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March, 2007 : Feature:

Telling Stories of Your Life

The Use of Second Person Narration in SF

You Learn More About The History of Second Person

The genre of speculative fiction is not necessarily known for its formal experimentation. The thought experiments around which much science fiction and fantasy revolves are complex enough without adding new forms of narrative structure or unusual techniques of transmitting story to the mix. Under the circumstances, it is that much more interesting that experiments with point of view have become increasingly common in recent years, in particular the use of the second person.

We have gone into the use of POV on a more general level here before; in this essay, we will examine specific uses of second person in speculative fiction and the effects achieved. The "you" in fiction often is not in the story, per se—besides referring to a character, "you" can also refer to the hypothetical reader, someone outside of the events of the narration entirely. As Gerald Prince points out, this is the most basic distinction between narratees in fiction, whether the "you" designates a character or an external addressee (16ff). Naturally, when the narratee addressed in the fiction is a participant it will have a very different effect on the reader's experience of the story than if the "you" seems to be speaking to the reader directly.

In contemporary literature, the most common types of point of view are of course first person and third person limited, but when the genre of the novel was taking shape in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the second person, while not dominant, was more common than it is today. The address function was used regularly by authorial, omniscient narrators in novels such as Aphra Behn's Oroonoko and Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, while the narratee as character is an integral part of epistolary fiction. However, when the transparency of the medium and the aesthetic of unmediated action became increasingly popular in the early twentieth century, the second person (in all its functions) became more and more rare. Recent years have seen an opposite development, as more writers attempt to stretch the limits of language through the use of second person.

Quite a number of those writers are genre writers.

"You" in the Story

So, this is the story so far. You grew up, you fell in love with the boy next door, Kay, the one with blue eyes who brought you bird feathers and roses, the one who was so good at puzzles. You thought he loved you—maybe he thought he did too. His mouth tasted so sweet, it tasted like love, and his fingers were so kind, they pricked like love on your skin, but three years and exactly two days after you moved in with him, you were having drinks out on the patio. You weren't exactly fighting, and you can't remember what he had done that had made you so angry, but you threw your glass at him. There was a noise like the sky shattering. (Link 1997, 2)

Kelly Link's award-winning short story "Travels with the Snow Queen" is an example of "you" designating the protagonist. In this kind of second person narration, the reader might initially feel addressed by the pronoun, but as the characterization of the narrative "you" becomes more specific, the less the narratee overlaps with the traditional position of reader as observer. On the other hand, Link's post-modern retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale offers a number of opportunities for identification. The list of things the protagonist plans to tell her former lover when she finds him again, for example, effectively and humorously creates a resentful/injured attitude many readers have probably felt at some time after being ditched.

"Travels with the Snow Queen" also blurs the boundaries between protagonist "you" and reader "you" in places by interspacing the story proper with the sections thematizing feet and fairy tales: "No, really, think about it. Think about the little mermaid, who traded in her tail for love, got two legs and two feet, and every step was like walking on knives….You've read the fairy tales" (Link 1997, 3). Here, the narrative "you" (referred to elsewhere as "Ladies"), appears to be addressing the female readers of the story rather than the protagonist who is searching for her lost lover. (1)

By contrast, Karin Lowachee's use of the second person in Part I of Warchild is a protagonist "you" which makes the distance to the reader obvious: "You lost the gun. You lost the gun and now you had no defense. Were you going to sit and wait for the creatures to leave the ship and shoot it from wherever they'd come from? Mama said that was what pirates did. What aliens did too, because they didn't like to take prisoners" (7). In this case, the second person protagonist of the first section is the first person protagonist of the rest of the book, and it becomes clear that the use of "you" is an attempt on the part of the narrator to distance himself from what happened when he was eight years old—the death of his family and his own enslavement.

An interesting variation on the "you" in the story is found in Iain Banks's bleak, post-apocalyptic novel, A Song of Stone. Like Lowachee's, this novel too has a first person narrator, but the narratee is not the teller of the tale in another guise, it is the narrator's lover—and, as it turns out, his sister. This is what Monika Fludernik refers to as "we" narratives (224-5), an obviously appropriate designation for A Song of Stone, given passages such as this:

For prideful, scornful we have been, have we not, my dear? Had we been more prudent, less disdainful, had we hidden our contempt for the trite morality of the herd and had concealed our activities, we might have kept the wider pool of friends, acquaintances and contacts that gradually dried up around us as the knowledge of our intimacy spread. (231-2)

"You" as Reader

In speculative fiction that makes use of the second person, "you" as character is more common than "you" as reader. (2) In Jeff VanderMeer's novel Veniss Underground, both type of narratees appear in sections as the narrative progresses, providing a variable distancing effect. In the first section, the narrator seems to be addressing the reader directly, implying a close approximation between addressee and the actual readers holding the book in their hands: "Let me tell you what the city means to me. So you'll understand about the meerkat, because it's important" (5). By contrast, in the "Nicola" section, "you" refers to a character: "There is a shadow life here—you see it in mirrors, where your image does not quite match your form, your motions not quite synchronized with this other, this other" (39).

