with English speakers describing horrible experiences, they'll often switch into second person for the very worst part of it. "You don't know where to look."

It might be a distancing stance, a substitute for what in some times, places, and registers could be expressed by "one".

But I suspect it's an instinctive way of describing what it feels like to be shocked right out of your constructed identity into a set of responses that feel more primitive and universal. Rather than "this is how I felt", it's "this is how anyone would feel".

I'd be curious to know what analogous switches might exist in other languages.
posted by tangerine at 12:54 PM on November 30, 2021 [6 favorites]

I don't read a lot of speculative fiction, but second person shows up in literary fiction sometimes, usually badly.

The first time I really "got" the use of second-person was when I read Margaret Atwood's "Rape Fantasies." I think it was in our 8th grade English anthology. (But like, really not appropriate for 8th graders....) It's kind of subtle at first, but it is so, so ominous when you figure it out.

The other place I thought it worked well was in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I haven't seen the movie, so I'm not sure how they managed to convey the simultaneous intimacy and distance that the second-person creates in that book.

In both those examples, the "you" is not the reader but a character, just like the "I" is not the writer but a character. But it does create this more personal cadence, like oral storytelling. (Though all the actual oral tradition tales I can think of, from Gilgamesh to Grimm, are 100% third person. Maybe it's too much to tell a child, "And then the wolf ate you right up.") I feel like that's a bit different from the way Valdes or Martine seem to use it. It does approach the epistolary style that Martine references, except they collapse author/speaker and reader/listener in their analysis.
posted by basalganglia at 3:25 PM on November 30, 2021

You really want to like this style but you find it slightly awkward and unfulfilling, like a cheese sandwich. Are you a witness or a participant? You will never know for sure.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:47 PM on November 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

I love cheese sandwiches so maybe that explains something.
posted by brook horse at 5:59 PM on November 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

Sorry. That should be "you love cheese sandwiches."
posted by brook horse at 6:02 PM on November 30, 2021

Based on AO3 to self pub to trad pub pipeline, I think we're not far from the first y/n protagonist to make the bestseller list.

As a marginalized writer, my own use of second person comes from mostly from games, and in workshops it has mostly come from dudely writers, possibly because they play games as well.
posted by betweenthebars at 6:05 PM on November 30, 2021

Second person is great (as in basalganglia's examples) for a later reveal that the narrator is writing (or speaking) to a specific character rather than to a generic reader.
posted by straight at 6:11 PM on November 30, 2021

You were going to use the Edit button, but this deserves a comment of its own: since when have cheese sandwiches been awkward and unfulfilling? A good cheese sandwich is a satisfying meal, while a great one is a work of art, a Van Gogh you can eat.
posted by betweenthebars at 6:14 PM on November 30, 2021

Ann Leckie's The Raven Tower begins "I first saw you when you rode out of the forest, past the cluster of tall, bulge-eyed offering stakes that mark the edges of the forest, your horse at a walk." "You" becomes clear almost immediately, "I" is something you learn more about as the book progresses. It worked for me, ymmv.
posted by the antecedent of that pronoun at 6:26 PM on November 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

I've flirted with parser IF a lot, and never written a full-length work, but I've always wanted to do a work in the future-tense first-person plural

Ooh, I like that idea a lot. I instinctively thought, "the IF community is so experimental I'll be someone has tried that," but the closest I know of is a dragon protagonist speaking in the royal "we" and The Granite Book, which is past-tense first-person plural. I'd really like to see someone try using that for a game.
posted by straight at 6:34 PM on November 30, 2021

Ian Banks, in one of his non-SF novels, wrote a murder mystery called Complicity, where every other chapter is written in the second person.
From the Wikipedia article:
Its two main characters are Cameron Colley, a journalist on a Scottish newspaper called The Caledonian (which resembles The Scotsman), and a serial murderer whose identity is a mystery. The passages dealing with the journalist are written in the first person, and those dealing with the murderer in the second person, so the novel presents, in alternate chapters, an unusual example of an unreliable narrator. The events take place mostly in and around Edinburgh.
The murders are all grotesque and described in great detail. If you can deal with that it's an interesting read. Like many of Banks non-SF work, the characters are overtly unpleasant. You have been warned.
posted by Metacircular at 1:47 AM on December 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

The most recent MeFi podcast, around 1hr6min in, briefly discusses this post, and offers N.K. Jemisin's first Broken Earth book & a Jay McInerney book as examples.
posted by brainwane at 5:33 AM on December 1, 2021

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