Second-Person Narration

What did we do?

We focused on the use of “you” (i.e. the second-person pronoun) in the digital fiction. We were interested in

  • the different ways that the text uses “you” in the narrative,
  • how readers responded to the “you” and how that affected their experience of the narrative,
  • whether different forms of second-person narration affect the relationship between the reader of digital fiction and the fictional world that it describes.


Why is this important?

Current research proposes that the use of “you” in digital and print fiction has many different functions; for example, a “you” can be used to address the reader directly or a “you” can be used to tell a story about a character referred to as “you”. In our empirical work, we wanted to empirically test these different theories of “you”.


How did we do it?

We chose to investigate “you” in a digital fiction in a Web-based digital fiction called The Princess Murderer by geniwate and Deena Larsen, published in 2003


In terms of its story, The Princess Murderer focusses on princesses being murdered in a castle – with Bluebeard as killer and a detective there to investigate the situation. It is a feminist retelling of Charles Perrault’s La Barbe bleu/Bluebeard fairy tale which highlights the misogynistic nature of the original fairy tale and also draws attention to the violent nature of many videogames.

The Princess Murderer is made up of individual screens of text (known as “lexias” in digital fiction theory) which are shown one-at-a-time and are connected by hyperlinks. Like many digital fictions, therefore, there are multiple pathways through the text and readers often report feeling a little disorientated by the structure.

We asked 17 English students at Sheffield Hallam University who had read some digital fiction before, to read a manipulated version of The Princess Murderer that was made up of only one pathway through the text, to make sure that all participants got to see the same lexias.

At various points during the reading, we stopped them to ask about a particular “you”.


We asked participants to grade on a 5-point scale whether they felt the “you” referred to a character, them-as-the-reader, or somewhere in-between.


We also asked them to explain why they felt like the way they did in a tightly structured interview. So what, in the text or from elsewhere, had made them decide where the “you” was on the scale?

The interviews provided us qualitative data that we could analyse alongside the scales. The idea is that the participants’ comments reveal something about the cognitive processes behind the identification (or not) with the “you”s.

We asked participants about 19 “you”s’ across 7 of the 30 the screens. These examples were chosen to test a comprehensive range of different types of “you” as defined by existing theories.


What did we find?

Our research has shown us that reader identification with “you” is quite complex and more nuanced than previous theories suggest. In our study, readers gave a lot of power or agency to the text in deciding who the “you” refers to, and how they related to the text. Readers tended to feel propelled to adopt one of a variety of character roles in the text, such Bluebeard, a princess, or a fictional version of themselves, which they then resisted or between which they then toggled at different stages in the narrative.

We found – perhaps unsurprisingly – that readers were more willing to accept identification with “you” when they felt this “you” had a positive role in the narrative. They tried to resist negative identity positions, such as “you” as a murderer, by arguing that this didn’t relate to them as a reader. At the same time, however, they also did feel somewhat coerced into at least partially adopting the “you” role if only because they are the one clicking the hyperlinks and progressing the text.

Indeed, the fact that readers felt it was necessary to explain why they resisted identifying with certain “yous” so strongly suggests that they did actually feel addressed and they therefore needed to resist this identity. Following previous research, this “resistant reading” suggests that there is a “you” that the text wants the reader to be and a “you” that the reader chooses to be.

Where have we published the research?

We have presented our research at several conferences.