Difficult Voices: Second Person in Fiction – Bully

Second Person as a writing voice is quite common in non-fiction, particularly instructive non-fiction: “First you do this, then you do that, make sure you haven’t forgotten to lock down the sniggletharp.”  Sometimes the ‘you’ is implied, “Insert tab A into slot B and twist to lock”.  But second person, though uncommon, can also be used in fiction and can be used quite effectively.

In first person, the reader may choose to become the character or may simply ‘listen’; “I noticed my shoe was untied and crouched to remedy the situation just as something whizzed close over my head.  Had I been standing just then it would have caught me across my chest.” The reader may interpret that statement as being the character or may accept it as though sitting across the table from a friend, each with a cup of coffee as he tells about an adventure.

Third person is a detached view, but far more versatile, “Dudley noticed his shoe was untied and stooped to remedy the situation just as the length of pipe flew across the room.  Had he still been standing, it would have caught him in the chest. Snydley snarled as the pipe missed its target, ‘Curses, foiled again.'”

When used in fiction, second person forces the reader to become quite intimate with the story and its main character, for the reader has no choice but to identify with the POV character.  Unlike first person, the reader has no escape route.  This can make for a very powerful reading experience – perhaps too powerful.  The reader may not want to identify with the protagonist and the situation he or she is in, but lacks the escape avenue of first person.

As such, second person is, generally speaking, best reserved for short fiction.  Rarely is a look-length work done in second person able to become popular.  Editors often have reservations about a book done in second person even before reading the manuscript because it often seems too “gimmicky”.  But, when used properly, it can tell a powerful story.  Perhaps the best known novel written entirely in second person is Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City which begins with:

“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.”

Second person uses the pronoun “you” to place the reader at the center of the story and generally is written in present tense in heighten the immediacy of the action.  The short story below was written as an exercise/example of my point. I think you will see what I mean.  You, as reader, may choose to endure it for a while, but if you knew you had another 300 pages to go, you might not persevere.


Murden and his goons have you surrounded. A crowd is gathering: drawn by “the blood in the water”.  They know a fight is imminent.  Some of the faces show concern: you’re half Murden’s size, they’ve seen you around school, they know you to be quiet, bright, polite. Others show only anticipation: you’re about to get pasted and they’re going to be entertained by it.

One of the goons shoves you. Stumbling sideways you fall against the chest of another goon, who shoves you away toward another.  They toss you around the circle. Fear rises, you know what’s going to happen, what always happens and you hate this; you absolutely hate this. Your heart pounds, breath comes in short, ragged snatches and you search for an avenue of escape. Not caring if others think you’re a coward for wriggling out and running away, it’s better than what you know is going to happen. The goons jeer, “C’mon, dweeb, what are ya gonna do; cry?”

A hand slaps the side of your head. Glasses fly off but you barely notice. Your vision goes to spangly blackness for a moment. You stumble and are allowed to fall to hands and knees. Tears well in your eyes, you hate this, you really hate this!

The sparkly blackness and pain of impact changes to hazy red as adrenaline flows. The doctors say way too much adrenaline for your body size.  Reason slips away and hides in the back of your skull and something else takes over; something animal, something vicious. Something over which you have no control.

You rear back up, fists balling, and turn to face your attacker.  It’s Murden.  He looms, a grinning mountain, thinking he’s won. He always wins; he’s Murden. No one messes with Murden. But he’s wrong – this time.

Everything happens in slow motion for you now. You leap up, wrap legs around his waist and your arms beat out a staccato rhythm. Arms deemed scrawny and weak by others are turned powerful by hormones and deceptively wiry muscles. Left, right, left, right, your fists smash into Murden’s face. Flesh crushes and splits, blood flows.  His eyes now go wide in surprise and terror.  He falls over backward and you ride him down, continuing to pummel him. Blood spattering. His head hits the floor with a hollow thud.

Someone grabs your arm and jerks you around. You plant your feet, use your legs and your arm to drive your right fist up under his rib cage, his eyes go round as his breath is driven out of him with a “whoof”: he falls to the floor, on his side, and stays there clutching his belly, moaning.

A fist is coming at you, your left arm snaps upward, forearm hits forearm, deflecting the blow as your right arm fires a punch to his jaw.  His eye’s roll back in his head and he crumples like a house of cards.

