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The Perspective From Inside a Character

November 28, 2016 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified November 28, 2016

A writer and I were recently exploring ways to write from a character’s point of view, as if the writer were on the inside of the character looking out through the character’s eyes and experiencing story events through the character’s senses.

This is the perspective we try to tap into when we use first-person and deep third-person POVs.

The perspective is literally an insider’s perspective. We see story events not only from inside the story, but from inside the body, the mind, and the heart of the viewpoint character.

In deep third or first-person POV, you don’t want descriptions of people, objects, places, or events to sound like they’re coming from an impartial observer, from a watcher. You don’t want to give readers the view from a tracking camera, movie-style. Instead, you want to write in ways that show the character going through the events. That is, the focus is not on watching but on experiencing.

A few ways to look at the difference:

experiential rather than observational

close and intimate rather than distant

in the moment rather than outside looking in (or on)

participant rather than watcher/observer/reporter

insider vs. outsider

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When movies show memories of a person’s experiences—you know, the flashback to an earlier event that shows what happened purportedly from the character’s memory and viewpoint—the details of the event are seldom if ever actually from the point of view of the character. Characters can’t see what happened to them from outside their bodies—they experience what happens from the inside, through their eyes and senses, and not in the way that an observer would experience those events.

We don’t see our bodies flung backwards when someone punches us—we feel the sensation of flying back, the inability to control our moving body, the pain in our jaw. We don’t see the wall behind us moving closer—we might see objects rushing past in our peripheral vision.

It’s all about perspective.

We don’t see our hair artistically floating around our heads in slow motion, though we may be blinded when our hair streams forward across our eyes as our body is compelled backwards.

We don’t see the expression on our face, the wide O of a mouth, the eyes stretched open or squeezed shut.

When we’re the ones experiencing an action, we have no idea what we look like. And characters in our stories can’t know either. Not if the POV is first person or deep third.

We don’t experience events in our lives as though we’re watching a movie or gazing into a mirror. We live events looking out through our eyes, making sense of what’s happening through prior experience and knowledge. We don’t watch, we live. We don’t observe, we experience. We live inside our bodies and experience the world through our senses, making sense of what’s happening with our minds and being moved emotionally through our feelings.

And when we write first-person or deep third POVs, we need to write our characters’ reactions and perceptions from that same viewpoint.

What does a character experience when he moves through a party? He doesn’t see himself looking cool, trying smoldering glances on the women. He doesn’t see himself weaving smoothly between groups as if pushing through a maze that opens before him and closes behind him when he passes. His steps and the movements of those around him aren’t choreographed the way movements are for actors in a movie.

He doesn’t see the way his hair sticks up in the back. He doesn’t see what happens behind him as he pushes his way across the room—the glare from the man whose foot he stepped on, the woman gasping when another woman backed into her as she kept track of our character’s passage across the room, the character’s former girlfriend glaring at him because she sees where he’s headed and it’s far away from her.

Our character can try to look cool as he strides across the room and pushes through the crowd, but he can only tell us about his experience from behind his eyes and inside his head and body, not offer the descriptions of someone else watching him.

I’ll say it again—this character is a participant rather than an observer. He’s living  events just as a real human would. He’s not watching, he’s participating.

Now, a first-person narrator could experience and offer observations, if he’s telling his story to someone. Yet he still can’t see himself moving through space and events the way that a camera can capture someone moving through space.

Choosing a close narrative perspective means that you give up other options for your storytelling.

When we look outside ourselves through our eyes and from the perspective of our bodies, when we rely on our thoughts, our experiences, and our knowledge base, we are limited. We can’t see ourselves the way that others see us. We can only feel ourselves as ourselves, feel ourselves in the space we occupy.

A character in deep third shouldn’t report that he smiled sardonically. How would he know? He can try to paste on a certain type of smile, but he can’t see himself—he doesn’t know what he looks like. He knows what he’s trying to do and what his face feels like to him—knows how he feels emotionally, as well—but he can’t know what he looks like. He can’t report what he looks like.

And most of the time he shouldn’t be concerned with how he looks.

Yes, we do sometimes wonder how we look or how we come across to others; that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m saying that in general, we are simply living, moving through the events of our lives without resorting to offering observations that an outside observer might make.

We can’t see what an outsider sees, and we’re usually more concerned with what we’re feeling, thinking, wanting, and needing than how we appear to an observer (especially when there’s actually no observer). This means that a character’s responses should originate from inside him.

