October 27th, 2021

POV: How Deep Should You Go?

by Laurie Schnebly Campbell

Let's say you have a pretty good idea of what Deep POV is all about -- at least in terms of using character voice, choosing first vs third person, showing emotional change, revealing things at the right time, and knowing when to deepen the viewpoint or step back -- but you don't yet feel quite sure how to write it.

As a friend observed the other day, "I understand logically what Deep POV is...but I still don't feel confident in MY ability to write in Deep POV."

Sometimes it's easier to learn by example, so let's look at some examples of what works and what doesn't.

These aren't coming from real books, by the way, because while I'd feel fine about pasting excerpts of "POV Hits," I'd feel bad for anyone whose treasured book wound up illustrating a "POV Miss." Which is why all these examples are made up out of whole cloth. They're all pretty decent shows of deep POV, but we'll see why the second of each pair is better than the first.

MISS:

I felt tired. I had no idea whether Drake or Colton was at fault. I knew it had to be one of 'em, but accusing either of those guys wrongly would mean the end of a lifelong friendship. Because how can you ever again trust someone who suspected you of murder, when you flat-out wouldn't have done any such thing?

HIT:

If I could just get some rest... But even that wouldn't help, because I still had no idea who it was. Drake or Colton, yeah, gotta be, but how could I accuse either one of those guys? I mean, Drake was at my bar mitzvah with that weird nutcracker. Colton got me through Scout Camp. You wanna trash 30 years with a guy who's like your brother, you just accuse him of murder.

Okay, what's the difference between those two examples?

Let's look at what works, and what doesn't.

"I feel tired" isn't generally something a person thinks way-deep-down when they're tired. It's the kind of rationalization they might use to justify why they're going to knock off work and get some rest, but they aren't likely to say those words to themselves.

"I knew it had to be one of them" is accurate and clear, but "Drake or Colton, yeah, gotta be" ALSO shows this character wants to convince himself he's right. That lets us in on his feelings without spelling out what's obvious -- the reader can deduce it and feel proud of their insight.

"Mean the end of a lifelong friendship" is a beautifully dramatic phrase, but it's not the kind of thing people think to themselves unless they're in the mood to be dramatic. Nobody tends to think in such glorious phrases when they're tired and have a weighty problem on their shoulders.

"At my bar mitzvah with that weird nutcracker" is such a trivial thing to remember that it shows how much this friendship matters, and how long these guys have known each other. That's not a detail that matters to the storyline, but it gives the reader an up-close-and-personal look at this character who's thinking about his friend.

On to our next example...

MISS:

Just because Marnie was 25 didn't mean she knew any better than 23-year-old Emma what colors a redhead could wear. Besides, she was visiting Dad in Boston until Thursday, so it wasn't like she'd ever know if someone happened to borrow that pink scarf. Emma grabbed it, knotted it around her dark curly hair, and hurried out.

HIT:

Her sister always insisted that redheads couldn't wear pink, but Marnie was wrong. Almost certainly, at least about that shimmery scarf in her closet. It was just crying out to be worn! And Ms. Fashion Dictator wouldn't be home until Thursday, so...why not? Emma grabbed the scarf, knotted it with the kind of flair such a treasure deserved, and hurried out.

What works and doesn't work here?

Characters know how old they are and, by and large, how old their siblings are. While age is a big deal to kids, by the time we reach adulthood we don't tend to think of such things unless there's a specific reason, like somebody's birthday or a friend asking "how old is your sister?"

"Almost certainly" shows the reader Emma isn't 100% convinced she's right. "Ms. Fashion Dictator" gives us even more insight into her justification for borrowing the scarf -- Marnie is needlessly bossy and deserves to be taken down a peg or two. Besides, she'll never know! ๐Ÿ™‚

Characters know perfectly well where their parents live and where somebody who goes to visit a parent will be. There's no reason to name that city unless it comes up in some other context: "She should've asked Marnie to bring her a Red Sox pennant."

