Exploring Second Person, Autism and Empathy

Fushimi Inari Taisha, Japan

Lately, I find myself writing more and more in second person. What’s that you ask?

Well perspectives are split into three ‘persons’:

  • First: I (I walked down the street.)
  • Second: You (You walk down the street.)
  • Third: they, he, she (Peter/Fran walked down the street.)

If I had to guestimate, third person is probably the most popular, followed by first with second, well, second is seldom ever touched. In fact it’s not usually even mentioned in creative writing classes. Second person is the bastard child of narrative because where as I has someone narrating the tale and you allows for the telling of the story through a named character’s eyes, second person puts you right into the action.

I liken it to cinema seating:

  • He/she/they is right up the back, in the plush chairs, watching the full screen glory.
  • I is somewhere in the middle an the narrator your companion sitting in the chair next to you.
  • You is right in the front row in front of a massive 500″ screen so close to the action you can smell the blood and shit.

Stories are about transportation, not panic-inducing immersion so second remains under-used but it’s fast becoming my favourite form. I’d never actually come across it in creative form until I read a story by my friend Shannon called “You First Meet the Devil at a Church Fete” (She won the James White Award for that one as well). I’ve seen it used occassionally since but most authors don’t even seem aware it exists. That’s a good thing for me.

Recently I’ve written several stories in second person, present tense: “Washed Up Upon the Shore” and “One Quiet Night”. Each is about projecting someone’s skin onto the reader and I’ve been wondering why this particular form of writing appeals so much.

If I’m honest I’m pretty sure it’s to do with the fact I’m autistic. I understand empathy and I understand that people experience a range of emotions, most of the time I’m so terrified of making people unhappy. When it comes to reading and, in some respects writing, I just don’t quite mesh (in the case of most books I’m painfully aware the adventures are fake, it’s hard for me to get invested). Books aren’t the same as human lives but second person allows me to not have to worry about the protagonist, second person is putting on a new set of clothes which you take off at story’s end.

A lot of people think autism is like psychopathy, that it’s about not comprehending/caring about emotions. In reality it’s actually closer to an overdose on empathy, caring too much about something/one but at the same time not being able to comprehend the reasons why. Characters, not even the really well written ones, to me they’re not people, not real (with auto-/biographies being the exception) so it’s hard to care. This sounds callous but it’s exploring this idea which is helping me to become a better writer.

A few years ago I went to Fushimi Inari Taisha, the famous fox shine just outside Kyoto. This is the one from all the Japanese movies with a corridor of torii gates, each with a name and date carved into the distinctive crimson of the arches (names are on the left, dates—presumably of erection—on the right). The corridors, the gates are so close together there’s no light, no air, between them. They remind me of process of reading, at least for me, which involves layering yourself on characters. This works especially well in second person where you literally become the protagonist.

I was talking with some friends and explaining that I never plan novels—at least not the Ashteraiverse, those stories are told to me—but short stories are different: I need to understand crisis and motivations, reaction and purpose. First person is easy, your protagonist recounts their tale but third, that’s so much harder for me. Second person provides the easiest way for me to take the pressure off and write about my reader, letting them overlay their reading experience with their own personalities.

And I’ll write more, I think, than just my first two forays so wish me luck.

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