How odd would it be for a man to walk around reporting on his smile or his manly stride or his twinkling eyes? It would be a bit unusual, would it not? So why make our characters so unrealistic? If you’re using a character’s close viewpoint to tell the story, stick with that and don’t try to impose an outsider’s view on top of the character’s.

 

Word Choices

This means that word choices also have to be appropriate. A woman chasing after her car—moments ago stolen by a carjacker—isn’t going to mention her lithe and shapely legs pumping energetically or her running mascara creating Halloween-perfect tracks down her prettily flushed face.

Not only can she not see those things, she wouldn’t be noticing them at this dramatic moment and she wouldn’t be using such words to describe herself.

She can’t see.

She wouldn’t notice such details under the circumstances.

She wouldn’t describe herself the way others would.

Deep POV allows a writer to share the most intimate thoughts, dreams, and feelings of a character, but at the same time, that option automatically excludes other observations. Unless your character is paranormal in some way—able to travel outside himself—if you’re using a close POV, you can’t also write descriptions from a perspective outside that character’s head and body. Not unless you give another character viewpoint duties and have her describe the first character.

For our victim of the carjacking, she could feel her legs tiring and growing heavy as she races after her car. And she might be having trouble seeing through the goopey mess of the mascara that’s turning into a smeary paste when mixed with her tears, but her perspective is of necessity different from that of a person watching her. She relates events as they affect her, from the insider’s perspective.

She’s not an impersonal reporter, but a very interested participant.

This insider’s perspective is the great strength of first-person and deep third POVs in books. Movies almost always have to show from the outside what happens to a character. Putting the camera inside a character’s head and behind his eyes can be dizzying and disconcerting for viewers. It can be done, but that technique can never be as effective as writing a character from the inside. Why? Because even if a camera moves inside a character and looks out, that camera can’t give us a character’s thoughts, feelings, and sensory experiences the way a character can so easily share them in words.

Yes, a movie might give a character’s thoughts via voiceover, but it can’t convey emotions and responses to sense stimuli the way written fiction can.

Movies are great; we can get a marvelous sense of place and what it might feel like to go through the events taking place on the screen. But books can provide still more. Movies and films can give us visuals and sound, but the written word can give us a character’s inner life and experiences. Plus, the written word allows readers to color the scenes and decorate the setting as they see fit, without having to rely on the imagination of set decorators, directors, and property masters.

Use that ability to tap into a character’s inner world to make your stories realistic. Use the peculiarities of the written word and long fiction to give readers an experience as close to real life as possible.

Note: You don’t have to use first-person or deep POV—your story may work better as a more observational story. And that’s perfectly fine. Use the omniscient or a more distant third-person POV if that’s your choice and what the story demands. But if you’re going for a close narrative distance, use all the options available to you. Exploit techniques that will bring readers into the story world and inside the character.

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Worry less about what your character looks like as he travels through your story’s events and be more concerned with what he’s experiencing. Help your characters draw the reader deep.

•  share character thoughts, plans, embarrassment, expectations, and secrets

•  share a character’s uncertainties

•  help readers experience the story world—how does the ground feel under the character’s feet? what does the smell of fresh-brewed coffee do for a character? what does an empty house sound or feel like to a character?

•  show a character trying to make sense of his world given all that he knows and expects and experiences

•  use word choices that reflect the person experiencing an event rather than the word choices of a person reporting the event

•  think passionate engagement rather than dispassionate observation

 

Let’s consider an example.

Mark tripped over the sleeping dog and cartwheeled down the stairs.

Does Mark know what he tripped over? Maybe. Maybe he saw the dog at the last minute. But he didn’t see himself cartwheeling, so why would he use such a word? (It is a great verb.) He didn’t see the signature cartwheel feature, arms and legs extended in a star shape, so how would he describe the fall from inside his head and body, and through his experience? Maybe—

Mark groaned when his hip banged into the wall and his head crashed into the floor at the base of the stairs.

Mark groaned when his body slammed into the floor after he bounced down the stairs.

Mark banged a tender body part into every one of the thirteen steps—yeah, he counted—after he tripped over something that let out a squeal just before he did. So he’d either squashed Emily’s favorite doll, or one of the kittens was gonna need some TLC. He’d check as soon as he could move without passing in.

How about you try a couple? Can you make these sound less like the observations of a watcher and more like the experiences of the person living through the action/event? Choose words that reflect the character and not an observer. Provide details that reveal what the character experiences and not what outsiders see.

