What is deep POV?

This entry is part 1 of 14 in the series Deep POV

Welcome to our series for July: taking the plunge into the deep end of point-of-view! (Perfect for the middle of summer, right?).

Ordinarily, a discussion of deep POV looks in-depth at the history of point-of-view in fiction. Feel free to read Alicia Rasley’s article (linked there) if that’s what you want to do. For our purposes, we’re just going to look at what’s most popular now—and this is one trend that we all have to pay attention to. For better or for worse, deep POV is the default mode of storytelling today (other than first person, of course).

So what is deep POV? Interestingly, it’s very like the other major mode of narration today, first person. In first person (“I did this and that.”), we are limited to only what the protagonist/narrator thinks, feels, perceives and guesses. Just like you can’t read others’ thoughts, a first person narrator can’t know what other characters are thinking. Similarly, in deep POV third person (“He did this and that.”), we are limited to the thoughts, feelings, perceptions and guesses of a single narrator per scene.

Of course, that’s just third-person limited mode. What makes a point of view “deep” is how “close” we are to the viewpoint character’s thoughts. In a distant third-person mode, we may be privy to few of the character’s direct thoughts, and those are always related in italics. We may rely more on their actions and speech to characterize and understand them. Often, we’re acutely aware of what the viewpoint character is doing, as if we’re watching them with a tight focus, and every once in a while we get a voiceover of his or her thoughts (mmm, Burn Notice).

In deep POV, the character’s thoughts can form almost a running commentary on the actions of the story. We don’t just get the occasional The problem with blackmail is that it’s like a gun with only one bullet or Yeah, the mob isn’t exactly known for its cushy retirement and severance package. Statements like that—direct thoughts from the viewpoint characters’ heads—are woven into the narration. In very deep POV, those statements might not even be italicized.

Sometimes, you can get so deep into POV that we don’t “hear” the “author’s” voice in narration, but the character’s. (And that can be awesome.) Everything we, the readers, get is as if we were seeing it through that character’s eyes (or brain, since we get a lot of his/her processing, too). We don’t just watch this character and his or her actions—we don’t see the character looking out the window. We see what s/he sees through the window. We seem to live the character’s experiences ourselves.

That’s a powerful narration mode—and that’s why deep POV has become so popular.

In pure deep POV, “head hopping,” or peeking into the thoughts of other characters within a single scene, is never allowed. Of course, a number of well-known, multi-published authors do this, but in general, new authors have to show that they truly understand point-of-view (oh, and sell books) before they can flout its conventions. In deep POV, you can have more than one viewpoint character, but to change between them, you have to insert a scene break. No matter how smooth or lovely you think your POV change is (and really, it might be masterful), it destroys the illusion of seeing the world through one character’s eyes and throws readers off.

Coming up this month, we’ll be looking at deep POV in detail. We’ll draw lessons from awesome articles around the web on how to show our character’s perceptions and worldviews. I’ll be reading from Alicia Rasley’s book, The Power Of Point Of View (as soon as it arrives; shipped yesterday!). And I already have some ideas for fun practice exercises for getting into our characters’ heads and seeing the world from their perspective.

What would you like to learn about deep POV? What do you like or dislike about the most popular narration mode today?

Photo credits: plunge—Konrad Mostert; man looking out window—Ben Husmann; city view—Mihai Estatiu

Series NavigationGetting into a character’s head

15 thoughts on “What is deep POV?”

  1. That’s a good start. Keep ’em coming!
    I’m trying to figure out what my character is thinking, instead of writing down what I’m thinking.

  2. Great article. I’m looking forward to your future posts on it and delving deeper into how to put our character’s voice on the pages.

    I like how you noted that the POV character’s thoughts aren’t always put in italics in deep 3rd person POV. In fact, I’ve heard often that very few lines ought to be italicized–those that are make for great impact when we don’t overuse. Because we are in deep POV, the reader knows that all on the page is coming from that character’s head/perspective. I love writing in this POV.

  3. Thanks for that insight, Eileen! That’s actually one thing I have a hard time with—what, exactly, to italicize. And so far, critiques don’t always seem to agree. I’ve had some mark some sentences as “this seems like a direct thought,” which . . . um, all of it is, so I don’t understand the objection. I’ve had others mark things as “Who thinks this?” The POV character? (Admittedly, it was in the same paragraph as another character’s dialogue, so I might want to push that into another paragraph.)

    The convention I finally settled on (I think . . . ) was to use italics mostly when the character was “thinking” to him/herself. (Great job or Stop that, you idiot, for example).

  4. Hi Jordan:
    I’m so glad you won Nathan’s guest blogger contest because that sent me to your site and I love it. I’m particularly interested in further discussion on how deep POV differs from third person POV. I have never liked jumping from head-to-head when reading so I tend to write in one POV. The current YA I’m writing is deep POV and I dislike using italics (they drag me out of the story). I’m always in the protagonist’s head. But I notice my crit partners will sometimes say ‘That’s a direct thought, it needs to be in italics.’ I like what you said in the above comment, and I think that’s how I’m going to approach it, too. Thanks.

  5. Well, I’m so glad you came here, Pat! Thank you, and I’m so glad I’ve been of some help!

    Just a note: deep POV is a type of third-person, of course, but it’s not the same as third-person limited.

    If you italicized every direct thought in deep POV, half the narrative would be in italics!

  6. When did any other kind of point of view replace the only point of view. Your deep point of view is really what the author should be doing everyday in every draft. All that other stuff with italics? That’s just gaudy excuses for lazy writing.

  7. Actually, third-person deep POV is a rather recent development, as fiction goes. (If you’ll note, most examples of deep POV before about the mid-20th century are in first person.) It has replaced more omniscient POVs largely, but it’s by no means the only or always the best choice for POV. Believe it or not, there are times when it’s actually more helpful to use a more distant POV. That’s for another post, though.

    But I do hate italics 😉 . I read a book last fall that had an entire section of the book (a multi-chapter flashback) in italics. Wasn’t a fan. I try to avoid them (except, as I said, when the character is thinking to himself, and mostly just because that’s in present tense).

  8. I have a question about deep POV and dealing with multiple personalities in one brain. The question is how does a writer represent the dialogue if we are writing about the conscious conversation within someone’s mind between different personalities that reside in this person, or worse someone is projecting thoughts into someone elses mind? I’ve struggled with the conversations and how to represent them. I’ve decided that italics would be used for voices not of the main character. Do you have a suggestion?

  9. I’ve been toying with a telepathic idea, and I was going to use italics for the other voices. In (mental) conversation, I was thinking of using an older convention:

    You are so weird.
    So are you.

    Just as a side note: from what I understand, with true MPD, personalities don’t communicate with one another. Voices in one’s head is a sign of schizophrenia; the diagnostic criteria for DID/MPD includes unexplained blackouts in memory (when the other personalities are in control). Traditionally, MPD is explained as a person sectioning off one aspect of his or her personality due to a traumatic experience. They do this to protect themselves from the trauma, so the point is not to be able to interface with that portion of the mind.

  10. I entered my novel Come Hell or High Water in the Writers’ Digest Self Published Award contest and recieved my critique yesterday. Mostly, the critique was positive. One of the suggestions for improving the story was to ‘deepen the point of view” of the main character. Although I have no plans to re-write this book, it is the first in a series of five, so I want to learn more about deep pov in order to make the sequels better. This looks like it might be the place to learn. Thanks!

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