Nitpicking Narrators – Part III: You are walking down a dark alley

While I’m busy with grad school, I’ll be replaying some of the most-read posts from my old blog.

Some people instantly gravitate to one particular narrative style. The story they’re writing just naturally lends itself to one Point of View (POV) in particular. After all, who would want to read “That guy over there? His name is Jake,” as the intro to one of the Animorphs books? The same goes with Terry Pratchett’s stories– they just don’t work if you were to squeeze the whole story into a single person’s head.

Other stories, though, get a bit fuzzier, and we writers can get iffy on what POV works best for what stories. Hopefully, though, I can clear up a bit of that fuzziness. 

Second Person

This is one of the most infrequently used narrators in fiction– to the point that a lot of people have never heard of it. I’m personally not a big fan of it, but this POV does have its uses, and the things that make it difficult in mainstream fiction make it work remarkably well in areas where it’s more common. That said, proceed with caution. This particular POV is tricky at best, and has a lot of pitfalls that you can fall into if you’re not careful.
On the positive side

  • If First Person is personal, this gets under the reader’s skin. If done well, the protagonist isn’t just some person talking to you about their adventures anymore, it is you, directly.
  • It works very well for short stories and Choose Your Own Adventure
  • You don’t necessarily have to fully develop the main character
  • If you do develop the main character, though, it can bring emotional elements up close and personal

On the other hand

  • While this gets up-close and personal at first, if it goes on for too long at a time, the reader stops identifying the protagonist as themselves and starts replacing each ‘you’ with ‘he/she’.
  • There’s a danger of putting words in your reader’s mouth. It’s one thing for them to read about Joe Schmuck laughing as he burns down an orphanage. It’s another thing entirely to be told that you, personally, are doing so. The same thing goes in reverse– there are some people who really would burn down an orphanage while dancing in the ashes, and they’d be appalled by any allegations of the opposite.
  • The reader, being a reader, has probably read a lot. There’s a good chance that they’re pretty creative, and inevitably one of them will think of solutions that you, the writer, can’t, and get frustrated when ‘they’ aren’t taking what appears to be an obvious path. If you’re a gamer, surely you’ve seen those agonizing puzzles where only one solution works, despite the fact that by any application of logic, you should be able to do the same thing at least a hundred other ways.
  • Your tastes won’t always coincide with your readers. You might think that a voluptuous blond woman is the epitome of sexual attractiveness, but your gay male reader might get uncomfortable after a few pages of reading about ‘themselves’ lusting over her– as might your straight female reader, or possibly even your reader who vehemently prefers flat chests and red hair.

Suggestions

  • Be short. It’s the easiest way to not worry about messing up backstory
  • Focus outward. The entire point of this POV is that you know nothing about the MC, so don’t bother describing them. Focus on the action that’s happening, and let them draw their own conclusions about how they feel and what they think.
  • If you’re going to give options, give them across the board. Do the logical thing, the thing only a complete troll would do, and something random (A favorite hobby of mine used to be flabbergasting my Dungeon Master with completely bizarre solutions to his most convoluted puzzles) and a few options in between. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a bit more organic.
  • In issues where opinions are important and polarizing– like sexual attractiveness, the likelihood of ComiCon patrons surviving a Zombie Apocalypse, etc– keep them vague. State the facts, and don’t let your own opinions lean in too much.

Variations

  • Choose Your Own Adventure. If you don’t know them by that name, they’re the book that, every so many pages, ends with sections like “If you shake the man’s hand, turn to page 213. If you hit him over the head with a rusty spoon, turn to page 27.”
  • Roleplaying games (RPGs). Whether it’s Final Fantasy, Zork, Dungeons and Dragons, etc.
  • Short stories.
  • Epistlary and conversational stories. For the record, these don’t count, but somebody’s going to argue that when the author talks to ‘you’, the reader, it’s second person. In reality it’s usually first person, but acknowledging that second person is still in the room and giving them the occasional wink.
  • NSFW: A really creative variation on second person: The Quiet Man by IvyBlossom. John Watson is the narrator, speaking to the presumably deceased Sherlock Holmes and trying to see the world through his friend’s eyes… and that mode of narration doesn’t stop even after Sherlock arrives back on the scene. Technically this counts as a conversational story, but I have yet to find another one that takes quite this angle.
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