Another thing characters take for granted is their hair color and texture. They might think of it in context, but not at random. While they can sure notice how a color enhances their looks, how often have YOU glanced in the mirror and thought "this shirt really brings out the deep brown shade of my eyes" as compared to "this shirt makes my eyes look good" -- and Emma's no different from us.

At least in that respect, although of course none of us would ever make off with our 26-year-old sister's shimmery pink scarf. (Or would we?)

The whole idea of immersing readers into a character via deep POV is making 'em feel like they ARE that character -- and we'll get into more detail on how to do it in Deep & Deeper POV starting November 1.

Which leads to our prize-drawing question....

Who writes Deep POV effectively?

Somebody who answers that, if there are at least 25 responses, will win free registration to next month's class...because I'd love to hear some opinions on:

What book or series or author do you think does a really good job of getting you sucked deep into the character's perspective?

My personal favorite is Suzanne Brockmann, but others have mentioned Veronica Roth, Harlan Coben, Patricia Briggs, Michael Connelly, Lois McMaster Bujold, Lori Wilde, Joe Abercrombie, Susan Mallery, and Julia Quinn.

There are bound to be other fabulous names, as well, so here's your chance to introduce that book or series or author to WITS readers who'd like some more great examples of deep POV. And since I might wind up quoting you in next Tuesday's lecture, please mention if you'd rather NOT be quoted -- thanks!

* * * * * *

About Laurie

Laurie Schnebly Campbell (BookLaurie.com) heard so many writers say they'd like to know more about "deep Point of View" that she started exploring the techniques...and found there were more than enough for a workshop including (optional) homework, which always gets private feedback. Having written half a dozen romances, including one that beat out Nora Roberts for "Best Special Edition of the Year," Laurie finally discovered she enjoys teaching even more -- and now has 51 first-sale novels on her bookshelf from authors inspired by her classes.

91 responses to “POV: How Deep Should You Go?”

  1. Jenny Hansen says:

    I'm so happy you wrote this post, Laurie! I yearn to be stellar at Deep POV and I just feel like I'm NOT. I see so many authors do it well - Roni Loren, J.D. Robb, Harlan Coben - and *I* want to do it well. Posts like this help. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Jenny, thanks for the names of writers who do it well! I'm right there with you in admiring Coben and Robb, and now you've got me curious to check out Lauren; it's always such fun to come across new recommendations.

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        Roni Loren started in erotic romance and moved to more mainstream contemporary now that she's with Sourcebooks. She's a terrific writer. I don't usually read erotic romance but she's grand at getting you inside the character's head. I was also thinking about Andy Weir and The Martian. I loved that book because he made you feel like YOU were battling Mars.

  2. V.M.Sang says:

    This is useful post. Many thanks for the examples of hit and miss. They are extraordinarily helpful.

  3. LauraDrake says:

    Awesome post, Laurie!

  4. Wow. I'd never have been able to point out what was wrong, till I read it: so simple! Of course characters know how old they are. Diana Gabaldon springs to mind for POV -- never have I felt so completely in the mind of so many characters. Each so distinct. Now I miss reading her...thanks!

  5. Tracey Turner says:

    Two very different authors who do it well are Julia Quinn and JD Robb. I love reading series books when Deep POV is done well as you can stay with the characters for multiple books.

    • Tracey, good point about being able to stay within these characters' deep POV for book after book..nobody does that like J.D. Robb, and anytime Julia Quinn revisits previous characters it's like seeing an old friend. <3

  6. Terry Odell says:

    I love deep POV. Have been writing it since I discovered Suz Brockmann's pamphlet at my first RWA conference. I would question Michael Connelly as a "deep pov" writer. It's easy to stay with Harry Bosch, and he does his 'telling' sections logically, but there's not the same deep emotional connection. I'm not questioning his ability to write, merely the use of his approach as "Deep" POV. To go deep is to include the visceral/emotional reactions of the characters, and we don't see much of that with Harry.

  7. lrtrovi says:

    This post was so good because of the great illustrations of Deep POV and why one was a miss and the other a hit. It is too easy to stray into narrative or simply first person voice, moving out of the head of the deep POV character. It takes such mental muscles to sustain!

