Is Your POV As Deep As It Can Be?

Actors Jim Brochu and Steve Schalchlin performing in the play The Big Voice: God or Merman - by Bev Sykes

Go deeper. Let the reader see through the character, or he’ll seem distant, like an actor moving around on the stage. [Image by Bev Sykes.]

Everyone knows that first person is the most intimate mode for the narrative voice in fiction. The protagonist is telling you his story, and you’ll get the full impact of his emotion as he tells it. But what if you want to tell the intertwining stories of several people, being as intimate as possible with each of them?

As I work my way through the third revision of a large novel (written in third person limited, with many points of view), among other objectives, I’m working to deepen the POV of each scene. The changes I’m making toward that end are subtle, but they make all the difference between experiencing the story world through the POV characters, or watching from a distance as they experience it, like actors upon a stage.

Narrative Voice

You want readers to be immersed in your story and to care deeply about your characters, right? Well, the narrative voice is the primary vehicle for doing that. If the narrator isn’t holding our attention, no amount of shocking plot twists or intriguing character flaws will carry us through. Who would you rather have read you a random section of the phone book: Captain Picard or PeeWee Herman? Voice matters; a good one can sell ice to Eskimos. How you get narrative voice right has everything to do with the characters you’re writing about and your empathy with them.

But as powerful as the narrative voice might be, it is both enhanced and constrained by your choice of POV.

Point of View

There are a million things to decide upon when you begin to write a fiction story, but the choice of POV (the point of view you’ll be speaking from) is arguably the most important. It dictates what can be seen, experienced, and recounted. POV and Narrative Voice are not unlike a terrorist and his hostage – gun to the head, stick to the script, you, or else.

But combine a strong narrative voice with close and consistent POV, and you can own your reader’s attention. I mean ownership of the take out a mortgage against it variety. I don’t claim to wield that awesome power (yet), but I’ve glimpsed it in other writers’ work and I’ll not stop until I fully understand the black magic behind it. Slipping into an engaging character and following her through her trials and tribulations is why we read fiction. Trapped inside our own heads all day, we want to take a break and see, however briefly, through the eyes of others.

For this reason, many people opt immediately for first person. And while you can be deep in the heads of the characters you choose to devote POV scenes to, it has drawbacks. You constantly have to find ways to eliminate what Jefferson Smith calls “galloping I disease.” I did this, I saw that, I drove you nuts referring to myself every other sentence… First person doesn’t have to be a protagonist. It can also be the voice of a witness or a re-teller of the events, but those are bound to be more distant, and we are seeking to understand deep POV here. The deepest first person comes from a protagonist. But if the entire book is from a single character’s perspective, then it is difficult to gain sympathy for any of the other characters, except as the main character allows in his or her reporting of events. They can’t know things they don’t see and experience for themselves (unless told by others), and they can’t ever know what’s in the heads of other characters (unless they’re psychic).

Second person is just silly, and is right out.

That leaves third person. He said, she said, they all jumped off a cliff. Third person can be almost as deep as a first person protagonist. It has three flavors: Omniscient, Objective, and Limited.

  • Omni mode is powerful. It lets you to see and describe anything, including every character’s thoughts, and things no individual character sees. It’s the only place you’ll ever have the chance to use the phrase “Little did he know.” It is the mode that draws the most attention to the author. And as the Wizard of Oz knew well, magical effects are diminished greatly by awareness of “the man behind the curtain.” If the narrator is hopping from head to head and out to the far reaches of the galaxy from one sentence to the next, the writing can feel cold and distant. We’re following the narrator, not the character.
  • Objective mode allows you to describe things that are seen and heard by the characters in the scene, but not what is in their heads. It’s like watching a movie. As readers, we can infer feelings and thoughts from the expressions and actions of the characters, but that’s as close as we get.
  • Limited mode only permits the author to report the experience of a single character in a given scene. It has degrees of closeness, the deepest of which hijacks the narrative voice with the speech patterns and innermost thoughts of the character. This is where third person comes closest to the depth of a first person protagonist.

