Troubleshooting Deep Point of View and Voice

Deep point of view (POV) is hard. It’s one of those things that, when you have the Right Story and the Right Character, it will come out pretty naturally. But when you don’t have the Right Story or the Right character, you can expect forced emotions, forced character interactions, and just about forced everything.

But sometimes, even when you have the Right Story and Right Character, nailing the POV and voice can be tricky. You WANT it to be a deep point of view and you WANT it show us the character while also showing us the story…but boy is that easier said than done. And that’s why I’m here to offer you a little go-to troubleshooting for your deep POV problems. 😉

Before I do that, though, let’s define “deep POV”.

Deep Point of View is when you show the character’s internal experiences—thoughts, reactions, feelings—but you do it without the “he thought/I thought/she thought” tags.

It can be a great tool for allowing the reader to live the story with the main character—but it can also quickly become overwhelming to the reader if your MC narrates in full stream-of-consciousness the whole time. That’s why many authors move in and out of deep POV as the scene/story demands. An excellent example is the opening of Harry Potter. Rowling begins in an almost omniscient third to set up the setting, and then, as the scene progresses, we sink deeper and deeper into Harry’s POV.

I also think of deep POV as being very tightly tied to voice. When you tend to get the hang of one aspect, you get the hang of the other too. BUT, just because you’ve written voice well before or nailed a deep POV in a different manuscript, there might come a day (or already be a day), when you just can’t seem to get it right.

Well, if you’re having a hard time getting your POV deep enough or rich enough (and trust me: we’ve all  been there), OR if you’re having a hard time finding your character’s voice, then read on. Basically, I think there are two things that can go wrong with POV:

You don’t actually understand the character like you think you do.
You aren’t giving us enough of your character’s world-view.

Let’s start with #1. You might not be telling the right story or actually understand the character like you think you do. You’ll probably say, “Of course, I understand the character! I’m in his/her head, aren’t I?” But the truth might be that you’re trying to write him/her all wrong.

Here’s a personal example: I tried to write the e-novella, A Dawn Most Wicked, 3 (or was it 4?!) different times and each version felt forced and wrong. I had only ever seen Daniel Sheridan’s character from Eleanor’s POV, and suddenly trying to BE Daniel wasn’t proving as easy as I thought it would. Eleanor saw Daniel as a scalawag, so I assumed he must be this Finn-Ryder-Han-Solo-scalawagish guy. Yet when I actually tried to write Daniel that way, it didn’t work. It felt forced and wrong-wrong-wrong.

What I eventually figured out and accepted was that he wasn’t a Han-Solo-type at all. Eleanor’s view of Daniel was filtered through her own experiences and wouldn’t match his OWN view of himself at all. Daniel is actually quite vulnerable and he’s super driven by his feelings for other people. Once I understood this, his “true voice” began to form in my head, and the next version of the e-novella was finally the Right Version.

So though you may think you understand a character, try answering these questions anyway. What you write may surprise you.

  1. What does your character want so desperately that he/she would do anything for it?
  2. How does your character feel about the different people in his/her life? Mom, sibling, teacher, love interest, etc.?
  3. Are the answers to #1 and #2 actually what you thought they’d be, OR, when you focus on those feelings, do you find that your character has something totally different to say? You could even try writing the above responses in your character’s voice. Does that feel natural or forced?
  4. Who are your secondary characters? Are they actually people that your character would genuinely, truly care about? Is her best friend actually worth her devotion? Is her enemy actually worth her loathing? Can you really see what and why these secondary characters matter to your MC?
  5. Try describing a secondary character as if you are the MC. What comes out might not be what you expect.

Those questions may or may not help you, but they’re what I answer when I’m trying to sort out a character. I am actually doing this RIGHT NOW because I have this one POV character in a WIP that I just can’t wrap my head around. Every attempt I’ve made at his POV has felt forced, and I’ve had to that accept he isn’t what I originally thought he would be.

If, though, you feel certain that your character(s) is correct and you understand him/her 100%, then you might just be missing that “filter” that shows us how he/she views the world. EVERYTHING your character sees goes through his/her eyes, and he/she has an opinion on it. Show us what that opinion is every chance you get.

