Authors use second-person narration to make readers feel like characters in the story, but readers may be having a different experience entirely.
Second-person narration arguably dissolves the barrier between reader and text. The narrator describes what the character (referred to as “you”) thinks, feels, and does. Hopefully, the reader should feel that they are assuming the role of the main character. If the reader’s experience doesn’t achieve this end, how should authors change their approach?
In the study “A Reader Response Method Not Just for ‘You’,” researchers Alice Bell, Astrid Ensslin, Isabelle van der Bom, and Jen Smith (2019) examined second-person narration in the digital fiction The Princess Murderer, written by Deena Larsen and Geniwate, to categorize reader responses to the narrative “you.” Sixteen readers were shown 30 screenshots of The Princess Murderer. The readers were occasionally stopped and asked to whom they believed “you” was referring. They judged the narrative based on a scale ranging between “You = a fictional character” and “You = me, the reader.” The readers were then asked to explain their answers.
According to the results, readers felt obligated to take on a character role in the story, even if they later resisted that role. Readers were more inclined to feel that “you” was a personal address if they believed the context “represent[ed] them authentically” (Bell et al. 2019, 257). Additionally, readers were more likely to adopt character roles they perceived as positive (“you” = detective) compared to roles they perceived as negative (“you” = psychopath).
The study suggests that “there is a ‘you’ that the text wants the reader to be and a ‘you’ that the reader chooses to be” (Bell et al. 2019, 258). But what does this mean for authors that want to use second-person narration?
Since a reader’s agency determines their experience with second-person narration, authors could consider writing the character role they want the reader to assume while keeping the reader’s possible perception of that role in mind. Authors may decide they like the idea of the reader resisting the identity of a morally complex character. Or authors might trim more problematic elements of a character to increase the reader’s immersion in the role. Either way, the possibility that reader response is more nuanced than previously supposed could change how authors approach characterization in second-person narratives.
To learn more about how readers interpret the use of narrative “you,” read the full article:
Bell, Alice, Astrid Ensslin, Isabelle van der Bom, and Jen Smith. 2019. “A Reader Response Method Not Just for ‘You’.” Language and Literature 28, no. 3 (August): 241–62. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1177%2F0963947019859954.
—Ashlin Holbrook, Editing Research
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