Deep Point of View (POV)

This is a blog post based on a workshop initially developed for the In Your Write Mind Workshop several years ago. I posted these as a series of blog posts on my other, now unused blog, and figured I should move the series over here. So if you look at these, and say “Hey, these are stolen from here!” Well, that’s me, too.

Point of View, an Overview

Just what is point of view, anyway? Well, it a narrative mode used to convey the plot of the story to the reader. It’s the way the reader travels through the story, and the perspective through which the reader experiences the events in the story. It’s also how the author controls the reader.

Oh yes, authors manipulate. We dole out bits, toss out story problems, make readers question, then slowly, slowly, give them what we set them up to want. Point of View is just one tool in the kit.

We often think of Point of View as the “person” of the story–First, Second, or Third. All three narrative modes have a certain depth, or closeness they bring the reader to the character.

  • First person (I ran from the room.) is one of the closer points of view. The reader rides along with the narrator, who is also a character in the story. That character, more or less, tells the story to the reader. Observations are filtered through the character, the reader experiences the characters thoughts, voice, and bias.
  • Second person (You ran from the room.) is also one of the closer points of view, as the reader essentially becomes one of the characters in the story. Again, observations are filtered through what the reader/character experiences in the prose as well as  the thoughts and voice the reader is given. However, second person can be off-putting to many readers who do not want to be that actively or noticeably involved in a story. Some readers will have a difficult time suspending their disbelief when they read something like “You climb the stairs.” Especially when they’re sitting on a couch.
  • Third person (He/she ran from the room.) is the point of view that has various levels of reader immersion into the story and characters. An author can set the reader up as a distant observer or drop them down under the skin of one character at a time. Or the reader can end up somewhere in between those extremes. Third person is also the point of view where an author can tinker with the level of reader immersion. It does not–and probably will not–stay the same throughout the novel.

So that’s a basic overview of point of view.

I’ll make a quick note about tense–tense isn’t so much about how close the reader is to the character but how close the reader is to the events in the story. Present tense often has more of a sense of immediacy and tension that past tense may not have. Future tense, like second person, can be off-putting, since we don’t normally think of telling whole stories in terms of what will happen.

More on Third Person

Third person is the only POV where you can change the level of reader immersion into the character. With first person, you’re pretty much locked into the POV. It’s that character, what that character thinks and feels, and what that character wants to report to the reader. In second person, the reader is also immersed into the character fully, since they more or less become that character. It’s like a video game where you’re interacting with the story as a character.

But with third person, since the reader isn’t necessarily sitting in the head or becoming the character, the author has the option of how deep to immerse the reader into the character. Or characters. The author also doesn’t have to stay at any one level of immersion. (In fact, chances are, they won’t).

So what are the levels of immersion? Well, there are different thoughts on that. Here are two of them.

Alicia Rasley, in The Power of Point of View, lists six levels:

  • Camera/objective – This is a view of observation, not interaction. Like a movie.
  • Action – The reader experiences the characters physical actions and reactions.
  • Perception – The reader experiences the actions, reactions, and the perceptions of the character (sees, hears, tastes, physically feels, etc.).
  • Thought – The reader experiences the thoughts of the character (what they’re planning, etc.).
  • Emotion – The reader experiences the emotions of the character. (who they love, what they hate, etc.).
  • Deep immersion/Voice – You get all of the above, plus the narrative takes on the voice of the character.

Orson Scott Card, in Characters & Viewpoint, lists four levels:

  • Omniscient – The reader sees all the characters do and think, but from a single, different, narrator’s perspective (i.e., not from one of the character’s view points)
  • Cinematic – The reader observes the characters, as in a movie (i.e., no narrator interjection or judgement).
  • Limited light penetration – The reader sees into the viewpoint character’s mind, but does not experience the scene as the character, but filtered through a narrator.
  • Limited deep penetration – The reader experiences the scene as the character does.

In addition to the levels of immersion, there are two main… let’s call them types of third person POV. You can see them hinted at in the levels of immersion:

  • Omniscient – Just what it says on the tin. In omniscient third, the narrator sees and knows all, including the character’s–all of the characters–thoughts and feelings. The trick with omniscient third is that the narrator is always the same. It’s the voice of a god telling the reader about the story.
  • Limited – Again, pretty much what it says. In this case, the viewpoint is limited to one character. If that character isn’t present in a scene, the reader doesn’t see it. However, you can have more than one limited third point of view in a story. Its just that you can’t jump points of view willy-nilly. Scene breaks are preferable, to let the reader know they’re moving heads now.

What Deep POV is, What it isn’t, and Why First isn’t Deep POV

So what the heck is deep POV? It’s a form of limited third person POV where the narrator takes on the voice of the character and where the reader is deeply immersed in the characters thoughts and feelings. The reader is riding so close to the character, they might be in his or her skin.

Deep POV does not mean that the character bounces between third person limited and first person italicized thought. It does not mean that every single thought and emotion must be voiced. And deep POV is not achieved by simply replacing “I”  and “my” in a first person narration with “he/she” and “his/hers.”

