Wednesday, January 22, 2014

POV - Deeper! Deeper! Deeper!

A big problem I see with beginning (as well as accomplished) writers is the lack of depth of characters.  For some, depth of character means putting in every tedious little detail about their lives or giving us the full Freudian analysis over the course of several chapters.  But there's a much easier way to deepen your character, and it's by using a very deep point of view (POV).

When we (meaning writers, English majors, stuck up pretentious assholes, etc.) talk about POV, we're usually talking about narration. Either third-person limited (he, she, or it did something, but usually with the narrator attached to one person's psyche at a time) or third person omniscient (he, she, or it did something, but with the narrator privy to everyone's inner-most secrets), first person (I did something), or, in rare cases, second person (you did something).  For the purposes of this entry, I'm going to concentrate on my favorite POV, third person limited, but the same things apply to every POV.

In third person limited POV(3PLPOV), many times, narrators attempt to give us, the readers, the full sensory experience.  Sights, sounds, smells, physical sensations, and tastes are the order of the day.  So let's take an example of a typical line in a story:

"He could see boats floating in the harbor."

Nothing particularly wrong with that, per se.  It does tell us what the character sees, and helps to set the scene.  But it does one thing with which I take issue:  It keeps the reader at arm's length.  How?  By using "he could see," a perceptive filter, it reminds us that we're the observer watching the story unfold, as if we were sitting on the couch watching television.  Think of it in terms of a video game.  The way this is phrased, we see the main character.  But consider the alternative:

"Boats floated in the harbor."

Now, instead of us watching the character watching the boats, we are in the action.  We are seeing the boats.  Instead of watching the main character, it becomes a first-person shooter and we are in the action.


See, in the shallow instance, we're stuck following the character around, and to be honest, there's nothing really wrong with that.  But in the deep instance, we are the character.  We see the world through his or her eyes, and that's what we're after.  So how do we accomplish this?  By avoiding filters, for one thing. 

Filters are the enemy.  We use them often when we speak, and many writers employ them, but that doesn't make them necessarily good.  Perception filters leave us in that "World-of-Warcraft" state in which we don't get to experience anything, but have to be told about it later.  Here are some common perception filter phrases (using the generic "he" to save typing time):
  • he saw/smelled/tasted/felt/heard
  • he could see/smell/taste/feel
  • he knew
  • he thought
So I already mentioned how to fix the first two:  State the stimulus as fact.  But what about the last two?  "He knew" and "he thought" can't be so easy a fix, can they?  Yes, actually, they are.  Again, in narration, state what he knew or what he thought as fact, so it becomes a stream-of-conciousness narration.  For example:

"He knew demons hated holy water."

Again, nothing wrong with it.  But consider the alternative:

"Demons hated holy water."

Boom.  Fact.  He knew it, now the reader knows it too.  The reader will go along with it because you stated it in a way that didn't give the reader much of an alternative.  This is how it is.  Demons hate holy water.  


"I can't jump over that, he thought."

As opposed to:

"The jump was impossible."

In one instance, the reader stands behind the character.  In the other, the reader gets to stand in for the character and live his adventure.  

As always, these are just general guidelines.  There really is only one hard and fast rule to writing, and that's this:  If it's right for the story, if it's right for the character, then it is good.  Everything else is just opinion and conjecture.  

Write on!


  1. This is very interesting. I will try to incorporate this in my thesis. :D Thanks Scott

  2. Thanks for providing such a concise explanation of filters. I just finished my revisions for the day and cut a lot of perception filters that had found a way into my thesis. Considering I'm writing first person present POV, filters really need to be killed with fire. I'm saving this to link to for future critiques- I see it all the time in the ones and twos (and threes - sixes).

  3. Really good advice-- and I like the term "filters." Now I can use that term working with my students--and of course, purge these from my writing.