  8. These examples are fantastic, Laurie.

    At first I didn't see anything wrong with the misses, but the hits made it abundantly clear! Apparently, I have a long way to go.

    Jim Butcher does a great job of getting one "sucked" into a character's emotion. I love his Dresden Files series.

    Great post!

  9. Debora Dale says:

    Another hit, Laurie! I'm fascinated by POV and love when it's so deep that I feel like I'm part of the story. Interestingly, I just looked through some of the books on my keeper shelf to share a line or two of deep POV but had a difficult time finding some. That makes me think deep POV is either a very rare gift to readers, or, when well written, becomes invisible.

  10. Amanda Pumilia says:

    I reread some books over and over and think the Deep POV probably has a lot to do with that, because those authors really immerse me in the character so I feel like I'm hanging out with a friend. My favorite is Julie Garwood, but there's so many great ones!

  11. Laurel Dennis says:

    Brandilyn Collins does Deep POV well also Megan Chance. I enjoy the immersive experience of reading Deep POV but struggle with actually doing it as a writing. I continue to work on this.;

    This post explains Deep POV better and clearer than anything else I've read. Thank you so much, once again.

  12. Sharon says:

    Thanks so much for writing this. So clear and helpful! In answer to your question, Watership Down by Richard Adams. I feel like I'm down on the ground and in the burrows with the rabbits.

  13. What a great post, Laurie! Since I write MG novels, the misses sound like the way my protagonist sounds. Your hits were โ€œout of the parkโ€ homeruns!
    Authors who go deep for me are Kate Di Camillo, Holly Short, Jerry Spinelli, and Karina Yan Glaser. Writers who want to read great examples of Deep POV in shorter, fast novels might consider my idols.

  14. Michael Mock says:

    I'd add Martha Wells as another example of someone who does Deep POV well - the Murderbot diaries are practically a case study in it. (Seriously, take a look at the opening paragraph of All Systems Red. It's all right there.) Barbara Hambly is another -- I'm thinking of some scenes from her Darwath books, but she has plenty of good stuff.

    • Michael, you've got me jotting down "All Systems Red" for where to go as soon as I finish typing...and I'd forgotten admiring Barbara Hambly in the Benjamin January series, so it's nice to know she has more. ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. Hi Laurie,

    Josie Litton's Viking series, especially her first book, Dream of Me, is a great example of Deep POV. It's my all-time favorite "keeper" and I have it in print and ebook (to make sure I never lose it!).

    • Gina, what a great idea to have print AND ebook versions of a beloved story...I bet it was that same kind of thinking that got people started memorizing long poems, back in the day, and don't often stop to think how lucky we are at having easier options. ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. Janet Ch says:

    Hi Laurie--My example is a series of children's books (as I'm very interested in children's books at the moment). The stories (by Betty Birney) are in first person and from the point of view of a classroom hamster ๐Ÿ™‚ The first is called The World According to Humphrey and there are 10 more books in the series. I just love the way the we experience everything along with Humphrey and feel what he feels:

    "She (the teacher) read a mighty fine story to us in the afternoon. In fact I couldnโ€™t get back to my nap afterwards. It was about a scary house and these scratching noises and ...a ghost! THUMP-THUMP-THUMP, the ghost came down the hall! Oh I had shivers and quivers.
    I have to say Mrs Brisbane knows how to read a story. Her voice changed and her eyes got wide and I forgot about her grey hair and her dark suit. To squeak the truth, my fur was on end."

  17. Hi Laurie! First, I'm taking your Deep POV class in November and can't wait! I need to learn more about this and don't know if I'm pulling it off in my own writing. Who comes to mind for me is Joy Fielding. The reader really gets into her head and feels what's going on in her life. I love her just for that reason.

  18. Ian Hillan says:

    Great post and useful examples, so thanks. I think Nick Hornby is a master of deep POV. It is one of the main reasons I love him so much - he really gets me inside the character and lets me feel what it is like to BE them.