So the next question is why can’t you just write a first person scene and replace all the pronouns? First person is, after all, a very immersive POV…

Because a first person narrator/character knows that they’re telling a story to the reader. When you’re deep in limited third person, that character/narrator is unaware they are telling a story. The reader is reading the unfiltered thoughts, emotions, and feelings of that character.

A quote from Alicia Rasley’s The Power of Point of View states this far better than I can:

“This [deep third] is the most intense and intimate POV level, more intimate, in fact, then first-person narration. Why? Because an effective first-person narrator can and probably will lie. In deep-immersion third person, the reader can assume that what’s reported is the deepest of personal truth, at least as far as the character knows.”

For me, this was the single biggest a-ha moment I had when studying deep POV: first person narrators can be unreliable. They can leave out information, minimize it. They can lie to the reader.

Deep third person narrators cannot lie to the reader. They can lie to themselves, yes… but the reader should and will see through those lies, if the author is truly writing in deep POV.

Think about how you experience an event. Now think about how you tell someone about that event… do you tell them everything exactly as it occurred? Or do you choose to leave out somethings, maybe change others? If you were terrified, but don’t want your friend to know… you leave those emotions out.

That’s the difference. In first person, the narrator is telling the reader about an event as it happens. In Deep third, the reader is experiencing the event through the narrator.

Now that I’ve said that, you can achieve an almost unreliable narrator in third person, but it requires a great deal of layering of information and the ability to craft a character who can report on that information, but not process it in the same way the reader does for reasons that are true and inherent to the character. That is, the character and the reader see the same information, but because of who the character is, they are oblivious to the meaning of what they’re seeing until later than the reader. And the reader has to buy both the info and the character not processing it.

Deep Point of View: How Do You Do It? When Should You Do it?

Let’s start with some pointers on how to achieve deep POV.

How Do You Do It?

So how the heck do you achieve a deep limited third POV? Well, the techniques used generally revolve around those of voice and narrator observation.

Don’t just report thoughts and feelings, descend into the character

Rather than report on emotions (i.e., he was angry, he was scared) show them. Yes, it’s the old show don’t tell. But it’s true. Deep POV is the ultimate in showing. Use action, thought, and perception to show emotion and feelings. When you’re annoyed, it colors your whole perception of the world. Everyone on the damn road is too damn slow and every traffic light is out to get you. Show that.

Thoughts and perceptions should be that of the character

Be aware of how the character perceives the world. Someone from Florida will have a very different reaction to being outside on a 50 F day than someone from Alaska. Someone who grew up in the city will see a crowd differently than someone who grew up in a town of 500 people. Try to limit first person italicized thought, if possible. The change in POV and the visual change in the font can jar a reader out of the character’s head. Rather than: It is a good day to die, he thought. Try: It was a good day to die.

Use terminology, phrasing, syntax, grammar that the character uses

The narration, within reason, should use the same voice as the character, meaning that the syntax and word choice should be words the character would use. Consider life experience and age: word usage will differ depending on age, social status, education level, etc. Also, it’s fine to bend grammar rules a bit (i.e., Some amount of sentence fragments are okay, as we don’t talk and think in complete sentences all the time.)

Avoid Filtering

Filtering is just that—filtering the character’s perceptions through the narrator. That is, we’re watching the narrator perceive things rather than perceiving them through the narrator. Filtering is one of those phrases people throw around quite a bit, so I’ve included some examples with and without filtering.

Example with filtering:

She saw the car swerve off the road and head straight for her. She dodged away. “God,” she thought, “I could have been killed!”

Example without filtering:

In a hail of gravel, the car careered off the road and bore down. She threw herself to one side as hot air and metal whooshed passed. God, she could have been killed!

Some phrases that indicate filtering include:

  • he noticed
  • she felt
  • she saw
  • he heard
  • she remembered
  • he knew
  • she looked
  • he decided
  • he thought
  • she wondered

Watch for any words that have the reader watching the character have an experience, rather than experiencing it through the character.

Another example of filtering:

When she turned to walk back to the car, she saw Joe leaning against the brick wall. He made her so angry. She knew he’d been such a jerk to Mary at the dance.

And without:

She turned to walk back to the car. Joe, that rotten bastard, lounged against the brick wall as if his stupid practical joke at the dance hadn’t caused Mary to burst into tears in front of the whole school. If only a meteorite would land on his head right now.

When Should You Use Deep POV?

Should you use deep POV all the time, since it’s so highly sought after?


What! Why not?

Well, it’s grueling to both the reader and the writer to be that deep into a character all the time. And one of the reasons for writing in limited third person is the ability to pull back from the characters. Most books that use limited third person use an in-and-out level of penetration into the character, often pulling back at the beginnings of chapters and scenes to orient the readers. There’s nothing that says you have to write at only one level of penetration when writing third limited. Deep POV is one of the tools of limited third. Don’t forget to use the others, as well.

Remember, there are times in third person when telling (i.e., summation) is necessary.

Okay, so when should you use deep POV?

  • Moments when you want the reader to be close to a character
  • Highly emotional scenes
  • The black moment

Basically, you have to use your best judgement as an author and decide when you want the readers riding inside the skin of your character. Good luck!

Comments? Questions?

I hope you’ve found this post helpful.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me, and I’ll do my best to answer or address them.