Tips for Deepening the POV in Your Fiction

by Jodie Renner, editor & author

Most of today’s popular fiction is written in first-person POV (I) or third-person limited point of view (he, she), both of which show us the story mainly from inside the character’s head and body. These narrative techniques engage readers much more emotionally than the more distant third-person omniscient, which was popular in previous centuries.

Current popular fiction, although a long way from the old omniscient style, still employs a variety of narrative distances, depending on the genre, the target readership, and the writer’s own comfort level. There is a whole spectrum when it comes to narrative distance, from plot-driven military or action-adventure novels and historical sagas at one end to character-driven romantic suspense and romance at the other.

Today’s post focuses on close or intimate narrative distance – how to engage readers emotionally, bond them with your character, and draw them deep into your story, so they can’t put it down. And how to avoid interrupting as the author, which some readers might even find akin to “mansplaining.” See a great post here on TKZ by bestselling thriller writer, Robert Dugoni, “Hey, Butt Out! I’m Reading Here!

Most female readers (and apparently females make up about 70% of readers of novels) prefer to identify closely with the main character. The reading experience is more satisfying when we connect emotionally with the protagonist, worrying about them and rooting for them.

What is third-person limited POV? As Dan Brown says, “limited or ‘close’ third point of view (a narrative that adheres to a single character) … gives you the ability to be inside a character’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations, which can give readers a deeper experience of character and scene, and is the most common way to use point of view.”

(For an introduction to point of view in fiction, especially deep point of view or close third-person POV, see my articles here on TKZ: POV 101, POV 102, and POV 103)

From third-person limited, you can decide to go even deeper, into close third person or deep point of view to create an immersive experience where readers are more emotionally invested, feeling like participants rather than observers.

As David Mamet says, “Deep point of view is a way of writing fiction in third-person limited that silences the narrative voice and takes the reader directly into a character’s mind…. Deep POV creates a deeper connection between readers and characters.”

In deep POV, the author writes as the character instead of about him. The character and his world come to life for us as we vicariously share his experiences and feel his struggles, pain, triumphs, and disappointments.

As editor and author Beth Hill says, “deep POV…is a way of pairing third-person POV with a close narrative distance. It’s a way of creating the intimacy of first-person narration with a third-person point of view.” (And without all those I – I – I’s.)

Depending on your personal style, you could decide to write in a deeper, more subjective third-person point of view for a whole novel or story or reserve this closer technique for more critical or intimate scenes.

Assuming you write in third person and want to engage your readers more and immerse them in your story world, here are some tips for getting deeper into the psyche of your character, starting with more general tips and working down to fine-tuning.

~ First, decide whose scene it is.

Most of the scenes will be from the viewpoint of your protagonist. We know what your lead character is thinking and feeling, as we’re in their head and body. But we only know the feelings and reactions of the others by what the POV character perceives – by their words, actions, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc.

But sometimes you’ll want to write a scene from the point of view of another character. If you choose to use multiple POVs, make sure you only go into the head of important characters such as the love interest, someone close to the MC, or the antagonist. But as readers, we are (or should be) bonded to your MC, so it’s best to show more scenes from the viewpoint of your protagonist than all the others combined – about 70% is optional to keep readers satisfied.

How do you decide whose POV a scene will be told through? Ask yourself these questions: Who has the most at stake in that scene, the most to lose? Which character is invested the most in what’s going on? Who will be most affected by the events of the scene and change the most by the end of the scene?

~ When starting a new scene or chapter, start with the name of the POV character.

The first name a reader sees is the person they assume is the viewpoint character, the one they’re following for that scene. And don’t open a scene or chapter with “he” or “she” – that’s too vague and confusing. Readers want to know right away whose head we’re in, so name the viewpoint character right in the very first sentence.

~ Avoid head-hopping.  Get into that character’s head and body and stay there for the whole scene (or most of it).

Don’t suddenly jump into the thoughts or internal reactions of others, and try to avoid stepping back into authorial (omniscient) POV, where you’re surveying the whole scene from afar.

Stick to the general guideline of one POV per scene. Viewpoint shifts within a scene can be jolting, disorienting, and annoying if not done consciously and with care. (On the other hand, when expertly executed, they can work. Nora Roberts has definitely mastered this difficult technique.)

Become that person for the scene. Are they anxious? Cold? Tired? Uncomfortable? Annoyed? Scared? Elated? We should be able to only see, hear, smell, taste, touch and feel what they do. Don’t include any details they wouldn’t be aware of.

~ Refer to the POV character in the most informal way, as he would think of himself.

