How to Write Deep POV and Bring Your Characters to Life

How to Write Deep POV and Bring Your Characters to Life


Photo of Cheryl Reifsnyder

 

 

By Cheryl Reifsnyder

This weekend, I attended the single best how-to-edit-your-writing workshop I’ve ever heard. Entangled editor/publisher extraordinaire, Liz Pelletier, (also editor to our own Lisa Brown-Roberts) spoke in-depth about how she revises manuscripts in only 3 passes. She explained what she looks for in each pass and what various problems with plot, characterization, or pacing might look like. She also listed dozens of approaches to help fix various problems.

If you ever get the chance to hear her speak, GO! Meanwhile, I’ve got a teaser to share with you: how to write deep POV.

Deep Point-of-View (POV)

One of the topics she covered was “deep POV.” Deep POV is a narrative point-of-view, one that’s so close to your character that the reader feels like she’s practically taking a ride in the character’s head.

Although Liz didn’t say so specifically, I think deep POV goes beyond choices such as first-person versus third-person writing. First-, second-, and third-person POV refers to where you, as author, place your narrative “camera.”  For example:

First Person: I spotted Susan walking down the street.

Third Person: She spotted Susan walking down the street.

Both examples convey the same information, but we shift the camera from inside the narrator’s head (in first person) to someplace still close, but outside, her head (in third person).

Typical Scene Structure Requires Stimulus and Response

Plunk one of these sentence into a scene, though, and the character needs a reason for sharing this specific information with the reader. What prompted her observation?

Liz explained that typical scene structure consists of stimulus-response, repeated to the scene’s end. So in the context of a scene, our example (I’m sticking to first person for the rest of this post) might read:

Stimulus: I spotted Susan walking down the street.
Response: I spun to face the other direction.

Now, let’s take the POV a little deeper….

How to Make POV Deeper

Step 1: Add an “internalization”–your character’s thoughts–between the stimulus and response.

I spotted Susan walking down the street. Wow, I thought. I couldn’t believe she was here, in the middle of the day. Hoping she wouldn’t see me, I spun to face the other direction.

Adding a thought between the stimulus and the response gives the reader a better understanding of the character’s motivations. However, it’s a purely intellectual understanding–and we don’t read fiction for an intellectual experience. We read fiction because of the emotional experience it can provide. Which brings me to step 2…

Step 2: Add emotion between the stimulus and the character’s thought.

I spotted Susan walking down the street. My heart plummeted so hard I swear I felt it suck my breath down the tubes with it. Wow, I thought. I couldn’t believe she was here, in the middle of the day. Hoping she wouldn’t see me, I spun to face the other direction.

Okay, I didn’t add a lot of emotion there, but do you feel the difference? Suddenly you’re there with the narrator, feeling her breathless dread at seeing this other person–and you don’t even know why.

But wait, we can go deeper still!

Step 3: Remove distancing words.

Spotted, thought, saw, heard: What do these words all have in common? They all create a small distance between the reader and the narrator.

Think about it. When you’re thinking, does your inner narrative sound like this–“I wonder what time Hector is getting home”–or like this–“Huh. What time is Hector getting home?” We don’t usually include these labeling words in our thoughts. If you want the reader to feel like she’s got a direct line on your character’s thoughts, you need to strike as many of those distancing words as you can.

Susan was walking right down the middle of the street. My heart plummeted so hard I swear I felt it suck my breath down the tubes with it. Wow, what was she doing here? It was the middle of the freakin’ day! I couldn’t let her see me, not here, not, now. I spun to face the other direction.

Step 4: (Bonus Step!) Add voice

If you want your reader to become fully and completely immersed in your character’s POV, you need to add the secret sauce: the character’s unique voice. How does she speak? Does she tend to speak in long, convoluted sentences or cut straight to the point? Does she swear a blue streak or only drop the occasional “oh, fudge”-bomb? Fancy words or simple? What’s her unique outlook and attitude?

This is where you take all the above–adding emotion and internal dialog–and give it the twist only this character can give it.

But I’m leaving that exercise to you–why don’t you give it a try and share the results in the comments? 

 

 

5 Comments

  1. Cheryl,

    I just saw this, and am so glad I did. Step 3 might have been called from the great cloud of writing to help with today’s ms problem.

    Reply
  2. Oh, Cheryl, I so wanted to attend that workshop. It sounds great and I hope she gives it again soon. I love your blog. It really gets at some key points to writing good POV, and the examples really bring it home. Thanks!

    Reply
  3. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Cheryl! Liz is awesome 🙂

    Reply
  4. It sounds like a great workshop–Anna-Maria said it was fabulous.

    Reply
  5. I may be writing PBs but this is great food for thought. Thanks!

    Reply

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