Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.