    • Ian, you're right about Nick Hornsby -- I hadn't thought of him, and he's a fabulous example! Come to think of it, I could've included a whole LOT of writers from across the pond...it's fun to contemplate which ones. ๐Ÿ™‚

  19. Jenny Hansen says:

    FYI, Laurie: I just approved a few comments! Run a Ctrl/Cmd+F search for "Watership Down" and you'll see the first one, so you know where to start from.

  20. Laurie, great post! I loved your explanations, especially the miss ones. I might know instinctively that it's a miss but not why and learning why is important. I love writing in Deep POV and I'm told I do it well. I do my best to put myself in the character's shoes, think in terms of their life experiences, etc. My old boss told me when she read my first book with my single-mother heroine that if she hadn't known better she would have sworn I was one myself. And she was one so she knew what she was talking about!

    I've been reading Jennifer Crusie lately and I would have to say she does a great job of letting the reader into the character's head.

    • Carrie, the people who say you do it well are absolutely right -- your name belongs on that list of authors who are great at deep POV! And so does Jennifer Crusie...this list is getting longer by the minute. ๐Ÿ™‚

  21. stanara says:

    Everyone knows Stephen King of course, but I wanted to mention one particular book that blew me away - Gerald's Game. I don't know of any other author able to pull off an entire book with just one character in it. This was a high bar. Almost the whole book is her thoughts and the actions she takes to free herself, so to get the reader to keep turning pages he HAD to knock it out of the park with deep POV.

  22. Meg says:

    Thank you for the explicit examples of what characters know about themselves too well to need to say it to themselves. Great examples! My current favorite for going deep is Octavia Butler. She was Black, and her writing, and her characters, carry the implicit awareness that the viewpoint is Black-person, while only rarely stating it. I find it very immersive. My ongoing favorite for this is Suzette Haden Elgin. She switches character viewpoints often, and somehow makes it all seamless.

  23. Delores Stewart says:

    This is a very enlightening article for me. I think Liane Moriarty and Mary Higgins Clark would be good examples. I have read Julia Quinn and Steven King, But many of the authors mentioned I have not read, and will have to look up for deep POV examples.

  24. I'm not so sure I've been reading a lot of Deep POV, lately! Maybe that's why I find myself "liking" the story but am not as vested or as interested. It may have a good storyline and interesting characters but something's falling flat and I couldn't always put my finger on it.

    Thanks for the contrasting examples!

  25. Author Lisa Wingate hits a homerun with deep POV in her novel The Book of Lost Friends. Every other chapter she alternates between two different characters, a young black slave and a contemporary English teacher. It's fascinating how she draws the reader into both women.

  26. amusinglymags says:

    Iโ€™ve always found it difficult to write a story in 1st person even though thatโ€™s how I do all my notes prior to writing. I just end up jumping around too much when I try to do it, lol but I do enjoy reading 1st person stories and truly appreciate those that can do it well, any author that can get you so deep into a story that you can loose yourself is always a must read for me. Thank you for another thought provoking article! ~ Margie

  27. Sarah Andre says:

    Fantastic points, Laurie! My favorite author for Deep POV is Karin Slaughter's 'Will Trent' series. I get such a bonus reading her works both to study her craft as well as for riveting entertainment. I'll often read sentences over and over to get why it gonged in my soul with such precision. Maybe how she got a derisive tone just right, or made up words (as we often do in our heads), or throw out police procedural slang, just as a cop would, but be able to work what it all means seamlessly within the paragraph - STILL in deep POV. A master.

  28. Laurie! I loved this post - thanks! Two authors who did this well were Maggie O'Farrell in Hamnet, and Madeline Miller in Cerce.

  29. Lee C says:

    I immediately thought of Suzanne Brockmann and her Navy Seals. Also Sherrilyn Kenyon's Dark Hunter books. Both authors transport you directly into the minds of their characters.

    • Lee, what a small world that had us both thinking of the same writer first! And for someone as versatile as you, it makes sense that you'd choose such very different favorites...each one a genius in her own right.

