“The Night Circus”: First, Second, and Third Person

 Did you know there are three kinds of second person?

Mignon Fogarty,
January 13, 2012
Episode #306

Page 3 of 3

Hypothetical Second Person: The “How To” Form

Second person can be used for other effects too. Richardson describes a style called the “hypothetical second person,” in which the author adopts a tone similar to a “how to” manual, using a lot of commands and instructions. Here’s an example from John Updike’s short story “How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time”:

Wait until the kids get bored with yelling and splashing. Then, beside the pool, soak in the sun. Listen to the town. You have never heard of the town before: this is important. Otherwise, there are expectations and a plan.

Autotelic Second Person: Breaking the Fourth Wall

A different way of using the second person is when the author addresses the reader directly, breaking the fourth wall--what writers call the boundary between the characters and the reader.

The phrase “the fourth wall” refers to the imaginary wall that exists on a stage between the actors and the audience. These kinds of passages in fiction remind me of movies and TV shows in which an actor will suddenly face the camera and talk to the viewer. In the ‘80s, Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd did it in the popular TV series Moonlighting, and Matthew Broderick did it as Ferris Bueller in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. An example from fiction comes from chapter 11 in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which begins

A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote...

Although the example from Jane Eyre is using first person ("when I draw up the curtain"), it's also using second person because the author uses "you" to address the readers when she breaks the fourth wall. Richardson calls this final kind of second person the  “autotelic form.”

So now you know about first, second, and third person, and you can think a bit more about the different kinds of second person when you're reading or watching TV.

Mignon Fogarty is the author of seven books, including Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

Further Reading

Variations of Second Person Narration  (Harry Youtt)
Unnatural Voices: Extreme narration in modern and contemporary fiction (An academic discussion of the various forms of second person)
Movies that Break the Fourth Wall  (The Film Connoisseur)


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