Use the POV character’s name at the beginning of scenes, then only when needed for clarity. If we’re in Daniel’s head, he’s not thinking of himself as “Dr. Daniel Norton.” He’s thinking of himself as Daniel or Dan or Danny. When you introduce a new POV character for the first time, you can use their full name and title for clarity if you wish (or just slip it in later), but then switch immediately to what they would call themselves or what most people in their everyday world call them. Most of the time, just “he” or “she” is even better. How often do we think of ourselves using our names? Not often.

~ Don’t describe the POV character’s facial expressions or body language as an outside observer would see them.

Unless she’s looking in a mirror, your character can’t see what her face looks like at any given moment, so avoid phrases like “She blushed beet red.” Instead, say something like, “Her cheeks burned” or “She felt her face flush.” Instead of “Her face went white,” say “She felt the blood drain from her face.”

Or if we’re in a guy’s point of view and he’s angry, don’t say “His brow furrowed and he scowled.” Instead, show his anger from the inside (irate thoughts, clenched teeth), or show him gripping something or aware that his hands have tightened into fists, or whatever.

~ Don’t describe other characters in a way that the POV character wouldn’t. For example, don’t give a detailed description from head to toe of a character the POV character is looking at and already knows very well, like a family member.

~ Refer to other characters by the name the POV character uses for them.

If we’re in Susan’s point of view and her mother walks in, don’t say “The door opened, and Mrs. Wilson walked in, wearing a frayed blue coat.” Say something like, “The door opened, and Mom hurried in, pulling off her old coat.”

~ Show their inner thoughts and reactions often.

To bring the character to life, we need to see how she’s reacting to what’s going on, how she’s feeling about the people around her. Use a mix of indirect and direct thoughts. Short, direct, emphatic thought-reactions, often in italics, help reveal the character’s true feelings and increase intimacy with the readers. For example, What? Or No way. Or What a jerk! Instead of: “They’d been set up” (narration), use: We were set up. (The character’s actual thoughts.) For more on this, see “Using Thought-Reactions to Add Attitude & Immediacy.”

Indirect thought: He wondered where she was.

Direct thought: Where is she? Or: Where the hell is she, anyway?

~ Frequently show the POV character’s sensory reactions to their environment, other characters, and what’s happening.

Use as many of the five senses as is appropriate to get us into the skin of the character. Also show fatigue, fear, nervousness, hunger, thirst, heat, cold, etc. That way, readers are drawn in and feel they “are” the character. They worry about the character and are fully engaged.

~ Describe locations and other characters as the POV character perceives them.

Filter descriptions of the setting or other people through the attitudes, opinions, preferences, and sensory reactions of the viewpoint character, using their unique voice and speaking style. Don’t step back and describe the environment, another character, or a room in factual, neutral language. And don’t describe details that character wouldn’t notice or care about.

~ Use only words and phrases that character would use.

If your character is an old prospector, don’t use sophisticated language when describing what he’s perceiving around him or what he’s deciding to do next. Use his natural wording in both his dialogue and his thoughts – and all the narration, too, as those are his observations.

~ Don’t suddenly have a character knowing something just because the readers know it.

If you’re using third-person multiple POV, it’s very effective to sometimes go into the head of another character, maybe the love interest or the villain, in their own scene, without the protagonist present. We readers know this other character by name, but the viewpoint character may not even know they exist. Later, we’re in a scene in the POV of the main character when the secondary character appears to them for the first time. It’s easy to slip up and use that character’s name (or other details about him), since we know it so well, before the protagonist knows it. Watch out for this subtle mistake creeping into your story.

~ Don’t show things the character can’t perceive.

Don’t show something going on behind the character’s back or in another room or location. Similarly, don’t show what’s happening around them when they’re sleeping or unconscious. Instead, show what they’re perceiving as they wake up, or you could leave a line space and start a new scene in the POV of someone else. Avoid slipping into all-seeing, all-knowing, omniscient point of view.

Keep the narration in the POV character’s voice.

In deep point of view, not only should the dialogue be in the character’s voice and style, but the narration should too, as that’s really the character’s thoughts and observations. For more on this, see my post, “Tips for Creating an Authentic, Engaging Voice.”

~ Don’t butt in as the author to explain things to the readers, outside of the character’s viewpoint.

   Avoid lengthy “info dumps.” Instead, reveal any necessary info in brief form though the character’s POV or as a lively question-and-answer dialogue, with some attitude and tension to spice things up.

   Avoid author asides, like “Little did he realize that…” or “If only she had known…”. If the character can’t perceive it at that moment, don’t write it. You can always show danger the protagonist isn’t aware of when you’re in the POV of the villain or other character.

