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Make POV Work for You: I’m Ready for My Closeup

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Go deeper.
Don’t keep the reader at arms’ length from the character.
Author intrusion.
telling language to get deeper into the character’s head.

I’m in the process of judging entries in the ACFW Genesis Contest for unpublished authors, and these are just a few of the comments I personally have made in past contests (along with explanations of what those comments actually mean on the score sheet). So it’s time to look at some STRUCTURAL techniques we can use to take POV deeper. Whereas many other things in writing cannot be learned, only honed and polished (like voice or the storytelling ability), these are some tried-and-true techniques for making Point of View seem much more immediate, for putting the reader right into the character’s head and make them forget they’re reading a story.

Sometimes it’s almost as if we’re afraid to go too deeply into our characters’ heads. We’ll write their dialogue. We’ll write italicized internal thoughts. We’ll write their visceral (physical/knee-jerk) reactions to what happens around them. We’ll write that they were angry or happy or sad. But we never go beyond that very surface-y layer. We never get down to the why of the thoughts or reactions or emotions. Just as many of us, in real life, are loath to show emotion publicly (at least deep emotion, we’re okay with laughing and fun emotions), we’re also loath to get down to the root of emotion in our characters. That’s not to say that everything has to be melodramatic or maudlin or weighted down with an exploration of the emotion behind why she laughed at something funny the hero said. We just need to make sure we’re going beyond the surface reactions and finding the real reason behind why a character is doing something.

Any time you break into your character’s narrative to share something with the reader, be it a description of the character’s own hair color or other physical attributes, that’s author intrusion. Any time you use a character’s thoughts or dialogue in an attempt to pass along backstory in a way that isn’t natural and realistic, that’s author intrusion. Any time you feel like you must explain that something set in italics and written in first person when the rest of your narrative is in third person is someone’s thoughts (by following it up with “she thought” or, more heinously, “she thought to herself”—click here to read more about this), that’s author intrusion. Unless you are specifically crafting a story that uses a narrator to tell the story who isn’t one of your main characters, any time you do write something that wouldn’t naturally spring from your characters, that’s author intrusion. That’s one of the things that most modern readers don’t like about classic literature. We’re seeing the story through the eyes and hearing it in the voice of the author. In modern genre fiction, we want to lose ourselves in the story by experiencing it through the eyes and voice of the viewpoint characters.

In the Showing vs. Telling series, I covered more than I’ll be able to get to here when it comes to eliminating Telling language. One of the main reasons for this is to get deeper into the characters’ heads. For example:

    Character Descriptions
    See this post also.

      When we, as the author, step back and turn around to the reader to describe what the character looks like by having the character look at herself in a mirror, it’s author intrusion. The only thing that does is show the reader that we’re not deeply enough into the character’s head—that we’re still just telling a story and haven’t figured out how to realistically develop a narrative style that shows what the characters look like by using types or by seeing the characters through someone else’s eyes.

      I’m currently reading John Grisham’s The Rainmaker. While the first-person narrator does describe the other characters he meets, I’m about halfway through and couldn’t even begin to tell you what the main character looks like. I don’t know if he’s blond or brunette (and no, I haven’t seen the movie and have assiduously avoided looking up the cast list to see who was cast in the role). I assume he’s probably about six feet tall, because he doesn’t have the emotional stuff associated with a guy below average height and he doesn’t tower over other people. He’s probably average to somewhat good looking. Women don’t stop in their tracks to look at him, but they don’t run from him when he strikes up a conversation. And yet in this story, it doesn’t really matter to me what he looks like—because I’m so deeply into his head and into his world and seeing everything through his eyes, it doesn’t make a difference what he looks like.

    Character Emotions

      There are two standard signposts of telling when it comes to descriptions, senses, and emotions:

      Character WAS adjective. (Ned was handsome.)
      Character FELT adjective. (Charlotte felt tired.)

      This is the type of writing that comes natural to most of us. Starting today, however, train your brain to associate the word FELT with that heavy, scratchy, stiff fabric used for arts and crafts and not character emotions. Felt does not make comfortable clothing, so why “dress” your characters with it?

      One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received was in a seminar in grad school: make the emotions DO something to the character. Make the emotion the subject of an active verb instead of just an adjective. (Get out your grammar book if you must.)

      Which of the following sentences gives you the best visual of the emotion being experienced?:

      • Molly felt scared.
      • Fear made Molly’s skin tingle.
      • Fear tingled on Molly’s skin.
      • Fear ran down Molly’s spine like a hundred tiny mice with cold feet.

      Though we’re getting there with the third example, it’s the fourth line that really puts us there in the moment with Molly—it’s her unique way of experiencing the moment.

There are so many other ways in which using showing language can help us make our POV deeper, so reviewing that series might be helpful as we get further (deeper) into this study of Point of View.

For Discussion
After reading this, are there any writing habits you can break to stop holding the reader at arms’ length from the character and start putting them right into the character’s head?

  1. Thursday, April 23, 2009 12:21 pm

    Kaye, you’re starting to make me worry about my Genesis entry… 🙂


  2. Thursday, April 23, 2009 1:00 pm

    I’m probably starting to sound like a sycophant (and a repetitive one at that), but I agree here! In fact, your previous posts on character emotions and showing v. telling, reiterated here, helped me to articulate something that I’ve done intuitively, but didn’t see why. (And it’s also something I want to send to an author every time I see ‘felt’!)

    Patricia—she’s making me worry about my Genesis entry—and I didn’t even enter!


  3. Carol Collett permalink
    Sunday, April 26, 2009 7:48 pm

    I’m realizing how much work I have in front of me to even feel confident enough to enter Genesis!


  4. Patrick Carr permalink
    Sunday, April 26, 2009 8:09 pm


    Thanks for pointing me to your blog. I have a better understanding on deep pov. My only problem now is making sure that all the things I have learned make it into my writing. Practice, practice, practice!


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