Deep POV: Thinking Like Your Character

Writing in a deep first or third person point of view is tricky. Just plain tricky. You’re limited to your POV character’s thoughts, physicality, emotions, knowledge. Everything that is going on in your story is interpreted through your POV character’s filters. For some writers, this is a hard concept to grasp. I want to play with it some, illustrate the rights and wrongs of writing in deep POV. Care to join me?

Woman in flower field.

This is your POV character. We’ll call her Hope.

Hope flopped into the fresh, green grass. Her blond hair pillowed her head on the warm earth. She smelled the sweet scent of the buttercups surrounding her and heard the joyous buzz of insects feeding on their nectar. The sun felt warm on her smooth, youthful skin, making her feel sleepy. She wished she could stay like this forever.

What do you think? Deep enough? Can you pick out the errors?

Let’s try it again:

Hope flopped into the the fresh, green grass perfumed with the sweet scent of buttercups. Nectar-loving insects buzzed a lullaby, and the sun’s warmth coaxed her to take a nap. How wonderful it would be to stay like this forever.

Since Hope is alone, we’re basically just describing the scene. But in deep POV, the one thing we can’t describe is her. Put yourself in her head. Is she likely to be thinking of her blond hair or smooth, youthful skin? How often do you think of your hair color outside times when hair color comes to mind? How often would you describe yourself to yourself at all?

In other words, put yourself in her place. What would you be thinking?

Note also that we don’t have to say “she smelled,” “she heard,” or “she wished.” We’re under her skin, telling the story through her senses. We don’t have to say that she smelled the flowers, but we can describe their scent. We don’t have to state that she wished something, just show what she wished, which in turn lets the reader know she was wishing. Why state the obvious?

Okay, let’s play with another:

business man

This is Mark. Your character, David, came through the office and found him like this.

Mark’s head was bowed, his brow furrowed. Instead of the work at hand, he was thinking about the papers he got yesterday–papers that would end his marriage and change his life forever. He felt hollow. Empty. His heart was broken.

Those are David’s observations of his friend Mark, but whose POV is it written in? Not David’s–he can’t possibly know what’s going through Mark’s mind and emotions.

Take two:

Mark’s head was bowed over his idle computer, his brow furrowed. We’d talked for hours last night after he received divorce papers. How could I help him? What could I say? My marriage was solid, my life was fine–but his would change forever. He looked so shattered.

This is in David’s POV–his observations of the cues provided, interpreted through his personal knowledge of what’s going on in Mark’s life. David isn’t capable of knowing how Mark feels, but he can compare how he would feel in the same situation or contrast his situation to Mark’s. David isn’t capable of reading Mark’s mind, but he can, to the extent of his personal knowledge of the situation, interpret Mark’s actions, facial expressions, and body language. You, as the author, provide the cues the character sees that make him reach his conclusions: the bowed head, the furrowed brow. If David didn’t know Mark had received divorce papers, all he could say of his friend is that “he looked so shattered.”

Let’s also consider the questions in the above paragraph: “How could I help him?” “What could I say?” They aren’t about Mark so much as they are about David. What do they say about him? That he’s at a loss to help his friend. Notice that I didn’t write out “I couldn’t figure out how to help him,” “I cared about him and wanted to do something,” “I wished there was something I could say.” The questions I provided tell the reader all this without me actually having to say it.

Ready for another?

Parent and Child

This is Ellie. She and her daddy, Jake, are out for a walk in the country.

Ellie slipped her hand into her father’s. Jake smiled down at his little girl. They were going to spend the afternoon together, without her brothers. Ellie felt so happy. His big hand made her feel safe, and she wasn’t afraid of the monsters her brothers had told her lived out in this pasture. Daddy could beat them all up.

Notice how confusing that is. Are we in Ellie’s POV, or Jake’s?–or the author’s?

Okay, trying that again:

Ellie slipped her hand into her father, Jake’s, and he smiled at her. They were going for a walk–just Daddy and her. No mean brothers to tease her about monsters. Daddy was bigger than the monsters. He could beat them all up.

She skipped along beside him.

The familial relationship is one of the clumsiest to describe in a deep POV. As I’ve discussed before on this site, it seems awkward to read the POV character’s name in the same sentence with “Daddy.” When we call the character by her name, we’ve brought the camera back a little. We’re no longer in her head (how often do you call yourself by your own name–not counting when you’re scolding yourself for something), but as the author, we’re describing the action. So to say that Ellie slipped her hand into her father’s, even providing her father’s name if it hasn’t already been provided, is fine.

What isn’t fine is to introduce her father’s name by saying “Jake smiled down at his little girl.” We’re in her POV–even if we’re just describing the scene, we need to stay in her POV–and she wouldn’t call him Jake, nor would she call herself “his little girl.” In first person, the sentence would read: “Daddy smiled down at me,” not “Daddy smiled down at his little girl,” which would lead the reader to believe that Ellie wasn’t the little girl Daddy was smiling at.

So, in the opening sentence of the second example, we have the slight distance required for setting the scene and introducing the characters: “Ellie slipped her hand into her father, Jake’s.” Immediately after, we slide back under her skin and show the reader her perspective of the event. She feels happy–but we don’t have to tell the reader that. We show her emotions through her thoughts and actions. She had Daddy to herself, and he could beat up monsters, so she felt safe enough and happy enough to skip along beside him.

Another consideration is your character’s voice and word choice. “They were going to spend the afternoon together” is too mature for a little girl’s voice, but she can certainly understand that they’re going for a walk.

What about your own work in progress? Is your character uneducated? He wouldn’t use million-dollar words. Is he refined? Maybe he would use them. Is she descended from royalty? Her language may be proper and stilted. Is she from the South? “Y’all” would be in her lexicon. Do what you can to keep your character’s voice and expressions true to the character.

Deepening the POV provides the reader with the illusion of experiencing whatever the character experiences from under that character’s skin. As the author, we must draw the camera back occasionally, must set the scene and tell the actions, but even then, everything must be from the POV character’s perspective.

What are you working on now? Can you improve your readers’ experience by deepening the POV?


About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
This entry was posted in write tips, Writing, Writing Tips and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Deep POV: Thinking Like Your Character

  1. Jody says:

    Hi, Linda! This is a very helpful article. Thank you!


  2. kcg1974 says:

    Great post, Linda. POV is so very difficult and you’ve given some great illustrations here!


  3. K.M. Weiland says:

    Great examples. Sharing this…


  4. Shelby says:

    I love that you gave 3 separate examples. That always helps me so much more than general statements of “what to do” without showing “how to do it”. Thanks for the help!


  5. Bo Burnette says:

    Very timely article. 😉


  6. I agree! Great examples and explanations. I have struggled with how to show action without slipping out of Deep POV. I guess you have to slip in and out, just don’t go slipping between other character’s heads! Love it! Thank you!


  7. Codex Regius says:

    I don’t quite agree with your view on using or avoiding character’s names. Imagine that, in your third example, you had a boy and his father. Then your first phrase would sound like, “Jonathan slipped his hand into his father, Jake’s, and he smiled at him.”

    Who smiled at whom?


    • I’m so glad you disagreed with me! You provided me with my post for today!

      In immediate answer to your question, “Who smiled at whom?” the clue is in the “he” after the word “and.” Jake smiled at Jonathan, otherwise, it would be written like this:

      “Jonathan slipped his hand into his father, Jake’s, and smiled at him.”

      That’s Jonathan smiling at Jake.

      Anyway, thanks tons for your comment.


  8. Pingback: Ellie Calls Him Daddy | 777 Peppermint Place

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