~ Use more action beats instead of dialogue tags.

Instead of: “Why do you think that?” she asked, crossing her arms.

Use: “Why do you think that? She crossed her arms.

We know it’s her talking because we immediately see her doing something.

~ For deeper point of view, try to avoid phrases like “she heard,” “he saw,” “she noticed,” etc.

Since we’re in the character’s head, we know she’s the one who’s hearing and seeing what is being described. Just go directly to what she’s perceiving.

He saw the man staring at his wounds. =>  The man stared at his wounds.

~ Similarly, use “he wondered,” “she thought,” “he believed,” and “she felt” sparingly. Without those filter words, we’re even closer in to the character’s psyche. Go straight to their thoughts, beliefs, and feelings.

For example, here’s a progression to a closer, deeper point of view:

She thought he was an idiot. –> He seemed like a bit of an idiot. –> What an idiot!

The last is a direct, internal thought or thought-reaction, often expressed in italics if it’s brief and emphatic.

Third-person limited POV:

As she hurried along the dark, deserted street, she heard footsteps approaching behind her, getting closer. She wondered if they’d finally found her.

Deep POV:

She hurried along the dark, deserted street. Footsteps approached behind her, getting closer. Could that be them?

“she heard” and “She wondered” are not necessary and create a bit of a psychic distance.

Do a search for all those describing words, like saw, heard, felt, knew, wondered, noticed, and thought, and explore ways to express the sounds, sights, thoughts, and feelings more directly.

My third writing guide, Captivate Your Readers, is full of practical tips, with examples, for deepening the point of view in your fiction and drawing readers in more emotionally.

Readers and writers: Do you have any more tips for deepening point of view in fiction? Or maybe some good before-and-after examples? Please leave them in the comments below.  (If you prefer a more distant POV, let’s leave that discussion for another time.) Thanks.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. She has also organized and edited two anthologies. Website: https://www.jodierenner.com/, Blog, Resources for Writers, Facebook, Amazon Author Page.  

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36 thoughts on “Tips for Deepening the POV in Your Fiction

  1. Thank you, Jodie, for a great way to start the morning and week. Re: headhopping…I don’t know if it is increasing in the books that I am reading but I am certainly noticing it more, to such an extent that it becomes confusing. If it’s some sort of arty literary trend it needs to be smothered aborning.

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    • Yes, that’s so irritating, isn’t it, Joe. And can cause confusion. I think it’s just carelessness. And if the author doesn’t care, the editors follow the author’s wishes. That’s my guess.

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  2. That’s quite the lesson, Jodie. Good points. I’ve been writing in Deep POV since I discovered Suzanne Brockmann’s guide at a conference. I can think of only one more tidbit to add to your choice of POV characters, and that’s when you have something you want to hide or reveal from the reader at the time. If the character doesn’t know it, the reader can’t either.

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    • Thanks, Terry. That’s an excellent rule for a mystery or any novel with only one viewpoint character. For a thriller, though, if the author sends us into the mind of the villain (in their own scene, away from the protagonist), we find out all kinds of scary things the MC doesn’t know about yet, and that heightens the suspense and keeps us biting our nails! So of course in multiple POVs that aren’t mysteries, the reader knows things the protagonist doesn’t.

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      • I use the technique in my multi-POV romantic suspense novels, Jodie. Choosing whose head to be in, whether it’s a co-protagonist or a villain means you can shift away and avoid dealing with something you don’t want the reader to know yet.

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  3. Great post, Jodie. Thanks for all the reminders. And I vouch for the value of your three writing guides. I’ve read them more than once.

    My comment is about indirect and direct thoughts, and use of italics. I’ve read in some craft books that we don’t need to use italics anymore for direct thoughts. I’ve tried that, and received multiple complaints from beta readers. They find it confusing. Reading now that you say direct thoughts are “often in italics” will allow me to return to what I think makes more sense. Less confusion, less speed bumps.

    Any tips on when vs. when not to use those italics for direct thoughts? And a second question: Any situations where the strategy of moving from limited third to deep third and back out to limited third could be used intentionally to create emotion or suspense?

    Thanks for all your great posts here at TKZ. I hope you will come back often!

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    • I tend to follow Browne & King’s suggestion that you use italics to show a character is thinking to himself about himself. You idiot. You’re leaving fingerprints all over the place. as opposed to “He was an idiot, leaving fingerprints all over the place.”

      Then I defer to my editor. 😉

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      • My editor has started limiting my use of italics. I kind of went crazy for a bit, every other thought italicized.

        So, now I’m trying to limit myself.