But if third person can only be “almost as deep” as first person, then what is the advantage of choosing third person limited?

In my case, I wanted a novel populated with lots of different POV characters, like Stephen King’s “The Stand.” I loved the way that book immersed me in the lives of a host of characters, plunging me into each of their personal arcs even as the overarching plot pulled them together and into the great conflagration at the end. While I have problems with the ending of that book, it is the characters I remember. It is the characters that have caused me to reread the massive tome again and again over the years. There was no single protagonist, only the survivors of a great plague, trying to adapt and rebuild the world while being inexorably caught up in a classic battle between good and evil.

Sure, I could have written my book in first person for multiple POV characters, but it would have been awkward. At a minimum, that approach would have required labeling each scene or chapter where a viewpoint change happens with the new character’s name to avoid confusion about who “I” refers to each time the perspective shifts. But that would draw undue attention to the structure of the book, and thusly to “the man behind the curtain.” In lieu of explicit labeling, I would have to jump through hoops making the POV characters identify themselves clearly and immediately, which would be unnatural, since we rarely speak our own names unless someone asks. And people rarely refer to each other by name if they’re in the middle of a discussion. The differences between speech and thoughts might be enough if each character is sufficiently idiosyncratic, but I doubt it would be as effective as simply choosing third person limited. There, we can refer to the person’s name at the beginning of a scene in their POV and it doesn’t feel unnatural: On the drive home, Bob thought about little else than the dinner of poached squid awaiting him. Boom, you know this scene is from Bob’s point of view.

Establishing Third Person Limited POV

As in the sentence above, establishing Bob as the POV character, it is imperative that you make it clear within the first paragraph of a new scene, preferably the first sentence who we are following now. The longer you put it off, the more distant the reader feels. The reader needs to be inside someone’s head for the length of the book. When perspective changes it should be like Indiana Jones swapping the bag of sand for the idol: fast and smooth. Long-winded descriptions of the setting that delay establishment of POV leave the reader in a state where they are confused about the POV, raising awareness of the writer. Note to self: Dear Author, are not a character, so keep yourself out of the story, ok? Try to let every action or observation be that of a character.

That said, every rule is there to be broken.

When you have a ton of scenes, you need variation in the opening. Occasionally you may want to fly the camera in from above and then into the character’s head, after a paragraph or so of scene setting. Not enough that the reader begins to feel detached. If we know the characters already, then this might introduce a few moments of suspense as we wonder whose head we’re about to dive into. It can work for you. But in those occasions, try not to be overly poetic if the character isn’t. Make the description good, but not a cameo appearance by the author. You may think having a wry and witty omniscient narrator will spice things up.  And in some stories it might. Comedy mostly. For a thriller, not so much.

In the early parts of the book, when the reader is just getting familiar with your POV characters, refer to them by first and last name at the beginning of scenes from their point of view: Bob Neville had a thing for poached squid. Try not to have multiple Bobs in the story, or you’ll always have to disambiguate. As long as Bob Neville is our only Bob, then after we’ve spent a few scenes or chapters in his head, he can safely be referred to simply as Bob. Also, repeating the character’s name throughout the scene has a distancing effect.

Bob Neville had a thing for poached squid. On the drive home from work, Bob thought about little else than the tasty tentacled feast awaiting him.

He fairly burst through the front door and shouted, “Squid! Feed me squid now, woman!”

“Hold your horses, old man,” Anna, Bob’s wife, called from the kitchen. “The water’s on. It’ll be another ten minutes.”

Bob couldn’t contain himself. Throwing down his briefcase, Bob marched into the kitchen. “See here woman. It’s your job to have the squid on the table when I get home. I arrive at precisely the same time each day, so it shouldn’t be that hard.”

Anna rolled her eyes and said nothing.

