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Deep POV—What’s So Deep About It

November 16, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified February 1, 2012

Deep POV (point of view) is a fairly new option for writers. It’s only become popular in the last 20-40 years, but it’s made itself strongly known and keenly felt, and now much of current fiction is written using this viewpoint.

So what is deep POV and how is it used?

Deep POV is third-person subjective taken a step farther than the normal. The third-person subjective shows story through the eyes of one or more characters—one at a time, no head-hopping please. Deep POV goes beyond that to take readers into the head and heart of a character, allowing the story to be seen and felt through the characters experiences and history and thoughts and feelings.

What the first-person POV accomplishes with its I narration, deep POV accomplishes with third-person he or she narration.

Thus readers see scenes through the viewpoint character, feel story events as that character does. What that character sees, the reader sees. What the character feels or thinks, the reader knows.

And the reader knows automatically that what is being reported are the thoughts and feelings and the intentions of the viewpoint character.

Deep POV allows writers to do away with he thought, he felt, he wondered, he saw, all those phrases that intrude into the fiction, that unnecessarily encumber story.

At one time such phrases were necessary to let readers know we were in the character’s head or seeing through his eyes. With deep POV, readers are in the character’s head [almost] all the time, and so such intrusions aren’t necessary.

A few examples of simple sentences to show the contrast—

Third-person—

He was lost, Thomas thought. Lost and certain someone followed him.

I’m lost, Thomas thought. Lost and certain someone followed him.

Third-person deep POV—

He was lost. Lost and certain someone followed him.

I’m lost. Lost and certain someone followed him.

—————

Third-person—

Elaine trailed her quarry down Main Street, careful to stay busy with store windows on the opposite side of the street. She giggled when she watched him slip into Barrington’s MensWear, saw him hide behind a mannequin. 

Third-person deep POV—

Elaine trailed her quarry—better known as her ex—down Main Street, careful to stay busy with store windows on the opposite side of the street.

 She giggled when he slipped into Barrington’s MensWear and hid behind a mannequin.

—————

Third-person—

Arkin shook his head. It was moronic, he said to himself, the way Peter fawned over his in-laws.

Peter threw open his mouth, faking a long laugh.

A moron, Arkin thought again, turning away.

Third-person deep POV—

Arkin shook his head. It was moronic the way Peter fawned over his in-laws.

The loser threw open his mouth, faking a long laugh. 

Moron.

Arkin turned away.

____________________________________

As the first-person narrator doesn’t have to identify his own feelings and thoughts as being his own, so the third-person viewpoint character doesn’t have to repeatedly tell his readers that he’s thinking or hoping or seeing or feeling. Readers understand that the thoughts and hopes and visions and feelings belong to the viewpoint character.

The writer who uses deep POV for his viewpoint character doesn’t have to use markers to tell readers what a character feels—

Melissa reluctantly stuck her hand into the pouch. She thought that there was no way she could back gracefully out of the dare. She wiggled her fingers around. She felt slime ooze between them.

Melissa reluctantly stuck her hand into the pouch. There was no way she could back gracefully out of the dare. She wiggled her fingers around, wincing when slime oozed between them.

Using deep POV rather than traditional third-person subjective can cut the word count and keep the intensity high. It can also keep readers deep in the fiction of the moment rather than reminding them that they are reading a story.

The markers that remind readers a character is reporting that he’s doing something—felt, saw, watched, thought and so on—are a barrier between readers and the events and emotions of story. They keep readers one step removed from story events and a character’s feelings.

Removal of those reminders pulls readers deeper into story events and deeper into the character’s mind and heart. When the visual physical barrier is knocked away, the psychological barrier is knocked away as well. The reader can move even deeper into the fictional world.

Of course, being in a character’s thoughts and emotions for the length of a story can induce claustrophobia or otherwise make readers antsy. It’s quite okay to draw back at times, to step away from that deep POV.