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        • Yeah, it’s like the difference between social drinking and getting smashed. Limit yourself…then you can do what you feels right for the moment. I find non-italicized thoughts, when done well, are elegant and clear (in the character’s voice). But the occasional italics is fine.

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          • I like to see brief, emphatic thoughts italicized, to express shock, disgust, wonder, pain, fear, anger, doubt, sarcasm, etc. Those are times of high emotion or a sudden jolt, so italicizing them really brings them out and shows the character’s surprise or other sudden emotional reaction. I always suggest leaving complete sentences and any longer thoughts non-italicized. Italics should never be overdone, but when used judiciously, they bring us instantly into the character’s sudden inner strong reaction/feelings, so they can be very effective in increasing our engagement.

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      • I feel as both a reader and an editor that italics are essential for a character thinking to/about himself, especially if the thoughts are brief. Thanks for that reminder, Terry.

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    • Hi Steve,

      So glad to hear you’ve read all three of my writing guides and find them useful!

      For direct thoughts, I’d mainly stick with the italics for short, emphatic thoughts, and leave long sentences in roman font. The italics draw us in even further, so are great for times of high emotion. Click on the link I provided in the article, “Using Thought-Reactions to Add Attitude and Immediacy” and get back to me if you have any more questions.

      And the higher the suspense, the more critical the moment, the deeper I’d go! That really sucks readers in emotionally, which is exactly what you want! At those moments, stay firmly in the POV’s head and body and cut way back on speech tags and words like saw, heard, felt, thought, etc.

      So glad you find my posts here on TKZ helpful! Feel free to visit my own blog anytime! It’s called Resources for Writers. Good luck with your writing! Let me know if you ever need an editor. 🙂

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  4. Jodie, you always offer great advice with specific examples to demonstrate the point you’re making. Thanks!

    I have the same question about using italics for thoughts that Steve mentions. Overuse of italics can be irritating yet sometimes they’re needed for clarity. Any guidance on how much is too much?

    Like many writing “rules”, the pendulum on italics seems to swing back and forth every few years.

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    • Hi Debbie,

      Thanks for your question. Click on this article (link above in my post), “Using Thought-Reactions to Add Attitude and Immediacy” and see what you think. Do you agree with most of that or not? Do you have any other questions? Thanks. Generally, as mentioned in the post, they’re best for short, emphatic thoughts. Leave long thoughts in normal font. You can’t go wrong there, as italics often signify emphasis or a strong feeling.
      Also, direct thoughts are first-person, present tense and indirect thoughts are third-person past tense. The article goes into that too.
      Hope that helps. 🙂

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      • I ALWAYS agree with you, Jodie, b/c your reasons are clear and well thought out.

        This line in your link jumped out:

        “innermost, uncensored thoughts and impulses.”

        Exactly!

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  5. Terrific post, Jodie. Any writer struggling with deep POV scored big-time today. Always nice to “see” you here on TKZ!

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  6. Thanks, Jodie! This goes into my Killzone Hall of Fame blogs, copied and pasted for further study.

    I’ve discovered I love writing in deep, close, third person. This post will certainly help me master it.

    And thank your for sharing your book…downloaded and waiting for me.

    Glad you’re here! 🙂

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    • Thanks, Deb! So glad you found my post helpful! I love close third or deep POV myself, both as a reader and a writer. I think women especially prefer the intimacy it creates with the character. We really get engaged and immersed — such a satisfying reading experience!

      Hope you enjoy my Captivate Your Readers and it gives you lots of ideas for your fiction writing. 🙂

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  7. Will refer a couple friend friends to your post, Jodie. They are struggling to grasp the fine details of intimate POV. Thanks for articulating it well.

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    • So glad you think these tips will be helpful to some of your writing friends, Kris! If you like, you could mention to them that I’m still accepting clients for editing.

      I love all your craft-of-writing posts here and share them regularly on social media. They’re all gems — articulate, informative, and entertaining! (Mine don’t have the wit and humor of yours.)

      Thanks for your kind words. Glad my points will help some writers nail this difficult technique better.

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      • Will do. I have three buds who are still in the very early manuscript phase, far from needing an editor. I keep telling them they have to finish a first draft first. 🙂 One friend said working on his story this past year of hibernation was the only thing that kept him sane.

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  8. Very helpful post, Jodie! This is something I’ve worked on for years. My mentor Mary used to drill me on this when I was her student. As a reader, I prefer a deep 3rd POV to a somewhat more distanced limited 3rd. As a writer, even after all my work with Mary, it’s still easy to fall into using filtering words in first draft, as a kind of narrative shorthand.