For example, here’s the same description 3 ways:

  1. Katie’s kitchen had laminate floors, and there was something sticky that pulled at my heels as I walked to the fridge.
  2. The laminate floor in Katie’s kitchen took the word “hideous” to a whole new level. Seriously, I don’t think I’d ever seen a green quite so putrid. But what really made the floor repulsive was how much my flip-flops stayed glued to it with each squeaking step. Reminder: Tell Katie to FREAKING MOP. Whatever was on this floor had been there for years.
  3. The green laminate in Katie’s kitchen reminded me of my grandma’s floor. Sure, it was putrid, but also kinda soothing. Like a mossy forest. Although, as soon as my flip-flop hit the first tile, I winced. That squicking, sticking sound was anything but “forest-y”. Reminder: ask Katie if Rover peed inside again.

That was three different ways to say the same thing. The first one has no POV. The second one has a grouchy and possibly prone-to-melodramatics POV—we see some of her personality in that paragraph. The third is more calm, but in her analysis of the floor, we learn about her grandma AND Katie’s dog. Basically, we’re getting a broader glimpse of the MC’s life just by how she describes the floor. You should try to use your own MC’s filter as much as possible. Don’t just show me his/her physical reaction to something, show me his/her emotional and internal-thought reaction.

Now, remember that you don’t ALWAYS want to give us your character’s world view. It can be really distracting if you were to slow up an action scene with all the character’s wry asides or experiences. Scenes where the pacing isn’t breakneck tend to be the best spots for a bit of deep POV.

And romance scenes are always good for deep POV. 😉 Readers WANT to see time slow and to feel every experience as the MC feels it.

Another important thing to remember is that as your character grows, his/her filter will change. For example, when Daniel first meets Jie in A Dawn Most Wicked, he wants to smash her teeth in. By the end of the book, though, he sees her as a friend. Daniel’s world-view shifts right along with his character arc.

So basically, these are my two primary suggestions for enhancing and/or fixing your deep POV. You tell me: What do YOU do to deepen the POV of your character or latch onto his/her voice?


22 Responses to Troubleshooting Deep Point of View and Voice

  1. Stela Brinzeanu Jul 1 2013 at 7:20 am #

    A very insightful and helpful article. Thank you Susan!

    • Susan Dennard Jul 1 2013 at 8:24 am #

      You’re most welcome, Stela! Thanks for dropping by! 🙂

  2. Julie Eshbaugh Jul 1 2013 at 9:07 am #

    Hi Susan! Wow – such an amazing post! Thanks for taking the analysis of POV to the next level. Your observation of the Harry Potter opening is something I’ve thought about so many times! And YES to your observation of the importance of deep POV during romance scenes. 🙂 Like many of your posts, I’m adding this one to my bookmarks! <3

    • Susan Dennard Jul 1 2013 at 10:27 am #

      Thanks, Julie! 😀 I’m glad you find it interesting!

  3. Marc Vun Kannon Jul 1 2013 at 9:23 am #

    Great post. I write this way all the time, in fact, I have to practice to get out of it into something less personal to any one character. My view has always been that the author should be as invisible as possible, plus I really hate descriptive prose, so I use this technique to avoid both, by making most of my descriptions perceptions on the part of some character or other. It also has the advantage of maintaining some of that sense of dynamism by making the static description of the world a more dynamic perception of the world. In dialog, I also will have one character speak, then show the interior response of the other character before having him speak or act in his response, giving a very active tone to a relatively peaceful scene. As an example:
    (He’s getting her some Advil.)
    “I’m being traditional!”
    Chuck’s eyes started to cross. “You’re a spy, my non-normal wife, and I have a computer in my head.” He brought them to her.
    She took them with hot coffee. “All the more reason.”
    “Save the weirdness for the bad guys, huh? Works for me.” Back to his feeds, back to work.
    “I thought it might, Mister ‘Prepare-to-be-heartwarmed.’”
    He grinned without looking up. “My work here is done.”
    She stood straight, and grimaced. “In that case I’ll let you do the sheets.”
    Walked right into that one. “Good thing you have that spa day with Ellie later.”
    “Right, spa day. I need to take that shower.” She put the cup down and start hobbling.
    “Uh, hello?” said Chuck. “Spa day?”
    “They’re decorative, Chuck. What I need right now is industrial strength.”
    “Want some help?”
    She couldn’t shake her head and walk at the same time. “How is ‘us in the shower together’ helping?”
    This is not a good technique if you want to describe each cut and parry of an action sequence. It’s pretty good for showing what the action sequence means to the character, which is usually what I care about anyway.
    The downside is head-hopping, something I’m often accused of.