When deep POV is too much
Look through a distance lens at the opening of new chapters or scenes to gain perspective and provide relief from deep POV. Go from a big-picture shot and shift focus until your viewpoint character is in the frame and then let him resume the storytelling.

You can also switch viewpoint characters so readers get the view from inside a different head. This gives readers a break from the intensity of a single character’s viewpoint.

Remember, however, to switch viewpoint characters only with scene changes. And be choosy about the heads and hearts you dump your readers into; not every character deserves to tell your story.

Not every character is the right one to tell your story.

____________________________________

Inside Out vs. Outside In
Deep POV allows story and scenes to be experienced from the inside out rather than reported from the outside looking in.

Right. So what does that mean?

It means that your description and actions can be shared through the eyes and feelings and experiences—through the words—of your viewpoint character.

Instead of providing a description that comes across as cold or indifferent or distant, in the words of an uncaring or unknowledgeable narrator, use deep POV to proclaim a character’s relationship to setting or props or even other characters. Use it to reveal character personality and emotion.

Since deep POV keeps us inside a character, you’re free to use words that only this character would use in the circumstances you’ve dumped him into. Use emotion-inducing words, words that come from the character’s emotional state. Use words that arise from his background and his history.

Use words that the character knows will cause a reaction in others.

Don’t limit yourself to words and phrases an outsider would use to describe what he sees. Use words from the depths of your character. Let his frustrations fly with your word choices.

Deep POV is a great tool for stirring up conflict.

Third-person—

Leon’s dress shirt was buttoned to his throat, cutting off his air. The air that did manage to move through him was then squeezed to almost nothing by his tie—one regulation blue stripe, one burgundy.

He yanked off the tie, stuffed it in his pocket.

Penelope was watching and frowning. But he’d only agreed to wear the clothes. He hadn’t agreed to a time limit.

 Third-person deep POV—

Leon yanked at the vintage buttons of the vintage dress shirt that choked him, cutting off his air and making him lightheaded. Lightheaded and angry. The damned tie—one regulation blue stripe, one burgundy—had to go. He yanked at it too, pulled it free and stuffed it into his pocket.

So what that Saint Penelope was watching. He’d agreed to wear what she’d picked out for him.

He hadn’t agreed on a time limit.

He grinned when he caught her frown. Fifteen minutes satisfied the requirement for him. And it ticked her off.

A win-win in his book.

Choose a variety of words—nouns, verbs, and adjectives—to reveal character emotion.

Remember, too, that once we’re in deep POV, there are some words a character wouldn’t use.

A character isn’t likely to refer to a sibling as his brother Richard or to a firm he works at as Collins, Hollingsworth, Timbrall, and Dean.

Use words and phrases the character would use. And relay necessary information—that Richard is a character’s brother and that the Collins he refers to is his law firm—through other means.

Tip: Think personal rather than impersonal. Use words meaningful to the character.

____________________________________

Format for Deep POV
For the most part, text is formatted the same in deep POV as in any other point of view.

Yet, where third-person subjective might use italics to show thoughts, deep POV allows the writer to get rid of the italics. And since the use of italics is one more way of calling attention to the form of the words on a page rather than the meaning of the words, getting rid of italics is another way to keep readers deep in the fictional world.

There is no need for italics in deep POV, not for simply reporting thoughts. However, if a character uses I or me in his thoughts, then use italics.  Without the italics, readers could be confused or wonder why the writer had switched from third person to first.

And if a reader’s wondering about the mechanics of the format, he’s not lost in the story.

Bopping down the stairs, Ike considered his choices. He’d either have to go to Vail with Mom or Barbados with Dad, no staying at home with Paul. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs to pluck his hat from the fat knob at the end of the railing.

At least I get a choice this Christmas.

He grabbed his board and slammed the door behind him.

And I choose to bag me some beach babes.

** In the original of this article, I had also said that you should use italics if you showed a character’s thoughts using verbs in the present tense when the rest of the narrative is past tense. However, you don’t necessarily have to use italics in that instance. In deep POV you can use present tense for the viewpoint character’s thoughts (with some cautions, of course). Look for an article on this topic soon.

