The Writers Circle: What’s Your Point of View

One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

We make many decisions about characters, plot and settings when we are writing. But one of the most important decisions we make is the choice of our narrative point of view. The choice of first, second or third person point of view impacts how we as writers interact with the story as well as how our readers interact with it.  What goes into your decision of which point of view you will use in your story? Have you ever gotten part way into the story only to realize you made the wrong choice for point of view? What tips do you have for the Today’s Author community for how to best determine the optimal point of view for a given story?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

You: The Potential for Universality in 2nd Person Point of View

Last month, I wrote a post about second person point of view, and how this point of view is the ugly duckling to the ubiquitous and elegant 1st person and 3rd person points of view. Second person point of view is so sparingly used that I was hard-pressed at the time to find some examples of it, specifically in poetry. In the weeks since that post, I have found some 2nd person jewels.

For this post, I want to reflect on the value of second person point of view as a tool for rousing an audience, and inspiring a sense of kinship and unity. Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If—” does precisely that, using the second person pronoun “you” as a universal placeholder, as a way of welcoming the reader into a shared experience.

For those of you unfamiliar with the poem or who wish to revisit it, you can find it here:

In this poem, Kipling does not use second person point of view as a way of imposing, in a negative or off-putting way, an emotion or experience on the reader (as this point of view so often runs the risk of doing); rather, his approach draws readers in, weaves them into a common experience. One of the ways he does this is by addressing pathos-driven topics and using emotive diction. He discusses dreams, lies, chaos, triumphs, disasters, self-possession, winning, and losing. He discusses our hearts, our desires, our deepest fears. Who hasn’t experienced fear? Who hasn’t dreamed of something larger than him/herself? Who hasn’t faced duplicity in another human being? The second person point of view works, in this case, because the poem deals with generalities, not specifics.

Take these lines as an example: “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken / Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools . . .”

Kipling refers to truth, generally; knaves, generally; the verb twisted, generally (we do not know in what way twisted), and so on.

It’s not: “If you can bear to hear your opinions about the Affordable Care Act / Made fun of by your cousin twice removed.” There is less there for readers, as a whole, to latch onto. So, through the poem’s generality, readers can be find an easy place for themselves.

It bears mentioning that the last line of the poem identifies the “you” of the poem as the speaker’s son. For me, this is where the poem loses its universality. Kipling falters there—the poem, its message, and its ability to connect with its readers would be better served without that final line. That final line shifts the all-welcoming, all-encompassing usage of “you” and turns it back into what it is often accused of being: a narrow, alienating, imposing point of view.

Last line aside, this poem exemplifies the use of second person point of view as a tool for engaging an audience, in a way that the first person plural “we” doesn’t quite do, or perhaps, does differently. “You” is rousing; it requires and inspires action, attention, and connection.

You: The Quest for Second Person Point of View, Part I of More

You have begun to wonder as you teach your writing classes each semester why you never talk much about the second person point of view. You mention it, briefly, cursorily, along with its weightier, meatier cousins: first person, third person (omniscient, limited, objective). You typically glide past it: “Second person is rare in writing, and is mostly reserved for manuals and advertisements.” End of story. But as this new semester gets underway, you think, well, what the heck, why don’t you spend more time with second person, why not get into you and your?

Maybe you feel like you’re not qualified to talk about second person point of view. For one thing, you’ve only read one novel in this point of view, and sadly, you can’t even remember its name. And the novel you’re forgetting is not the big one that everyone points to: Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney. You haven’t read that one. You’ve read some manuals, sure, but that’s the terrain of the technical writers, and that, you are not.

You begin to think that ok, maybe second person point of view doesn’t serve creative prose, but what about poetry? Surely, you’ve written some poems yourself to an unnamed you. But you can’t find them. A Google search yields no quick and easy lists of poems written in second person point of view. You click randomly and neurotically at various poems at, hoping against hope that you will land on one amongst thousands that is in second person point of view. You fail.

You get a brilliant idea! Surely, aubades are written in second person; after all, aren’t aubades about addressing the missing lover, the one who has left in the morning, the pined after you?

The first aubade you find is by Philip Larkin, and it starts, “I work all day, and get half-drunk at night. / Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.” No luck there. John Donne’s famous aubade, “Break of Day” uses only one thou and then the rest is I and we. You abandon your search for you-centered aubades. It’s no use.

You stop your maniacal quest for a minute, and breathe. You think about the value of this narrative approach. What does you do? You tell your students that sometimes saying you can stand in for the narrator, or a character. Instead of being given a name, Prairie becomes you, or she or he becomes you. But it’s more than that: you is addressing the reader—the reader becomes a character in the story, is dragged into it, perhaps unwillingly. The barrier between reader and writer is diminished, if not obliterated, by the use of you.

As a creative writer, what makes you hesitant to use it? What makes you turn into the familiar arms of I and they? Do you worry that you’ll impose too much upon the readers, make them squirm, make them sit up straight and blink rapidly as though caught in the act?

Do you think you have that much power?

You decide it’s worth pursuing, this illusive you, and you make it your mission to find poems that use it. You make it your mission to use it yourself. You make it your mission to ask others if they use it. Do you?