The others are backing away now, eyes like saucers as realization sets in.  The bullies; so brave and confident when they believe they have the advantage are bewildered now. Fear is a stink on them as they try to press back into the crowd and hide.

The crowd is still trying to assess what just happened.  Only a few ticks of the clock have passed and everything changed.

A hole opens in the crowd and you bolt through it.  They step away and let you whiz by.


When normal consciousness returns, you are in the weight room of the gym, leg-pressing 300 pounds. It gets harder and harder as the adrenaline wears off until you can no longer budge the pedals.  You’re trembling, almost vibrating, sweaty and sick to your stomach.  You don’t remember the fight, but you know there has been a fight.  You will learn about it in a while.

A girl slips through the door and cautiously approaches. You’ve seen her around.  She’s pretty and popular, but she’s never given you so much as a glance. Her face a mixture of wariness and awe, she approaches slowly, comes just close enough, but poised to run.  She extends her arm. In her hand are your glasses. You can just reach her hand.  You accept them with a grateful nod.

“How did you DO that? She asks quietly.”

You can’t speak yet, you’re shaking too hard, so you just shrug.

She nods, turns and exits the room, tossing a curious glance back at you as she leaves.

You are relieved to see that your wire-frames are not broken, just bent.  As the trembling eases you work at straightening them.

Three of the goons step through the door, but just barely through the door.  One points at you, “If you EVER do anything like that again, we’re gonna kick your ass!” then quickly slip back out the door and disappear.

You chuckle, in spite of yourself, “Yeah, right.”

You’ll have no trouble out of these guys – or anyone else – for the rest of this year.  Over the summer your father will be transferred to another base and you’ll start over in another school.  Every year a different school, every year a different set of bullies. But bullies are the same everywhere you go. Scared little boys in big bodies, trying to command respect and loyalty through intimidation. Because you are small and appear weak, they will target you early.  You will escape them as long as possible, but eventually they will force you to fight.  And someone will get hurt.  But it won’t be you.  And you hate hurting people. You just hate it.

13 thoughts on “Difficult Voices: Second Person in Fiction – Bully”

  1. Yes, you’re right–this is an interesting device, but doesn’t hold up for a novel, I think. I just finished reading the wonderful novel Afterwards, and the author does use the second person p.o.v.–but only when her main character is trying to describe the thoughts and actions of her husband, so it’s intermittent and actually works really well to show us a husband from a wife’s point of view. I actually love the second person pov in that novel.

    1. In my novel, The Unfinished Song: Initiate, I experimented with using second person at three moments of intense emotion in the story. These moments occurred at different times and concerned different events, but were linked, in a subterranean fashion, through the switch in tense, implying (I hoped) a hidden connection.

    2. That would be an interesting use of that voice, Holly. It would leave no doubt of who is speaking to the reader. Thanks for sharing that!

  2. Loved the story, Allan. Yes, second person is difficult – and I think for pretty much the reason you describe – it’s too personal. You’ve used your plot well. Get the reader to like the kid, identify with him – then show the violence.

    It causes one to think.

  3. Great writing and it clearly proves the point that second person works well when one wants to put the reader at the center. I’m planning a series of first person murder stories written by the murderers who have got away with it, fictional of course and in assumed voices, and you’ve set me thinking about whether I should try putting one in in second person. Reader not not as the victim which has been done before, but make the reader the murderer. Great post as usual Mr D and thanks for the inspirational thought.

    1. That could be interesting, Richard: giving the reader a first-hand view of how and why a murderer does what s/he does. Thanks for the kind words.

  4. Your short story is well written and I did enjoy reading it. I can see how reading a full lenght novel completely in the second could become tiresome to read. In my opinion I see it more as an instruction book. I also see the challenge of writing in the second POV.

    1. Thanks, Kim. Some have pulled it off (full length novel) but I don’t think it’s something I’d be up to writing…and depending on the subject, maybe not to reading either. Thanks for joining in!

  5. I’d never thought much about second-person before, but now you have me trying to figure out why it’s so hard to sustain for a longer story or novel. Maybe it’s the repeated use of the words you and your, and the annoyance that eventually comes from having the narrator tell your story.

    1. I too have wondered why using “you” and “your” is so much harder than “I” and “my”. I suspect you nailed it with the “annoyance” of being forced into the POV role. As I mentioned, using first person the reader can detach, with second person they can not. Thanks for joining in, Charles.

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