You should know, however, that not all agents, publishers, and readers would agree with this choice. But you will find this method being used.

An example—

Bertie tracked his wife to the no-name motel and watched as first she entered and then that loser of a gigolo knocked with a damned unmanly grin on his face. One knock followed by three followed by a drumroll.

And she thinks she’s getting away with this crap? Please.   

Of course, that last line could have just as easily have been—

And she thought she was getting away with that crap? Please.

____________________________________

If you’ve not yet worked deep POV into your stories, I encourage you to start. Today’s readers apparently like that close relationship with characters.

Practice writing deep POV. Get into your characters’ heads and hearts, into the rhythms of their thoughts and speech, and convey their emotions and true personalities through the words you give them to both say and think.

Remember too that you are not limited to deep POV, even if it is popular. Try it, use it when it works for your stories. But step back when it begins to smother. And try a more distant approach if that fits the style of story you wish to tell.

Don’t limit yourself. But don’t be limited by others and the practices of the day either.

*******

Go to the deep places in your writing today. Challenge yourself. Challenge your characters.

Challenge your readers while entertaining them.

Get them talking about your stories.

Write about the deep places today. Write strong fiction.

***

Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style

43 Responses to “Deep POV—What’s So Deep About It”

  1. Well written post. I liked all the examples. I try to explain this to beta partners all the time, but this is something that many trip over. It’s so easy to do this, but it is such a habit to just graze across the surface and not really get into the character’s head.
    http://www.jennifermeaton.com

  2. Kat Sheridan says:

    Fabulous article, and I thank you so much for it! I sort of understand deep POV, but you’ve clarified a lot of points for me. I especially like the examples of what ISN’T deep POV. Your articles have helped me more than I can say!

  3. Jennifer, I think many writers don’t go deep because they’ve read so much in other POVs. When you’re used to a story having a certain feel or used to seeing certain types of phrasing, that’s the pattern you follow. But what a difference when all the emotion and the responses are filtered through the viewpoint character. Totally different story.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Kat, I find that knowing both what something is and what it isn’t is helpful. Glad you found this one useful.

  5. Heidi Leanne says:

    What a great article! I have been struggling with third person subjective for my book and I can’t wait to try switching it over to the deep POV. All your examples are wonderful, and very helpful. I’ll definitely be coming back here for reference again. :)

  6. Heidi, I bet you’ll have fun with it. I’m glad you found something useful for your own writing.

  7. Alastair says:

    Hi Beth,
    Great post. I am just finishing the first draft of my novel and am anxious to get editing. Entries such as this, and everything else you’ve posted will be immensely helpful. I can’t wait to put your tips into practice. Thank you!

  8. Alastair, congratulations on being close to the finish of that first draft. That’s worth celebrating, so I hope you’ll take the time to do so.

    I’m glad you’re finding useful information at The Editor’s Blog. Here’s hoping you’ll have a long and successful writing career.

  9. Tom Flood says:

    Interesting article, Beth. Can’t say I go along with you on this. For me, and many editors, deep third is better as a cricket position than a grammatical POV. I see a lot of it’s misuse in mss. It regularly creates both formatting (use of italics) and grammatical difficulties (usually tense) for writers, and on top of that, in the hands of novices, it often is insulting to the reader, trying to over-direct their response. I find over-explanation to be the principle use of this technique and would recommend writers be very sparing in its use, unless your intent is to annoy your readers. If you want to put them off a character, fine. Working motivation into regular 3rd or 1st person without beating the reader over the head with a character directing us how to think is part of the skill of good writing. Reasonable delineation, so that it doesn’t clog the storyline (in fact it’s usually invisible to the reader) but does let us know who is speaking/thinking etc, is also a skill worth learning. What does clog the pace of the story, and it’s becoming particularly prevalent in self-published e-books, is constantly being told what a character is thinking i.e. how the reader should be thinking/responding. I’m not saying deep third should never be used, just be careful where it may take you and don’t neglect the traditional skills.