Juanita stomped toward her ex, grim determination clear in her set features and in her deliberate strides.

***

Kena left a trail of gasping salespeople in her wake as she pushed herself closer and closer to the boss and his assistant. Her dress billowed behind her, creating the impression of a ship’s figurehead driving into the wind.

***

Timmy’s face fell when he learned that school had not been canceled due to snow after all.

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Getting into the head of a character can take practice. Consider closing your eyes and imagining yourself as your character rather than trying to imagine what your character looks like from the outside as she moves through her story space. You might not get to see your character in 3-D glory, but you just might be able to feel what the character feels as she stands or sits or walks.

Keeping your eyes closed, imagine the feel of tears or wind on your cheeks, the bracing cold of snow blowing into your face. Get a sense of what the ground feels like under your feet or the way a small room constrains your movement (or makes you feel safe).

Practice writing from inside a character. Consider the body, the mind, and the emotions. Consider what a character experiences and not only what he looks like.

If you choose first-person or deep third-person narration, you forgo being able to share a comprehensive 360 degree perspective. But your readers gain insights into your characters. They gain a sense of urgency and of immediacy because what happens to the character can feel like it’s happening to them right at that very moment.

Readers don’t have to be mere observers; they, like the characters, can walk through the story as participants.

edit well #2 83797AA0F48D684CBAC54FBF163B9699

 

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17 Responses to “The Perspective From Inside a Character”

  1. Catherine says:

    Oh thank you, thank you for this.

    You put in words what I’m doing in my current novel. I knew that this particular style was what I needed, but it’s nice to know it actually has a name and exists somewhere else than in my head (I actually haven’t found any novel using this style yet–do you know any?).

    I personally have a hard time with modern novels where heroins describe their various outfits, their hair, their smile and every single expression that they can’t see on their faces (especially in first person) It takes me out of it.

    Writing the story from a deep character’s perspective is a lot of fun. You are with them and experience what they feel and think. There’s also the added bonus (or disadvantages) of discovering the world as they see it. They don’t over describe people they already know or places they live in. You discover details as they go, not as a whole (at least in my case).

    It’s quite a challenge when it’s time to write some back story where it would make little sense for characters to tell themselves what they went through earlier in their lives. It requires invention and different ways to bring this info in. Dialogue is a good way to do it. Adding little bits here and there helps too as they can muse on a particular thought (a sentence or two). Like that the back story is there but sprinkled instead of coming in chunks.

    One other added benefit in first person is that it reduces the use of “I” exponentially. As the characters experience the world, I find that the need to refer to themselves all the time is not as essential and relieves the narration quite a bit from too much self-contemplation. Ironic when we are in their heart and body but true.

    Thanks again for this refreshing post. I’m still learning and by no means an expert in that style, but it’s very encouraging to see that I’m not alone using it.

  2. Jessica says:

    Wow! This has to be the best article about how to do deep pov I’ve ever seen. There are so few articles on this narration that it frustrates me greatly. This is so detailed; great! Am so bookmarking this. Thank you for making this this will be a great guide for all of us to look to when needed.

    • Jessica, I’m glad the details proved useful. You might have already read the articles, but check the links I included in my comment to Catherine. There’s good info in those articles as well.

      Thanks for letting me know this one hit the spot for you.

  3. jessica says:

    This is how I’m doing it so far.

    Excerpt from chapter 52 – Soul Tear:

    “Betrayer! Worthless betrayer, you will die in pain!” Nathanael yelled. He screeched as the box pulled him in. He dug his heels into the ground. His eyes flashed a dead-end white, he looked straight at her.

    He couldn’t be that weakened … expecting me to save your butt? The gods arms became thinner yet and his fingers disappeared into the box.

    Kar looked at her with a pleading in his face she’d never seen before. Have I been wrong all this time? There wasn’t any more time to to think.

    She ran at Maxwell and punched him in the stomach. Maxwell groaned, but still held the box. He shifted it to one hand and then backhanded her she flew over the hill and landed into a snowbank over a hundred feet away.

    Her vision doubled. She rocked from side to side and rolled out of the frigid snow, much was wedged in the armor and ran cold down her back. She shivered and tried to stand up, the winds snatched what little warmth there was left and she fell unable to even bend her fingers.