On the counter, the jugged squid flopped its tentacles out of the opened container, almost as if it knew its fate. Anna pushed the squid back into the jar and capped it. The water was starting to bubble.

“Put it in now,” Bob said, “let it heat up with the water.” Bob could feel his stomach churning, his hunger almost unbearable now.

The squid twisted and thrashed inside the jar. Bob thought how lovely it would taste.

“You have to let the water come to a full boil first,” Anna said. “Otherwise it’ll be rubbery. Go read your newspaper, old man. I’ll call when it’s ready.”

Fuming, Bob stomped out of the kitchen.

Maintaining Deep Third Person POV

The continual repetition of Bob’s name reminds us that Bob is a character on the stage, keeping the reader outside of him. After the initial ID, we can get by with “he” until such time as either we have multiple male characters in play and need to bring focus back to him, or until sufficient time has passed (at least half a page) that the reader might’ve forgotten his name. That “sufficient time” variable grows longer as we get farther into the book, since the reader grows more familiar with the characters.

Remember, Bob doesn’t think of himself as Bob. Since Anna is the only other person in the room, and is the opposite sex, we don’t need to be reminded of her name continually either. The pronouns “he” and “she” may not be exciting, but that’s the point. They are almost invisible as they perform their functions. Also, phrases like “he couldn’t contain himself,” and “he could feel,” and “he thought” are distancing. These are sometimes referred to as filter words. Let his actions speak for him. Instead of telling us he’s thinking, give us only his thoughts. Also, remove as much description of physical actions as possible.

Bob Neville had a thing for poached squid.

On the drive home from work, the tasty tentacled feast that awaited was all he could think about. Bursting through the front door, he shouted, “Squid! Feed me squid now, woman!”

“Hold your horses, old man,” Anna called from the kitchen. “The water’s on. It’ll be another ten minutes.”

Throwing down his briefcase, he marched into the kitchen. “See here woman. It’s your job to have squid on the table when I get home. I arrive at precisely the same time each day, so it shouldn’t be that hard.”

She rolled her eyes and said nothing.

On the counter, the jugged squid flopped its tentacles out of the opened container, almost as if it knew its fate. She pushed the squid back into the jar and capped it. The water was starting to bubble.

His stomach growled like a lion at the zoo, taunted by an annoying child with a stick. “Put it in now,” he urged, waving his hands at her. “let it heat up with the water.”

The squid twisted and thrashed inside the jar. Oh, how lovely it would taste.

“You have to let the water come to a full boil first, otherwise it’ll be rubbery. Go read your newspaper, old man. I’ll call when it’s ready.”

Dammit woman, you have one job! He stomped out of the kitchen, fuming. That squid should already be in my belly.

The effect is subtle, but effective. We know he was going home, so we don’t have to note his arrival, it’s a useless description of physical action that takes us out of his experience, distancing us from him. Removal of the unnecessary repetitions of character names and of filtering phrases helps to keep us immersed. In third person, we’re not as intimate as first person, so we have to optimize at every turn. But it is worth it.

Notice how we have two levels of personal thought in the scene now. When he thinks how lovely the squid will taste, that is a passing observation included in the narrative. It reminds us that the narrative is Bob’s without making us watch Bob have the thought (with a “Bob thought…” tag), which is distancing. Later, when he curses his wife before stomping out of the room, we get a verbatim thought in italics. That helps cement us inside his POV as he leaves, as opposed to watching an actor exit stage left.

Now if other characters, particularly the same sex as the POV character, come into the room, we may have to reestablish Identity from time to time, and use characters names instead of pronouns more frequently so that the reader doesn’t get confused about who is talking. For that reason, try to keep the talking characters to a minimum. When every sentence has a character’s name attached, the reader has to do extra work to keep track of things, and again, we’re back to watching actors on a stage.

The front door opened and Freddy, Bob and Anna’s son, came in, looking dejected.

Bob put down his paper and tapped out his pipe. “Why the long face, son?”

