I was six months and 60 pages into my novel, The Sweetheart, when I knew I had a problem. My protagonist, Leonie, was a mystery to me. Why would a shy, self-conscious teenager embark on a career as a professional wrestler? Then, one day when I was washing dishes—this seems like a cliché, but what can I say?—this sentence came into my head: “You want to be somebody else.”
This was an exhilarating moment, but also a frightening one. Packed inside that sentence was the answer to my question. But I couldn’t write that sentence. It was in the second person! You’re not supposed to write novels in the second person. It isn’t organic. It’s too conspicuous. It is a cheap trick, a sucker punch, lipstick on a pig. But I liked the sentence, and I felt like I had just learned something important about my character, so I decided to trust the voice and see where it led. I put that first sentence on the page, and then wrote the rest of a new first chapter over a breathless weekend. The world didn’t end, so I kept going. I expected others to tell me I was making a terrible mistake—and some did—but most who read the earliest drafts not only agreed that it was successful but, like me, were utterly bamboozled by this fact. “This shouldn’t be working,” said one, “but it is.”
Equally puzzling was the source of the voice propelling the narrative. Second person has various iterations, all of which hinge on two questions: who is “you” and who is addressing “you”? The answer to the first question was a given—“you” is Leonie—but the second wasn’t so easy. The second-person narrator doesn’t have to be identified or even embodied, but from the very beginning, I had a sense that mine was—I just didn’t know whose body it happened to occupy. In the earliest drafts, I experimented with a couple of present-day, peripheral characters. But it is hard to make the reader care about someone who is on the outskirts of a narrative. I cut them loose and left the voice as what it was: an unsolved riddle.
This was the safe choice. In the debates that went on in my head, there was another, more difficult choice, one that made perfect and poetic sense, but came with some technical obstacles. I was not interested in challenges. I had done enough hard work. Whenever one small part of my brain whispered, “What if X is the narrator?” (sorry, no spoilers) the larger, more pragmatic part of my brain quickly compiled a list of reasons why that would make my life hell, after which the small part would say, “It was just an idea” and slink away. Then my editor said, “I think X is the narrator.” This was exactly the choice I had been resisting, but once it was out there, it seemed possible, even essential.
Now that the heavy lifting is done, I have tried to understand why this particular point of view felt necessary. My best answer is that it allowed the voice of the narrator to be simultaneously inside and outside of the protagonist. It could assume Leonie’s consciousness, but it could also examine her, drive her, admonish her. This, I think, is what links Leonie’s motivation to the point of view. Throughout the novel, she attempts to satiate her desire to transform by adopting and ultimately shedding a number of personae. As such, she is split among many selves—who she has been, who she wants to be, and who she will become—which allows the narrator to speak both as her and to her. Many of us can identify with this split, this ability to be more than one person: the woman I am today feels far removed from the Marlboro-smoking, Budweiser-drinking, truck-driving girl I was in high school, but at my recent 20th reunion, I could simultaneously gaze at this creature with curiosity and slip back into her skin. Recent research even suggests that some of us adopt the second person in our self-talk in order to create the psychic distance needed to criticize and compel the persons we inhabit.
Arthur Plotnik writes, “Being rare in fiction, the ‘you’ voice commits the sin of drawing attention to itself—to technique—and away from story and character. To compensate, its execution must be masterly, its purpose clear, its force overriding.” This is what I was up against. With every page, I had to make the second person indispensable. This kept me biting my nails for most of the writing of the novel. But now it is written, and I couldn’t have written it any other way. It was only when I had that sentence—you want to be somebody else—that I had my story.
Angelina Mirabella received her M.A. in English from Florida State University and attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference as a Tennessee Williams scholar. Her debut novel, The Sweetheart, is due out from Simon & Schuster on January 20.