Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Deep Character Point-of-View – Part 1 by Jaye L. Knight

Deep character point-of-view (POV) is, in my opinion, one of the most important aspects of a good book. About a year ago, I read the Books of the Infinite series, by R.J. Larson, which quickly became one of my top two favorite book series. One of the biggest things that really stood out to me was how well-crafted her character’s “voices” were and how I felt like I was right inside their heads. Karen Witemeyer, my favorite historical author, is another writer who is very good at this. Last fall when I began seriously editing Resistance for publication, I knew deep POV was an area where I could use some improvement, so I did a lot of research on it. Since this is such an important aspect to me while editing, I thought I’d share four primary tips on how I go about deepening the POV in my books.

First of all, this is not something I do in my first drafts. My goal when I’m writing that first draft is to get it down on the computer as fast as possible. This is when I break all the rules and fix it later. Editing is where deep POV really takes shape. One thing you constantly have pounded into you as a writer if you do any sort of studying of the craft is “show, don’t tell.” There is a good reason for this. “Telling” is not deep POV. It doesn’t get the reader right into your character’s head, which should be one of your primary goals in every scene. So what is telling exactly when it relates to deep POV? Here is an example of it using a completely random, made-up-on-the-spot character and situation.

Sally gave an unladylike snort and wondered why he thought she would ever trust him again.

It doesn’t sound too bad, but it could be so much deeper. Can you spot what makes this sentence an instance of telling? It’s the word “wondered.” It’s telling the reader that Sally is wondering. This happens when you use words like thought, realized, hoped, etc. Anything that tells what the character is thinking, realizing, hoping instead of showing it. The great thing is, most of the time you can just eliminate these words. Here’s an improved example of the sentence.

Sally gave an unladylike snort. Why in a million years would she ever trust a scoundrel like him again? She wasn’t about to have her heart broken.

You see? I just wrote down Sally’s thoughts without having to say that she wondered it. Starting with “why” and making the second sentence a question takes care of it. Plus you can see how I embellished the moment. The way you word things and the particular words you use are a great way to show the character’s unique voice. You can tell just from those couple sentences that Sally is a bit of a spitfire.

Here’s one more quick example. Notice how the way it’s worded presents a completely different sort of girl.

Telling: Sarah shrank away as tears pooled in her eyes, wondering how she could trust him again.

Showing: Sarah shrank away as tears pooled in her eyes. How could she ever trust him again? He’d already crushed her heart.

When I start deep editing my books, I always do a search for “telling” words and find ways to replace them. Now, this doesn’t mean you have to eliminate absolutely every single instance of telling. Sometimes the story flows smoother and faster with quick telling, but make sure you leave it for the right reasons.

Speaking of character thoughts, I’d like to mention character thoughts in italics. I think this is something everyone has done—I know I did it a lot in my first stories. Why bring this up? Wouldn’t that be deep POV since it’s exactly what the character is thinking? I suppose, and yet, now, when I read long strings of character thoughts, it sort of draws me out of the story instead of deeper into it. I want the whole paragraph to be deep POV instead of just the italicized sections. This is especially noticeable for me in third person stories. When you have italicized character thoughts, it reads like first person, so it’s a constant back and forth between first and third person that breaks up the flow. Here’s a random example.

Jason stared at the broken vase. Great, he thought, I’m really going to get it now. Mother is going to be furious.

That is exactly the kind of sentence I used to use all the time. The word “thought” is a word I search for in every chapter and have found I can delete almost every time, especially if it has anything to do with direct character thoughts. Here’s the improved example.

Jason stared at the vase. Oh, he was really going to get it now. Mother was going to be furious.

See? No need for italics at all. It’s deep POV and reads much smoother. Try to use italics only for short exclamations or thoughts like this:

Jason stared at the broken vase. Great. He was really going to get it now. Mother was going to be furious.

The only times I really use italicized sentences now is for short exclamations and when my characters are praying. That is where I make an exception.

Now to tip number two. This goes hand in hand with number one. Just like how you don’t want to “tell” what your character is thinking, you don’t want to tell what they’re feeling either. Try never to tell how your characters feel such as he felt sad, angry, hungry, etc. Find and eliminate the words felt/feel/feeling. Instead of “He felt hungry,” try “His empty stomach gave a low growl.” Or instead of “He stared at Tommy, feeling angry,” try “He glared at Tommy and curled his fingers into fists.” See? Much more vivid and puts the reader right into the characters shoes.

That covers the first two tips, and is a great place to start for deepening your characters’ POV. In my next post I’ll share my last two tips involving never mentioning things your POV character wouldn’t notice and making sure to keep them present and active in your descriptive paragraphs.


  1. Thank you for sharing, Jaye! I know you told me some of this with my book, but hearing (reading) it here made it clearer to me.

    1. I'm so glad. ^_^ Sometimes I don't feel like I'm very good at explaining things. :P

  2. Thank you for this article; it was very helpful, especially the bit about thoughts. I'm definitely making a note of that for when I'm editing later this year. I noticed in that part about the vase that you used the word "was"... This question is a little bit off topic, but since you were talking about eliminating telling words, I wondered what you think about to be verbs, "was" in particular. I know that some people think you should take it out altogether. What do you think about that?

    1. Glad I could be helpful. :) That's a good question. Yes, I do try to eliminate "to be" verbs as much as possible when I'm fine tuning my an manuscript. Although, I'm not strict about destroying every single one of them. Sometimes I like the flow of the sentence better with telling or to be verbs. You kind of have to weigh your options sometimes.

      As for the example, it could be rewritten, "Jason stared at the vase. Oh, he would really get it now. Mother would be furious." The second sentence still has "be" in it, but, in this instance, I would leave it. Hope that answers your question. :)