    • Susan Dennard Jul 1 2013 at 10:29 am #

      That’s a really good point that it can add a sense of action to an otherwise static scene! Very true!

  4. Hamed Jul 1 2013 at 10:08 am #

    Truth be told, I don’t think I ever wanna be a writer but whenever I’ve come over to peek at your web site I find myself reading your and your colleagues posts.
    This post, like always was enlightening and enormously useful but one question is buzzing my mind:
    Why using deep POV is better than he though/she thought kind of POV? Is it a part of “show, don’t tell”? Why should we baffle the reader with so many words when we can reach our goal with so much less?

    • Susan Dennard Jul 1 2013 at 10:27 am #

      That’s a great question, Hamed, and actually the answer is two-fold:

      1) Technically t IS fewer words to nix the “he thought” tags. If we’re in deep POV, we can just say, “He was really tired of that dog barking. If he had to hear it one more time, he’d call the police.” VERSUS. “I am really tired of that dog barking, he thought. If I have to hear it one more time, I’ll call the police.

      2) Our goal is to interrupt the flow of the narrative as little as possible. It’s smoother for the reader to be able to stay in that 3rd person place than to shift into actual thoughts or some sort of info-dumping back-story. If deep POV is done well, then the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the MC are woven seamlessly into the narrative so that the reader can sort of absorb everything rather than having it broken into individual thoughts. Does that make sense?

  5. Alexa Y. Jul 1 2013 at 2:24 pm #

    This is such a great post! As you already know, I have a little trouble when it comes to writing the voice of my character or even point of view in a way that feels natural. I appreciate all the tips and tricks you included in this post, and will definitely be trying them on my own WIP!

    • Susan Dennard Jul 1 2013 at 7:28 pm #

      You’re not alone in trouble with voice or POV. It still plagues me. Like I said above, I’m really stuck on a POV character right now, and have had to ask myself those above questions to sort out if I even understand him properly. 🙂

  6. Stephanie Scott Jul 1 2013 at 3:57 pm #

    I liked your examples! POV is one of those things I “know” but am constantly learning. I think it takes time to get better at it.

    • Susan Dennard Jul 1 2013 at 7:28 pm #

      It definitely takes time and practice. I’m totally still learning with every new piece I write. 🙂

  7. Lauren Jul 3 2013 at 8:44 am #

    Great post! Definitely insightful and helpful. 🙂

  8. Patrice Jul 3 2013 at 4:39 pm #

    Great post, I really liked the questions to ask your character. I usually try to write anything (not necessarily related to my WIP) to bring out my character’s voice. It usually works.

  9. Jeff DeCoursey Jul 3 2013 at 5:45 pm #

    I love this. This is something I’ve been working on in my own writing.

    I try to keep all the descriptive phrases in my MC’s voice, especially given that I’m writing in first person at the moment. I have to keep reminding myself that everything filters through that. Often I find myself writing out something in my “author voice”, and then having to dial back into my character’s voice to get it right. (Also, I’m writing MG, which means really sinking into my character when it sounds too adult or too objective.)

    Great post!

  10. Andrea Ellickson Jul 9 2013 at 1:27 pm #

    Really helpful post! Especially the examples! I’ve definitely noticed “Deep Point of View” in books and in my own writing, but I’ve never had a name for it. haha

  11. Angel Payne Jul 27 2013 at 2:31 pm #

    REALLY wonderful stuff…I’m so glad I caught this article. I had deep POV pounded into me by an amazing editor and have never stopped thanking her for it since. Despite that, I was having trouble nailing my current hero–and your words about how he views himself, as opposed to how the world sees him, just really hit home. The light bulb went on! Thank you!!

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