  10. Tom, I agree on many of your points because a lot of that is just what I suggest to my clients—cut back on the use of italics because if we’re in a character’s head, we know he’s the one thinking and so italics become unnecessary, and rather than having the character draw conclusions and state them, show us what he’s experiencing and allow the reader to draw conclusions. Pull the readers into the story by having them get involved rather than being mere recipients of the character’s thoughts and insights.

    I don’t think deep POV is going to go away anytime soon, however. Readers seem to like being closer than they can be in the traditional POVs. And now that writers have delved into this option, I don’t know how easily it will lose its draw.

    Yet, I think you hit squarely on one of the weaknesses of this option when you mentioned the possibility of a character over-directing the reader. I find that’s one of the weaknesses in first-person narration too. But if we can work that problem out of first-person POV, why not out of deep third person? These POVs are so very close in terms of what they accomplish that I don’t see why what works for one can’t work for the other with the same success.

    I certainly like writers having another option, an approach that might better suit their writing styles and the needs of the story. If I have to remind them of the inherent weaknesses of the POV, that’s no more than I’d do with any other POV option. It’s only that the weaknesses are different ones.

    Of course I’m right with you on maintaining traditional skills and methods. Put every skill to work.

    I’m glad you stopped by to share your insights and experiences. I appreciate seeing what other editors run into and their methods for addressing those issues.

  11. I’m just getting into writing and I’m attempting to use this POV since it seems like the best fit where a characters emotion is going to be the main thing that’s carrying the plot. But I had some questions about it, how do you handle scenes with people of the same gender? Is the pronoun ‘she’ reserved only for the narrator? Say you have a scene with Stacy and Sue and Stacy is the narrator, imagine they are walking up to a door.

    ” She saw the handle on the outer door but was walking side by side with Sue. What’s the protocol here? She wanted to show courtesy to Sue, being her new boss and all of that, and she knew she should behave like a leader. She didn’t want to step on Sue’s toes though, literally or metaphorically. Sue made the point moot by speeding up and getting to the door first, her hand slipped a little on the metal but she recovered quickly. She smiled a little. ”

    I could see just using the characters name to make it perfectly clear who is doing what but I thought that might get grating,

    “Sue walked forward and Sue’s hand slipped a little but Sue recovered quickly. Stacy smiled a little. ”

    I also thought that using the ‘she’ pronoun to only refer to one subject per sentence might work but then wouldn’t you have to restate the characters name each sentence where the subject changed?

    “Sue walked forward and her hand slipped a little but she recovered quickly. Stacy smiled a little. ”

    This seems pretty clear but it also seems move the sense of closeness away from the reader by having ‘Stacy’ used instead of ‘She’.

  12. Joshua, this is where some of the finessing and compromising comes in. You don’t always want to name the characters, especially for the narrator in deep POV, of course. But if there are multiple characters of one sex, you do have to make clear who is doing what. Think balance. Both too many names and too many pronouns could be annoying. And think about making the read both entertaining and understanable to the reader. Sometimes rules have to be adjusted for the sake of story.

    Look at ways to rewrite sentences so you don’t have to repeat names or personal pronouns. Yet there will be times you’ll just have to use the narrator’s name, even in deep POV.

    The personal pronoun should refer to the last named or identified person, so it should be clear who she is referring to.

    Here’s one option using your example. The use of she has been reduced from seven instances to two—

    They were approaching the door, but Sue was right at her hip. What was the protocol—show courtesy and behave like a leader, be the first to reach for the door? Yet she didn’t want to step on Sue’s toes, either literally or metaphorically. Sue solved the dilemma by reaching for the door handle first. Her hand slipped on the metal, but she recovered and giggled. They shared an embarrassed smile.