This is an important technique for VanderMeer because the book takes such an extreme stance in both its plot and its narrative that he must use the narrative person to signal to the reader at a level above the harsh, sensual experience of the text.

An example of the narratee completely external to the story can be found in Lawrence Miles's short story "Grass":

In all probability, it's impossible to describe how it feels to have a mammoth rearing up over you. Maybe it's like the feeling you get when you lie on your back and watch the stars, and for a moment—just for a moment—you suddenly realize the true size of what you're staring at, as your brain suddenly forgets to force your usual scale of perception onto things. Maybe. (350)

In this case, the reader has the feeling of being told the story by a garrulous narrator who is addressing him or her directly. "Grass" employs an omniscient, authorial narrator, unusual in contemporary fiction, speculative or not. The effect on the reader is of being pulled into the narrative structure. Although this is not a "we" narrative in the sense that Fludernik means, here too a sort of "we" is being created, a "we" of teller and listener, a convocation outside of story.

The Story of "Your" Life

As we have shown, the second person point of view can achieve a number of effects in story it would be difficult or impossible to create using more conventional first person or limited third person forms. Assuming the reader is willing to play along, the "you" as hypothetical reader can draw the reader into the story on the actual level of the text. With "you" as character, it can facilitate identification with the protagonist. "You" almost always implies "we" on some level, except perhaps in a case such as Lowachee's Warchild, in which the narrator ultimately is talking to himself. "We" narratives are about the relationship between the narrator and the narratee, between the "author" and the "reader" in the text, between the first and second person characters. The "you" form establishes and examines relationships.

A very effective example of this is Ted Chiang's novella "The Story of Your Life." In this story, the first person narrator Louise is addressing her unborn child—an unborn whom she knows well, because she can "remember" her entire life, from birth to death. As a result of the linguist Louise's work with the alien heptapods and their language, who have no concept of "forwards" and backwards" and no sense of time as we know it, she has begun to live simultaneously in both the present and the future. When Louise sees a salad bowl in a store, it inspires a "memory" in future tense:

When you are three, you'll pull a dishtowel off the kitchen counter and bring that salad bowl down on top of you. I'll make a grab for it, but I'll miss. The edge of the bowl will leave you with a cut, on the upper edge of your forehead, that will require a single stitch. Your father and I will hold you, sobbing and stained with Caesar salad dressing, as we wait in the emergency room for hours. I reached out and took the bowl from the shelf. The motion didn't feel like something I was forced to do. Instead it seemed just as urgent as my rushing to catch the bowl when it falls on you: an instinct that I felt right in following. (331)

Chiang's novella is amazing for the way in which everything fits together: the switches in tense, the scientific and philosophical theories, the structure—and of course the point of view used to tell the story. Without the narrator who knows the future speaking to her unborn child, the theoretical considerations of experiencing all of life at once would remain only that, theoretical.

On the other hand, the explanation of the physical and intellectual differences of the heptapods is the science-fictional element of the plot and provides the true suspense, since the reader knows or at least suspects from the second paragraph that the narratee will not have a long life: "I'd love to tell you the story of this evening, the night you were conceived, but the right time to do that would be when you're ready to have children of your own, and we'll never get that chance" (304). Dramatic tension is derived less from what happens to the "you" of the story than what exactly is going on with the aliens, a classic "what's-going-on-here" story. But the fact that Louise's daughter is both simultaneously unborn and dead on the level of story reality provides the human metaphor for how the linguist changes when she learns the language of the heptapods:

Even though I'm proficient with heptapod B, I know I don't experience reality the way a heptapod does....
Usually, Heptapod B affects just my memory: my consciousness crawls along as it did before, a glowing river crawling forward in time, the difference being that the ash of memory lies ahead as well as behind: there is not real combustion. But occasionally I have glimpses when Heptapod B truly reigns, and I experience past and future all at once; my consciousness becomes a half-century-long ember burning outside time. I perceive—during those glimpses—that entire epoch as a simultaneity. It's a period encompassing the rest of my life, and the entirety of yours. (335-6)

The relationship between narrator and narratee becomes the embodiment of the science-fictional idea, and that relationship is manifested in the second person point of view.

Experimentation with point of view can be used for much the same purposes in speculative fiction as in literary fiction, but as we have seen, its implications can far exceed those of the same choice made in more naturalistic genres. Like so much else in this field, context is critical.

You never know.