“Tina broke up with me,” Freddy said.

“I thought you two were getting along,” Bob said. “What’s the problem?”

Freddy threw off his backpack and slumped on the couch. “She’s a vegetarian,” Freddy said. “Thinks we’re vulgar, eating squid all the time.”

Anna came to the kitchen door, wiping her hands on her apron. “Well, Tina just doesn’t know what’s good for her,” Anna said.

Bob shook his head. “Squid is good for you. Gives you strong, healthy sinuses. I’ve noticed how that girl is sniffling and sneezing all the time.”

“But I love her, Pa,” Freddy said.

Now it was Anna’s turn to shake her head. “You just think you do, Freddy. Now get ready, squid’s almost on.”

Bob resumed reading his newspaper.

When there are multiple speakers, remove as many attribution tags as possible. Let the reader get the speaker from context.

The front door opened and Freddy came in, looking dejected.

Bob put down his paper and tapped out his pipe. “Why the long face, son?”

“Tina broke up with me.”

“I thought you two were getting along. What’s the problem?”

“She’s a vegetarian,” Freddy said, throwing off his backpack. He slumped on the couch. “Thinks we’re vulgar, eating squid all the time.”

Anna came to the kitchen door, wiping her hands on her apron. “Well, Tina just doesn’t know what’s good for her.”

Bob shook his head. “Squid is good for you. Gives you strong, healthy sinuses. I’ve noticed how that girl is sniffling and sneezing all the time.”

“But I love her, Pa.”

Now it was Anna’s turn to shake her head. “You just think you do, Freddy. Now get ready, squid’s almost on.”

Bob resumed reading his newspaper.

Again, subtle but effective. Note that in the paragraph where Freddy throws off his backpack, he is referred to as “he” immediately afterward, and could continue to be for as long as we’re talking about him. So the next time we get to Bob, we do need to use Bob’s name. Even if earlier in the scene we’d established Bob as the POV character, Freddy was the last male to speak or act, so Bob can’t be referred to as “he” without confusion.

The Name Game

Another big question that comes up once you start populating your story with characters: Do I refer to them by first name or last name? As writers, we’re always concerned about consistency. Some novels refer to all characters by their last names, particularly those set in the workplace. Some that are about a gang of friends use only first names. So does that mean we have to pick one moniker and stick with it? I’ve seen that advice in some writing books, but I deliberately chose to ignore it.

I have always felt that using last names has a distancing effect. It’s hard to really feel inside a character referred to as Neville. Bob is much more friendly. But in a book populated with goodies and baddies, I felt I could use this effect to my advantage. Once I’ve gotten into the story a bit and dropped the full names, I refer to all the baddies by last name and all the goodies by first name. Even though I want you to be as deep in the baddies’ heads as any other character, this adds an almost subliminal coldness to them. In the case of a couple of very close baddies who are on a first name basis, I happily let them think of each other that way, since IMHO, POV trumps consistency. Thanks to Richard Kendrick on Google+ for raising this question, which I’d originally overlooked in this blog post.

Conclusion

Third person limited can be almost as intimate as first person, while being less awkward and affording you the freedom to switch POVs throughout your story. Of course, you shouldn’t change POVs inside a single scene, but as long as you establish the POV character at the beginning of each scene, the reader will happily follow the new character until you switch again without being put off. Polish it to a high sheen, keeping the reader immersed in the POV instead of watching the character from a distance.

Now go and read some of your own scenes and see if there aren’t places where you can go deeper. Let me know what tips and tricks you have for deepening POV in the comments below.

Further Reading

  • The Story Polisher Blog has some great posts on Third Person Limited POV.
  • Orson Scott Card published an excellent book called Character’s and Viewpoint.

4 thoughts on “Is Your POV As Deep As It Can Be?

  1. I found the subject very interesting. I am going to start a fiction blog and I really can use more tips like this…
    Please keep going!

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