  30. Adite says:

    Hi Laurie. thank you for writing this post. I have always been confused about "deep POV". And your examples are very useful. As always. ๐Ÿ˜Š

    • Adite, I'm glad the examples were useful -- the fun part was making the "miss" ones not so bad they were obviously all wrong, but more just the kind of thing that's only about 90% there. Which is where most good writers who have difficulty with deep POV wind up...it's not all that bad to begin with!

  31. Laurie, I love it when awesome examples are included. Thanks!

  32. dholcomb1 says:

    wonderful post and examples.

    denise

  33. Nan McNamara says:

    Laurie, what a terrific dive into the โ€œPOVโ€ dive. Your examples are so spot on! What you seem to be saying is itโ€™s all about specificity. I kept thinking of Eugene Oโ€™Neill. And while he is not a novelist, he wrote in such specificity. One of his plays, โ€œMourning Becomes Electraโ€ is written with the subtext spoken out loud. Talk about specificity with a POV to the millionth degree. Thank you so much for your insight into this fascinating topic.

    • Nan, good call on drilling down to specificity -- you're right about what a difference that can make, both good (like the weird nutcracker) and bad (like age 23). Who was it that said "it's all in the details," anyway?

  34. Jenny Hansen says:

    I just approved a few more, Laurie! I think you'll have your giveaway. ๐Ÿ™‚

  35. Rick George says:

    I like the comparisons, Laurie. The "misses" weren't all that bad, just subtly off, which made the "hits" and your explanations even more effective.

    Who does Deep 3rd person POV well? I dare anyone to top Lian Moriarty!

    • Rick, you're right that the misses are JUST about there...most readers (not to mention writers!) can spot when viewpoint is flat-out bad. It's the subtleties that make all the difference, and Moriarty sure gets 'em. ๐Ÿ™‚

  36. Thanks to everybody who posted great examples of Deep POV authors / books / series, along with some really good observations!

    I'm looking forward to seeing Ami, Debora, Gina, Lee, Laurel, Patti, Tracey and any other commenters who decide they'd like private feedback on their (always optional) POV homework over the next two weeks. And also to seeing random.org's pick (#13) for the free-class prize winner -- congratulations, Sharon. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Laurie, who'll check back for comments the next day or so while going through quotable remarks to integrate into various lectures...thanks for so MANY fabulous insights

  37. bevbaird says:

    What an informative post. Thanks for those examples.
    The series I would suggest is a fantasy series by Anne Bishop - The Others.

  38. I learned the most from Orson Scott Card's Characters & Viewpoint - he showed how, gave parameters for switching depth (smoothly or as a jump cut) and generally made it much clearer how to handle pov from omniscient to deep first or third person. It took several readings and a lot of practice, but it becomes natural and one more tool in the kit that way.

    When I throw out the first version of a scene, if it's awkward, pov is usually the problem for me, and once that snaps into place the whole thing becomes a journey from right behind the eyeballs, the way I prefer to write.

    If I'm lucky, and become the character well, even that first version works. If not, well, we know what to do...

    • Alicia, I love your "from right behind the eyeballs" phrase -- talk about a great way of describing deep point of view!

      • I don't think it's original, but it describes what I'm trying to achieve - and it 'clicks' when I get there. Any problems I have usually yield to examining whose pov I'm in where - in every single paragraph.

        Then making sure the pov is clear when alternating between two people - and when there is a crowd. And the Reader doesn't get confused.

        Then I make sure there's no narrator/omniscient/external layer, and I'm finished.

        The whole thing comes down the the author's control of pov and distance - and the Reader being given just the right amount of cues.

        Tools for the toolbox Stephen King talks about.

  39. Suzanne Redfearnโ€™s In an Instant, and Hadley & Grace, are good examples of deep POV in my opinion. Rather than focusing on how the characters feel on a surface level, Redfearn masters the art of showing vs. telling. For example, as the reader of the latter title, I step into experiencing the numbing control of Hadleyโ€™s abusive husband through her actions and reactions; and the deep-seated hunger not just physical but metaphorical of Grace. Good stuff, thanks Laurie. It helps to know why we enjoy the stories we read ๐Ÿ™‚

  40. Shanna McClennen says:

    This was very helpful, Laurie! Thank you for sending me the link!

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