So You Wanna Write in Second Person, Do Ya?

After yesterday’s #SFFgratitude went semi-viral [at least amongst SFF authors!], I did a lot of thinking about what I was grateful for, from those authors that came before me. Other than the stories, obviously.

And it came down to writers who take the time to teach other writers craft lessons. Whether that is via online workshops [Cat Rambo runs a few, Kristine Kathryn Rusch and hubby Dean Wesley Smith run some, etc etc], or an article about the ins and outs of getting published [Sunil Patel wrote a great one], to giving lectures [Philip Athans, Steven Barnes, etc] to writing books on the subject of writing and writing well [any of the Writer’s Digest books are good, some better than others, Nancy Kress‘ on plotting is INVALUABLE.] it doesn’t matter because all the info is good.

I’m not far enough along the writing career track to offer advice about much of anything, even as much experience as I have at writing things that absolutely 100% DO  NOT WORK, to really want to tackle something like “writing outside the traditional plot structure” or “how to write engaging SF characters” or something serious and authorial like that.

But I have written enough pieces in a second person voice [six first drafts at last tally?], and finally stumbled across one as a reader that showed me what you need to do in order for it to work. I’m going to use a couple of examples to illustrate how you can make it work [or not work], since it doesn’t seem like 2nd person is really discussed all that often other than some off-hand advice of not doing it in the first damn place.

The last book I read that used 2nd person extensively had an air of a woman narrating those 2nd person bits, so it never truly felt like 2nd person narration. [The book I’m referring to is Charlie Stross’ Rule 34, one of the Laundry File books and totally amazing.]

Whenever the narration swapped from 1st person to 2nd, it never quite got to the point that first person narrative voice went away. It still felt like she was there, breaking the 4th wall, and telling the reader information.

This jarred me out of the story, quite a bit. Even if the narrator had been a male first person and did this, it would have jarred me out. I’m not the fondest of stories breaking the 4th wall, but I understand its purpose. And it did feel right for the story.

[I will note that despite this discomfort at making me, as reader, pay attention to story mechanics I still finished the book in three or four days, which is on par for me finishing a book that I find really enjoyable. These are MINOR quibbles folks.]

The second example is Helen Marshall’s “Secondhand Magic”. Her narrator is talking about the MC to the audience, telling the audience things like maybe you’d do this, maybe you wouldn’t, but the “you” is generic and non-gendered. It works.

[Funnily enough, I thought this was a Cat Rambo story that I was looking for, because I’ve discovered that much like Gaiman’s “Smoke and Mirrors” was THE textbook for how to write a short story [in the 90s], Rambo’s collection “Near and Far” is showing me lessons on how to write stories for now.]

To use some examples from my own story telling, I have had 2nd person usage breaking the fourth wall and I have had 2nd person usage that is obviously gendered.

The first story I did with bits of 2nd person was a story within a story within a story about the origins of a certain in-world career choice [er, that’s a really bad way of describing it, but hey for a 17 word tag line not a bad way either] , but it wasn’t solely an “origin” [aka worldbuilding] story. It had that flavor of oral legend written down so addressing the audience, even in a written format, felt like it worked.

I’ve done a few others since then, but the last story that featured a 2nd person voice I did with the intention of using it as a way of more fully immersing the reader in the struggle of a powerless character finally gaining some power, in the only way she knows how. And this last one got me to thinking that if a character in 2nd person is fully gendered in this way, it isn’t a story for 2nd person.

I thought that the immediacy of using 2nd person as a device to get the reader to more fully “get” what choices women who’ve historically been quite powerless would over power the gendered nuances I was giving the reader. But I was wrong. Adding the small nuances: a shawl slipping, longing for the stable hand, etc made that character harder to relate to than if I just used proper 3rd person pronouns.

I, as a reader, can slip into a first person narrative, even in cases where the narrator is vastly different from myself; but if you tell me what I’m seeing/feeling/experiencing and reference things that are NOT me I get jarred out of the narrative. Even when the narrator is a woman talking about things that women relate to. If it does not fit my narrow band of experience, I will object to the use of 2nd person.

And I think this is where most writers/readers find the problem in using 2nd person. We all have narrow bands of experience, that are ours and ours alone; the trick of fiction being where we the reader and they the author can get them to line up, even a little bit for as long as the story lasts.

The key to making 2nd person work is neutralizing all your gender cues.

That’s right. Make sure there aren’t any references to clothing items that skew gendered, language choices that don’t skew one way or the other, topics of conversation that don’t skew towards predominantly male interests vs woman’s sphere [i.e. military air shows vs housekeeping tips; yes there are characters that break both of those stereotypes, but the majority of your audience is going to read a gender to either of those topics].

If you can manage to write a second person character who doesn’t skew gendered [or predominately one gender vs the other] then I think the story has a chance at being a 2nd person POV.

Examples of characters that might more easily work in 2nd person:

  • agendered folks
  • androgynous folks
  • aliens that don’t exist in any gender/not in predominantly one gender space
  • robots/AI/conscious tech

Anything else? If it isn’t written in the generic plural “you”, then it’s going to be a harder sell.

I don’t know if anyone else has any tips on how to write a good and effective 2nd person short story, but I’d love to hear them in the comments!