    —-

    What do you think, is it finally in deep pov? I think so and actually got a feel for that hard to pinpoint down thing called: “style”. 😛 Ah-ha ^-^

    Granted it needs an edit, I’m week when it comes to commas and spelling. Jumbled jumping letters anyone? Still, this chapter is still a draft so is allowed to be a little messy.

    I think this website more so then others, has helped me grow with this pov. <3

    • Yes, you definitely included some indicators of deep POV. Those thoughts let us know that we’re hearing what your character is thinking, and the word choice and attitude give us details about the viewpoint character. Keep plugging away with exactly those kinds of phrases. Give us access to your viewpoint character again and again.

      • darkocean says:

        *Fist pump* Woo, great I just wanted a little affirmation
        that I’m on the right track.

        53 chapters so far! (I keep them at around 2k words or so when possible. They … just feel right. So probably like 25 chapters if it was a 1980’s book XD) Once it’s done, I’m going to search for any “nothing”: Chapters and see if my charicters are spinning around doing nothing.

  4. Jessica says:

    I have a little cash for once so Beth Hill, do you have any books on amazon that need another reader, and a nice comment?

  5. Thank you for this one, Beth. As a realist, I want to communicate my characters’ feelings and thoughts through their viewpoint and not some omniscient deity. It’s where my introverted nature came in handy, as I quietly and closely observed people who otherwise thought I was plotting something nefarious. Translating those “deep POV” ruminations into coherent, plausible verbiage is where the real challenge lies. You’re asking (commanding) readers to step out of their comfort zones and into the minds and personalities of your characters. And, while it may be enticing from the outset, it can be unnerving to some. Ultimately, though, it will make your story more appealing and entice your readers to want more.

    • Exactly, Alejandro. It’s very enticing for readers. They get so much more than just a report of events.

      Coherent and plausible—we should all tape that to our monitors as a constant reminder. Thanks for sharing with us.

  6. Steve Lowe says:

    Okay, this topic again…

    I’ll quote my favourite section, where Beth actually says:

    “Note: You don’t *have* to use first-person or deep POV – your story may work better as a more observational story. And that’s perfectly fine. Use the omniscient or a more distant third-person POV if that’s your choice and what the story demands…”

    Ah… but if only such a simple choice was still open to all of us today. Whereas, in fact, the modern publishing establishment (editors, agents, etc.) seem to be constantly pressuring aspiring authors to subscribe to 1st-person/deep3rd-person POV more and more.

    One of my editorial consultants even dismissed omniscient POV as being ‘rather old-fashioned and not used much anymore’. And that’s despite the fact that my own novel actually cried-out to be allowed to be written in (the more traditional) omniscient – because it’s set in a world & time which the modern reader is totally alien to. Therefore, it’s the author’s duty to *explain* to the reader all those elements of the story which modern readers won’t (trust me, they really won’t) understand if left to their own devices. They’d just get confused and give up unless I helped them into the story. And you can’t do that from the restricted perspective of 1st-person POV. That’s what omniscient POV should be for.

    Another of my editorial consultants tried telling me to ‘show-not-tell’ a bit more, (using less of an omniscient POV) citing Jane Austen as (supposedly) being on one of the best ‘showers’ of all time. She then went on to quote a line from Sense & Sensibility, where Mrs. Dashwood allegedly displays her snobbishness in the way she admires someone else’s affluence by owning a ‘barouche’. Yes… but I had to counter by pointing-out that this novel (like all of Austen’s) was written not only 200 years ago, but for a specific section of society (those who could afford barouches… and the servants required to drive them) who might actually have known what the heck a ‘barouche’ was. But today? (No, nor me, either… and it’s no good if you have to stop reading your novel to go and look up some arcane term, now is it :-))

    Point being that if your novel is set even further into the past than Austen’s (and consequently, you cannot even rely on the contemporary knowledge of your (modern) readers to know all the technical terms applicable to the day) then the author has a duty to be an ‘omniscient narrator’ in order to fill in any gaps in the reader’s understanding (be that social, historical, geographical or whatever).

    I guess that’s why most historical novels always were… erm… historically… written in omniscient POV.

    And the other point is that it’s all very well for a ‘Mills & Boon’ style romance to be written in 1st-Person POV (by either character) because it’s kind of a given that both parties will end up ‘living together happily ever after’. Therefore, it’s necessary for both the main characters to survive till the end of the story (unless it’s a ‘Wuthering Heights’ kind of twisted romance – but then, nobody would call that ‘Mills & Boon’, anyhoo).