    This may not have quite the same meaning as your original, but it gives you an idea of what you can do to work around the issue.

    Thanks for joining the discussion.

  13. Wade says:

    I’ve already found myself using this. But sparingly. It is a natural development of a description as you get closer to the POV character’s thought until you’re reading what they’re actually thinking.

    I don’t stay that deep for long. It tends to happen at a point where the POV character would be a little less guarded with the narrator, if only briefly.

  14. Wade, it’s fascinating the way we can make all the elements work for us, the way we each can put together stories that make those stories our own. I like the idea of a character being a little less guarded.

    Thanks for letting us know how you’ve made deep POV work for you.

  15. Bruce says:

    Great article, but personally I find this POV style confusing. Though Ive been writing stories for a long time-since I was a kid- I know very little about writing from a technical standpoint. This will take more studying. Like the idea, sounds sound :)

  16. Bruce, the good thing is that we have options. So you can use what works and try something new or different when you want to. You could always try deep POV with a short story or novella, see how it works out for you.

    It’s always great to see what writers are doing and trying—thanks for letting us know what you’ve done.

  17. HMC says:

    Comments…..

  18. Fantastic article. Thanks.

  19. Thanks, Rufus. You’re most welcome.

  20. I’ve been using this technique in my current project, a historical novel that features 3 POV characters. I’m getting some negative feedback from some members of my critique group about it. They’ve only seen one POV character in a scene thus far but are saying they’re confused by the thoughts being revealed in deep 3rd then pulling back into objective to describe some of the action. Other members are okay with it. I should also mention that I’m using the language particular to each character in their thoughts, which is often is very different than the objective narrator. I’m not trying to please everyone but wonder if I should be making those transitions more seamless somehow.

  21. Keith, this is a situation where you need to finesse a bit.

    Once readers are in the heads of characters because you’re using deep POV, they don’t want to be interrupted or pulled out. Any change can be jarring, which is why we typically only change POVs at scene breaks.

    While you can use an omniscient narrator at the tops of chapters, do so only for a brief moment, keeping in mind that you don’t have to use that wide view from an omniscient narrator at all. And if you need to pull back a bit midscene, to give readers a break from the deep POV, don’t switch to an objective POV, just a more distant subjective one. That is, don’t come completely out of the character. Keep reporting events from the character’s point of view. If you’re getting out of the character’s head midscene and switching to an objective point of view, you’ll definitely throw the reader. A switch to an objective viewpoint midscene counts as a change in POV and requires a scene break.

    So the finessing comes in when you pull back out of that close POV. You can’t pull back too far, or readers will notice and be jarred from the fiction. You’ve got to do it delicately, in a way that won’t be noticed. A switch to an objective POV is too strong.

    Think of deep POV as being on one end of the distance range for subjective third person. You can travel a bit up the range to pull back for a moment, but you don’t want to go all the way to the opposite end of the range, not in the same scene you’re presenting in deep POV. And you definitely don’t want to switch to objective.

    You can add some variety, but you still don’t want a complete break from your character. Not in the middle of a scene. Give readers a scene break if you want to get completely out of the character’s head. Yet if you’re using three viewpoint characters, deep POV for each, and also pulling back for action scenes and not using those characters to describe them, you might be bouncing the reader around too much, even if you do make the changes properly, at scene breaks.

    The change from deep POV to an objective one is going to be more noticeable to the reader than would be a change from a less involving point of view. If you do it again and again, you can easily lose the intimacy you’re striving for by using deep POV.

    My suggestion is for you to see if you can’t show everything from the subjective rather than switching to an objective POV. Three viewpoint characters should be enough to allow you to cover every action event.

    If you have to show action events in an objective way, give them their own scenes, unattached to any of the viewpoint characters. But if a viewpoint character is a scene, he or she should be reporting it.

    Does that help?

    • I think so. I may be artificially limiting myself within deep POV by thinking I can’t mention the character or using more telling language for certain things. That’s just part of pulling back a bit.

