Writing Point of View – Part 3: Getting Inside a Character’s Head

A major advantage of using third-person-limited POV or first-person POV is the ability to get inside the focal character’s head and show a story through that character’s senses. This allows readers to feel as if they are in the story and following the character personally, which enhances reader enjoyment. I call this “intimate” POV. Others refer to it as DPOV or Deep Point of View.

Here are the main ways I establish this inside-the-character’s-head feeling:

  1. Report only what the focal character sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes, or thinks without using narrator phrases to introduce the sensations.
  2. Avoid describing anything that the focal character cannot perceive or would not notice.
  3. Dive deeply into the character’s mind to explore his or her thoughts and emotions.
  4. Employ motivation/reaction units to make the action flow with a real-time feel.

Let’s explore item #1 using the following example:

Randall halted his march and let his gaze drift from a tall evergreen tree to a moss-covered boulder to a marshy pool. The sounds of the forest had diminished, ominously so. Even the breeze had settled, and the treetops no longer rustled. Leaves fell from the deciduous trees like rain, as if autumn had arrived at an accelerated rate. The loss of shelter was troubling. Soon, any flying beast could spot them.

As I mentioned in last week’s tip, I began with the focal character’s name and described something he did, thereby signaling that this character will provide the point of view–all input will come through Randall’s senses.

Notice that I avoided typical phrases such as “he saw” or “he heard.” Such phrases harm intimacy and draw readers away from being inside a character’s head, because they make it sound as if a narrator is relating the sensations rather than the character relating them.

You don’t need to write “he saw.” Just report the visual. Since Randall is the focal character, readers will know he saw it. You don’t need to write “he heard.” If you report the sound, that means the focal heard it. The same is true with smell, touch, and taste.

Also notice that Randall’s thoughts are subtly provided. The sounds had diminished “ominously.” Who decided that this was ominous? The focal character did. Who compared the falling leaves to rain? Again, the focal character. Who concluded that this leaf fall was like autumn arriving early? Correct. Randall. Who thought the loss of shelter was troubling? You know the answer.

Yes, this is getting tedious, but the point is important. I never had to write “he thought” or “he concluded” when communicating thoughts. With intimate, limited POV, readers are deeply embedded in a character’s mind, so these thoughts flow with the narrative. Readers become that character and experience the story as if they were in the scene themselves.

Check out these two examples, one written with narrator tags (boldfaced) and one without:

Signaling for Wallace to follow, Elyssa closed in. She saw a heavy chain and an iron manacle that bound the dragon’s back leg to the pedestal. She also noticed long scratches on his wings and a gouge dividing two scales on his neck. He appeared to have been scourged and then shackled, a prisoner left here alone. But for what purpose? she thought.

Signaling for Wallace to follow, Elyssa closed in. A heavy chain and an iron manacle bound the dragon’s back leg to the pedestal. Long scratches covered his wings, and a gouge divided two scales on his neck. He appeared to have been scourged and then shackled, a prisoner left here alone, but for what purpose?

I trust that you can perceive which one feels more inside Elyssa’s head. The second one provided her visuals and thoughts without narrator intrusion. Readers see through her eyes and read her mind’s conclusion, making them feel present in the scene.

Next week, I will look at item #2: avoid describing anything that the focal character cannot perceive or would not notice.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them.

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13 replies

  1. Great advice, this is something that I have noticed a lot of publish authors include, the he/she saw, which actually makes the book harder to read in that it seems like it is not written towards an intelligent audience. =) Keep up the good work!

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  2. Thank you! This has helped me a lot! 🙂

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  3. Very useful information, and great examples. Establishing this type of intimacy between the story and reader takes a lot of work.

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  4. This great! I used to always get so confused sometimes with point of view, and staying consistent, but this really helps me a lot. Thank you!

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  5. Having a written out comparison of the two helps a lot. Thanks 🙂

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  6. This advice is great and really helpful. It seems like it might be tough to write w/ intimate POV and w/o saying ‘he saw’ or ‘she heard’. Thank you!

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