  1. Fracturing narrative expectations is a game Link also plays in her short story "The Girl Detective," in which the narratee becomes increasingly difficult to identify as the story progresses. [back]
  2. This is generally the case in contemporary literature, except in the case of electronic fiction. See Nestvold, "'Do you want to hear about it?' The Use of the Second Person in Electronic Fiction." [back]

Works Referenced

Banks, Iain. A Song of Stone. London: Abacus, 1997.

Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko; Or, the Royal Slave (1688). In: The Novels of Mrs. Aphra Behn, ed. Ernest A. Baker. 1913. Reprinted Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 1969.

Chiang, Ted. "The Story of Your Life" (1998). Reprinted in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Sixteenth Annual Collection, ed. Gardner R. Dozois. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Fielding, Henry. The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling (1749). New York, NY: New American Library, 1963.

Fludernik, Monika. "Second Person Fiction: Narrative You As Addressee And/Or Protagonist," Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik 18 (1993).

Link, Kelly. "Travels with the Snow Queen" (1997). Reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Twelfth Annual Collection, ed. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Link, Kelly. "The Girl Detective" (1999). Reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Thirteenth Annual Collection, ed. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Lowachee, Karin. Warchild. New York, NY: Warner Books, 2002.

Miles, Lawrence. "Grass" (2001). Reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Fifteenth Annual Collection, ed. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 2002.

Nestvold, Ruth. "'Do you want to hear about it?' The Use of the Second Person in Electronic Fiction." Available online.

Prince, Gerald. Narratology: The Form and Functioning of Narrative. Berlin, New York, Amsterdam: Mouton Publishers, 1982.

VanderMeer, Jeff. Veniss Underground. London: Tor Books, 2003.

Copyright © 2007, Ruth Nestvold and Joseph E. Lake, Jr.. All Rights Reserved.

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at or his Web site at


Mar 12, 19:55 by IROSF
A thread to discuss second person in genre writing, or Ruth and Jay's discussion.

The article can be found here.
Mar 13, 05:42 by Michael Bishop
This is an interesting narrative strategy too little examined, and so I appreciate what Ruth and Jay have done here. The examples by Kelly Link and Ted Chiang are directly to the point as well. I've taken a shot at narrating from the second person, with the "you" a direct participant in the story's action, at least twice in my career. I don't wish to mention the first such effort, but I was fairly happy with the results in a later story called, with a nod to Chip Delany, "Life Regarded as a Jigsaw Puzzle of Highly Lustrous Cats." I think my immediate inspiration for that one, though, was not Delany or sf/fantasy literature in general, but rather Jay McInery's popular and briefly iconic novel Bright Lights, Big City. In any event, a stimulating and overdue discussion. Thanks.
Mar 15, 20:24 by Richard Lovett
I'd not realized until I read this that I'd done this once, too. Though there's another form, the dramatic monologue, which has the form of a first/second person-switching story, but can also be intepreted as one side of an overheard conversation. Thanks Ruth and Jay, for the taxonomy of this.
Mar 18, 12:39 by Dave Truesdale
An excellent article. One of the most perfect usages of the second-person use of "you," can be found in Ramsey Campbell's quite short horror story "Heading Home." It was reprinted in Year's Best Horror Stories, VII (DAW, 1979).

Campbell tells the story from the viewpoint of the headless half (i.e. the body, not the head), of a husband decapitated by a cheating wife and her paramour. But how does one gain the immediacy of telling the story from the dead body's perspective, when there can be no thoughts coming from a first-person-headless pov?

Simple (not really). Campbell tells the story from a second-person familiar pov, as in, You feel around for the stairs and the lab, knowing your wife and lover are upstairs. Will they hear you? You take each stair blindly, and in pain, knowing it will be worth the price. Etc.

I was paraphrasing the above, but you get my drift. It was a great piece of using a familiar, second-person pov to give insight into the body's supposed feelings, while at the same time talking directly to the reader.

Hope that made sense.

Mar 19, 20:26 by Daniel Ausema
Good exploration of the topic--and a topic well worth exploring. Peter Beagle's Innkeeper's Song always struck me as a good example of 'you' as narratee, where you feel like each of the different characters are telling the story in answer to your interviewing questions. It's been a few years since I read it, so I hope I'm not remembering it wrong.

And 'you' as character I'd have to mention Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler. I like 'you' as character in a lot of the cases I've seen it recently. For me what it always seems to do is create a slight sense of dissonance--you know this didn't really happen to you, so you get this feeling like everything's a little skewed. So I think it works best where that's a desired effect (which is maybe why it seems--from my experience--a little more common in speculative fiction).
Mar 28, 15:59 by susie hawes
Glad to see this. I fell in love with second person after reading a short in the e zine,EOTU.
Instructing Igor, by Tobias Seamon

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