      Thanks!

  22. Cynthia Reed says:

    Beth, thanks for this–and particularly the in-depth response you made to Keith Skinner (among others). I was pointed to your blog by Michael Hiebert, who gave a POV ‘topic chat’ in a Writers Village University session and referenced this particular article.

    Though you wrote it (relatively) long ago, I can’t resist adding a ‘thanks’ to the list of thank yous. I find it amazing how sometimes the work we do on the internet stays out there and, someday, someone new stumbles on it somehow.

    I am glad I did. Your examples and explanations are so very clear. Thanks again.

    cynthia

    • Cynthia, I’m glad you found this helpful. Yes, in terms of blogging, this would be an old post. Yet I hope the info I share here is helpful for writers for a long time. My intent with blogging is not to be trendy, but useful. That said, maybe it’s time for a newer article on deep POV. There’s always more to be shared on every topic.

      Thanks for letting me know you were here. And my thanks to Michael for sending you my way.

  23. tkmendenhall says:

    I’m curious about your take on deep(er) POV with multiple characters. Obviously, it isn’t wise to write all their thoughts, as this would be too disorientating for the reader. Strictly third-person. Rather, my question concerns the omission of filters words while as much as five or six characters are at play. Also, what about the omission of was and were?

  24. Thanks, Beth, for such a clear exposition of Deep Third POV. I was seeing refs to by fellow writers but none of them could explain it to me!

  25. Thank you so much for this article–very informative. For writing a character in deep third POV, how would you address her parents’ names?

    “Mom walked in the room.” Or, “Her mom walked in the room.”

    I feel the protagonist would refer to her as “Mom.” Yet, I’ve received comments that it feels odd because we are in third person.

    What would you recommend?

    Many thanks

    • Christina, you’ve hit on a tough one.

      You’re right—if it’s truly deep POV, it’s likely a character would refer to parents as Mom and Dad (or whatever she calls them). Using Mom and Dad keeps the reader inside the story, as if she’s right there, either imagining herself as the viewpoint character or at least there in the room.

      Using my mom or dad is more distancing than Mom or Dad, and it comes across as a report, as if the character is telling about some event or her parents rather than living the event as it unfolds. If you want that truly close feel, go with the name the character actually uses.

      Real people, when they think of parents, don’t use my in their thoughts.

      However, because of the way many stories have been written in the past (and still are today), in third-person subjective but without the added closeness of deep POV, readers may well find such wording unusual. Maybe even uncomfortable. It’s a feeling readers will likely overcome as they read (like being initially uncomfortable with present tense but then not noticing anymore). But you can’t be guaranteed that readers will get over the odd feeling.

      To help get readers used to such wording, use it right off, as soon as you can. Maybe introduce it in dialogue before thought, where it may seem more natural—“Mom is going on a vacation,” Laura Leigh said as soon as her sister picked up the phone. “With a man.”

      And be consistent. If you use Mom as a name, don’t bounce back and forth between that and my mom except in situations in which a person would typically use the second wording. Keep the name the same in the character’s thoughts, just like any other name.

      This same advice holds true for first-person narration. Saying my mom gives the feel of the narrator speaking directly to the reader, reporting something. If you want less of that, less distance, use Mom.

      You may have to push readers a bit on this one, but the more deep POV is used, the more common this kind of wording will be.

      On the other hand, you don’t have to use Mom as a name. It’s an option. And in my opinion, a good one for creating consistency in the feel of the story and in the narrative distance. Consistency does a lot for a novel. Using this wording is definitely a plus for internal consistency in a work using deep POV.

  26. In our critique group we were discussing how to get agents (and readers, of course) to “like” our characters. Getting to know them, identifying with them, sympath to empathy. I noticed a lot of my sentences began with “She” on and on. Now I realize that the paragraph can begin with “she” but then move to direct thoughts. Practice practice. Thanks for the examples. Other people SAY what 3rd POV is but don’t SHOW any examples. You do.

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