    A number of the cozies I’ve read lean toward limited 3rd rather than deep. Do you feel that, even today, there can be a difference in narrative distance depending upon the genre or sub-genre? Or is it more a case of authorial preference? 🙂

    Thanks for another insightful post!

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    • Hi Dale,

      Thanks for commenting. Always great to hear from you, whether it’s about one of my posts or others here. Of course, in first draft, write with wild abandon. Don’t shackle your muse by thinking about rules and techniques. But later, you can do a search for those filtering words and play with ways to express the thoughts, actions, and sensations more directly, without the intermediary.

      As I mentioned at the opening, different genres prefer different narrative distances. Readers of a plot-driven military novel or action adventure or historical saga will expect and prefer a greater narrative distance – dispense with all the introspection and emotions and just get on with the action!

      But thrillers and romance are much more effective with a close or intimate narrative distance as there are so many more emotions involved, whether it be fear, worry, suspense, relief, desire, or love.

      Cozies, with fewer highs and lows, don’t need deep POV, in my opinion, as they’re not so emotion-driven. They’re more cerebral, almost relaxing, and their target readership tends to be people who enjoy thinking and solving puzzles.
      Maybe others would like to weigh in on this…

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  9. Excellent run down, Jodie!

    I’m doing 1st person now, but in prior 3rd POVs I’d sometimes catch myself inserting the “authorial future.” Like:
    … He didn’t know what he’d soon be facing.
    (the author knows, but he doesn’t)

    But then sometimes it can work:
    … He would know soon enough.

    And on the Italics for inner thoughts, I’m also tending to italicize less and less when it’s direct and clear.

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  10. Yes, that’s a good one that I should add here, Harald. I thought of several more, but the article was already way too long. I find those kinds of authorial insertions jolting and disorienting — as Robert Dugoni says, “Butt Out — I’m reading here!”

    In your second example, I’d add “likely” or “maybe” or “probably” as how can he know for sure at that moment if he’ll soon be facing something?

    Thanks for your comments.

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  11. A great informative article. Most of my students over the years wrote romance so I prefer the terms hot, warm, and cold viewpoint because it’s all about emotions. But even in romance, warm tends to be the primary viewpoint because hot is the equivalent of exclamation point sentences. If it’s hot, too much, the female character comes across as a teenager writing in her diary. It’s all drama. The male viewpoint is almost never hot because guy. The warm and hot viewpoint are also about the five senses, aka sensual.

    If you are a student of viewpoint, I suggest you pick up one of Nora Roberts’ romances and read it, paying particular attention to her viewpoint which is a weird mixture of close viewpoint and omniscient. She’s been around forever and blasts up the bestseller charts with each book because she’s that good, but I would never suggest anyone attempt that viewpoint because only she could get away with it. Still, it’s a really interesting dance between close viewpoint and omniscient.

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  12. Thanks for your comments, Marilynn. As I mentioned in my article, Nora Roberts is one of the very few novelists (the only one I can think of) who can manage constant POV shifts masterfully, without annoying or confusing readers. She’s a master at it! (I don’t think of her technique so much as omniscient, not the author butting in, but more that the POV is bounced back and forth between the thoughts and desires of the most important characters.)

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  13. It’s worth reading Lemony Snickett’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” to see a hilarious example that demonstrates your points through opposite effects, such as when he uses narrative intrusion to deliberately make a scene less scary.

    I personally prefer old-fashioned first-person narration, which leverages the basic human intimacy of sharing a personal story.

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  14. Thanks for your comments, Robert. Yes, Lemony Snickett has his own humorous style, which kids adore! And that’s a great technique to make a scene less scary for young readers.

    Deep point of view is about as close as you can get to first-person narration and still be in third-person. It also avoids all those repetitive “I”s. I notice a lot of YA fiction is in first-person present tense. Each genre has its preferences.

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  15. I’m late to the party today, but oh so glad I got here to read your post, Jodie. It’s like an entire course on close 3rd person.

    I use several different POV characters over the course of each of my novels. Since I write cozies, I’ve been more a limited POV author, but I want to try getting “closer.”

    Thanks for this great information!

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  16. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Kay. I’m so glad you find my tips helpful! Good luck with experimenting with closer / deeper POV. You might find you like it! 🙂

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  17. Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment, Kay. I’m glad you find my tips on close third-person POV helpful! Have fun experimenting with narrowing your narrative distance and bringing the readers closer to your characters! 🙂

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  18. Thank you for a wonderful post. Some of your tips I’ve been using, others helped clarify some gray areas. I so agree with the head hopping. It irritates me to the point I won’t read the book.

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