Points of View Part Two – Reader Identity, the Second Person, and You.
In part one of this series, which you can read here, I talked about the choice between First and Third Person Point of View (PoV), where First Person tends towards intimacy while Third Person can offer greater clarity. But it is far from a simple dichotomy. Choices regarding PoV and perspective are part of a nexus of alternative ways to embody the reader[i] in the text.
An easy way to demonstrate how PoV puts the reader inside the text is via the much maligned Second Person Perspective. In Second Person PoV you are the protagonist – “you said, you picked up the knife, you walked out of the room.” The following example is from a book that just about every geek of my age has read:
At last your two-day hike is over. You unsheathe your sword, lay it on the ground and sigh with relief as you lower yourself down on the mossy rocks to sit for a moment’s rest. You stretch, rub your eyes and finally look up at Firetop mountain.
Jackson S and Livingstone I, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, p1
Jackson and Livingstone’s adventure game novel allowed the reader to choose how the story developed by picking what page and paragraph to turn to next (If you hit the troll with your axe, turn to para 49; if you give the troll the flowers, turn to para 322). PoV is established by the third word – – it is your two-day hike, you unsheathe your sword, you lay it on the ground. You are the adventurer.
This choice of PoV defines the reader’s identity within the story. It shows them who and where they should imagine they are in relation to the action. Second Person PoV is particularly blatant, but all PoV choices do this. Consider:
- At last your two-day hike is over. You unsheathe your sword, lay it on the ground and sigh with relief
- A last my two-day hike is over. I unsheathe my sword, lay it on the ground, and sigh with relief.
- At last Fred’s two-day hike is over. He unsheathes his sword, lies it on the ground, and sighs with relief.
If you read “you are punched by the troll”, then you are probably unhappy about it. If you read “I am punched by the troll”, there is a short leap to empathy, but you are certainly strongly inclined to feel sorry for the narrator. If you read “Fred is punched by the troll”, well, a lot will depend on how you feel about Fred. Even if in the Second Person PoV establishes that you is someone other than, er, you (“Your name is Fred – you are punched by a troll”), the framing of the story encourages you to empathise strongly with Fred.
This might make it seem that Second Person PoV is the immersive of the options – after all, it is putting you right in the story. Unfortunately, Second Person struggles with immersion because it is hard to maintain your suspension of disbelief. If the story says to me “You sit on the mossy rock and unsheathe your sword” my first thought is “No I don’t, I’m on a sofa with a book, not on a rock with a sword (and thank goodness for that).” It creates dissonance[ii], which breaks immersion.
All stories struggle with this difference between what the text says is happening and what the reader knows is real. After all, fiction, by definition, isn’t really happening. It takes investment and imagination from the reader to overcome this. A story which is coherent and clearly places the reader can help them forget they are reading a story at all. But when the story creates dissonance it snaps them out of it. This is a powerful tool – breaking the narrative flow to remind the reader that they are reading a book – and a very literary tool. Great writers use it with remarkable power. Popular writers avoid it like the plague. Second Person PoV has an unfortunate tendency of making writing seem gimmicky and amateurish (Oh my God, you were a woman all along! Aren’t I, the writer, so very clever! Aren’t you stunned by my cleverness!) The insistent presence of the authors voice, and the uncomfortable dissonance of second person, make it hard for the reader to immerse themselves in the story. If you are going to do it, you’ll need to do it really, really well to make it work.
But there are more subtle ways to engage the reader through the second person. Camus uses it to great effect by embedding it within the first person narrative of his novella The Fall.
Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? The middle-class hell, of course, peopled with bad dreams. When one comes from the outside, as one gradually goes through those circles, life — and hence its crimes — becomes denser, darker. Here, we are in the last circle.
Camus, The Fall.
Here the first person narrator meets a man in a bar who then proceeds to tell a story, which we hear as if we are the narrator sitting in the bar. This allows a great deal of use of second person type words (You, we, etc) without trapping the writer full-time in second person. For a cracking discussion of the use of second person, with more on The Fall and other good uses of this PoV, check out http://www.ancientchildren.com/who-is-the-second-person/
You don’t have to be Camus to use Second Person this way. Arguably every time the writer uses words like “you”, “we” or “our”, it draws the reader in and encourages them to experience the text as if they were the person being spoken to or having the experience happen to them. They go closer to seeing things through the eyes of the character (intimacy/subjectivity) and further from watching the characters from the outside (clarity/objectivity). Consider two simple dialogue options:
a) “That’s nonsense,” she said.
b) “You are talking nonsense,” she said.
Option (a) maintains an objective focus on the thing being called nonsense. The introduction of a second person element in option (b), however, encourages the reader to experience the phrase via the person who is being told they are talking nonsense. The two sentences are very similar but the shift in perspective changes how the reader experiences them.
So Point of View and Perspective are not just a choice made at the beginning of a story (or, for some writers, at the beginning of their writing careers), and then stuck with. Subtle changes in use of PoV language enables us to change the reader’s relationship with the text and with the characters. This reveals the astonishing power of words like you, we and us. But it goes beyond personal pronouns. I read a book recently where the author shifted perspective between a television personality, a sex worker, and a 12-year-old girl, but introduced every female character with a description of that character’s breasts. The author’s voice distances us from the unique perspectives of the characters.
The impact of perspective shifts means that every scene, every paragraph, needs to be considered in terms of PoV and where you want the reader to be looking. This may be why the safest option is to find one PoV and stick to it like glue. But who wants to be safe? With enough thought, and careful attention, subtle shifts in PoV can transform your text.
PoV is evidently more complex than I thought when I started out writing these articles! In part three I will look more at this idea of the narrator’s voice, and the difference between what the reader knows and what the character knows.
[i] A nexus is a connected series or a group. To embody something is to give it form or personality, so embodiment in this context is parallel to impersonification, which in literary theory is the process by which we transform the things we interact with (like characters in a book or our pets) into people in our heads. Choice of PoV is part of a whole range of choices that we make to determine how the reader imagines their place in relation to the characters and events in the books. Do they imagine they are the central character, they are with the central character, or that they are watching all the characters from far away? Do we empathise with the protagonist, and how?
[ii] Dissonance means conflict or incongruity. Cognitive dissonance is stress and even discomfort experienced when confronted by conflicting beliefs or ideas. A story can create dissonance for the reader by being externally incoherent (‘London is the capital of China’, ‘Dragons have lived in England since the 1960s’) or internally incoherent (‘I would never hit a woman’, he said, striking her with his fist.) This makes the reader stop, perhaps frown, and make the decision whether to continue or to put the book down because it is clearly stupid. Some dissonance in the right place can be a good thing because it makes the reader shift their way of thinking. Too much and they will go read something else less annoying.