    However, if you are instead writing a gritty historical epic, where the protagonist(s) face jeopardy every day of their lives, and if you are furthermore allowing it to be ‘true to life’, then sometimes, it just so happens that the protagonist(s) *don’t* survive to the end of the story. In fact, I believe that brings us full-circle back to ‘Wuthering Heights’ again; and just try imagining *that* story written from the POV of Cathy! There, you see… impossible!

    Hence when my second editorial consultant also tried telling me to ‘rewrite the entire novel in 1st-person POV’, I had to point-out to her, yet again, that since my protagonists face jeopardy every day of their lives, it would be rather ‘giving the ending away’ to write it through their eyes. If only for the simple reason that they would *have* to survive till the final page, in order to finish telling their story. Which would then undermine all the jeopardy which I might try putting them through in the intervening pages and kill the tension in the story stone dead. Well, as an author, you want the reader actually to *care* about *whether* the protagonist survives *or not*, don’t you, and to worry about them making it from one chapter to the next? In the real world, people do sometimes die halfway through something, and as a dramatic author, you should constantly be aware of that possibility – and make your reader constantly aware of it, too!

    And so *that’s* why we still need omniscient POV to tell a realistic story – whether it’s about people who lived 200 – or 2,000 – years ago or about characters who might die any minute (or may even be dead already :-)) And no, the example of ‘American Beauty’ does *not* work in that regard (despite somebody on this list having tried citing it to argue in favour of dead characters narrating their own story in 1st person POV, recently). Dead men can’t write! No more than ‘white boys can jump’ (believe me, I’ve tried – the latter, not the former, for obvious reasons:-))

    It’s a bit like the opening of David Copperfield: ‘I was born’. Yes, a bit of a truism, perhaps, since we all of us are, one way or another. But he might also have gone on to say: ‘And nor was I dead, yet!’ Since both cases are rather necessary for anyone to be in a position to put pen to paper. I mean, it’s not rocket-science. But then, neither does it seem to be very fashionable to point out such inconvenient existential facts in today’s rather cuckoo publishing environment…

    Regards,
    Steve

    • Steve, I’m sorry that you’ve gotten so much flak for your choice of POV. On the other hand, I have the feeling that it’s helped you solidify your position. Not every POV is the best choice for any one novel, not even the POV du jour. If you can marshall your points and arguments, you’ll not only be able to argue your position with others, but you’ll be able to use the details of those points to strengthen your story. If you have to use omniscient because of A, B, and C, then make sure your use of A, B, and C is strong and consistent. If you tell others why you chose omniscient, be able to point out in the text how your choice was the right choice to create the effect or mood or feel that you wanted and that the story needs. When you show others the effect you created, you solidify that choice once again for yourself.

      No, omniscient isn’t terribly popular today, but it’s still needed for epics and for stories that feature large casts and/or great time spans.

      For other stories, do keep in mind what you give up. For many genres, readers want that intimacy that only first person and deep POV can give. If a story would be stronger with closer insights of the main character(s), omniscient might not be the best choice. If, on the other hand, the accent is on the scope of the story’s events and/or on the story world, getting up close and personal with a couple of characters may run contrary to the strengths of the story.

      As for dead men tell no tales, more than one novel has been written in the POV of a dead person or ghost. The Lovely Bones was a recent one, but lots of paranormals have no problem with the dead (vampires and ghosts) telling stories. Of course, I know that that’s not exactly what you had in mind. Stories do take on a different feel when we lose the narrator halfway through. Also, we take different expectations with us when we read first-person stories—we don’t expect that the narrator will die as he or she is telling the story. While writers are free to do anything, that has always seemed like a cheat to me.

      Keep us updated on your situation.

  7. Peter says:

    Okay, Beth … I’ll give it a go: From your, “Juanita stomped toward her ex, grim determination clear in her set features and in her deliberate strides,” we might write: “Juanita’s ex watched in fear and trepidation as she stomped toward him/her, her glaring eyes and determined strides warning him/her that she meant to harm him/her.” OR “Juanita’s burning anger was interrupted by a fleeting flash of satisfaction at the utter fear in her ex’s eyes as she stomped toward him/her.” Hmmm …

  8. Excellent tips here, Beth. I can’t thank you enough for all you do to assist authors with writing. I’ve shared this online and am studying it to try and commit it to memory. I’ll also try some of the exercises to become better at adding the emotion and insight to first person narratives.

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