Writing in the Second and Third Persons

person1Here is more in our series about point of view, second person which is the least used voice and third person which is the most used:

In the second person, the narrator tells the story to another character using you and the action is experienced through the you’s point of view. Few books and stories are written in the second person. But you may know songs that are sung from the you viewpoint.

An often cited example of a book written from the you is Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. Notice how the use of you makes you, the reader, feel like part of the story:

“You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might become clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack of clarity is a result of too much of that already.”

What the second person does is place the reader (you) in that nightclub, chatting with the hairless girl. You is also the narrator, the one slipping into the bathroom for a little Bolivian Marching Powder. The you-voice is both an I-voice in disguise and a way of roping the reader into the action.

Obviously, the second person point of view is a complex one. And for beginning writers, it is more of a pitfall. We find that clients writing along in the first or third person, sometimes out of nowhere start using the you, as in:

Stefen put down the gun he had been pointing at me. Relief washed over me and I looked up at the blue sky. It was the kind of sky that would reassure you, the kind that you look up and see on normal Tuesdays when you are going to the grocery store or hurrying home from work. Stefen started to sob.

In the above example, the you, generic and undefined, just takes the reader out of the action of the story and drags things down.  So, beware of yous.


He, she, it and they: third persons

The third person point of view is the most commonly used in literature. It gives the author the most flexibility. It uses the pronouns, he, she, it and they. If you are writing along in third person and find yourself breaking into an I, me or you, you have broken the third wall of literature as it were and need to back track or rethink your POV.

In the third person, the narrator is NOT a character in the story, but is uninvolved, an unidentified speaker. (This, by the way, does not mean that as a writer you can afford to neglect this voice. You have to have some understanding of it, some feeling about where it is coming from and how it speaks.)

Third person POV is often divided into two categories, objective and subjective. The objective is the fly-on-the-wall voice. Sheer observation, it does not include thoughts or feelings of any characters. We can’t think of a novel written from this point-of-view. If we could, we probably would not want to read it. Newspaper articles are largely written from an objective POV.

The subjective third person conveys the thoughts and feelings of one or more characters using the he, she, it and they words. If you are going to do this, you need to make decisions before you start about which characters’ thoughts you are going to reveal and when. You can’t simply hop into any old character’s head when you need to convey a thought. (This results in something called head hopping that is universally deplored by agents and editors – and gives readers the impression that the writer has multiple personalities. As people, we operate only out of our own heads so hopping about has an unnatural feel even if readers can’t identify the source of their discomfort.)

You have to limit yourself to one or more characters’ thoughts and feelings. In The Old Man and Sea, Ernest Hemingway tells the entire story from the perspective of the old man:

“The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.”

If you choose to write from more than one viewpoint, you have to be very clear about which one you are writing from at any given time and why. This means that you can only be in one character’s head in any one scene. Steig Larsson switches from Mikael Blomkvist’s POV to that of Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Note, they each have their own chapters.

Next, the omniscient point of view, do you want to play God?