Writers in the Storm

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July 27, 2022

Why First Person POV Is NOT Deep POV

by Lisa Hall-Wilson

colorful silouette of head representing muddled point of view

First Person POV is not automatically deep POV. First person leans heavily on a narrator construct. Once you understand what the narrator voice is, how it’s used, and how to recognize it, you’ll see where first person POV differs from Deep POV.

Learn the rules and then break. Deep POV is not a template or box you need to fit inside, it’s a set of tools for you to use strategically to create effects for the reader.

For many first person POV stories, a few deep POV tools are used to create intimacy and pull readers into the story (remove filter words, remove dialogue tags). But the use of the narrator voice, this assumption of a reader leaning in to listen and watch, adds narrative distance that deep POV aims to remove. Neither is more right or wrong, it’s a stylistic choice.

Let’s look deeper at the main first person POV styles.

First Person Central (Narration)

This is where the I, me, we, or us of the story is both the POV character and the protagonist. The character tells a story as they experience or remember things that happen to them. They “narrate” the story for the reader.

Examples would be: Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood; Moby Dick, Herman Melville; Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte; Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen; The Help, Kathryn Stockett; The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins; Dresden Files, Jim Butcher

First Person Peripheral

This is where the I, me, we, or us of the story (the POV character) is not the protagonist. This POV character is IN the story observing, interacting, etc—but the story is really about the protagonist and the choices, goals, and decisions they make. This construct allows the writer to keep information about the protagonist hidden from the reader, and can also add a built-in voice to summarize, explain, ask questions, etc.

Authors may use a close or limited style with their POV character, but there are examples of omniscient first person peripheral where the POV character is all-knowing.

Close First Person Peripheral examples would be: The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald; To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee; The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle; Room, Emma Donoghue

Omniscient First Person Peripheral examples would be: The Book Thief, Marcus Zusak; Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold; A Series Of Unfortunate Events, Lemony Snickets (this also uses third person omniscient)

What Is Deep POV?

Deep POV is where the author/narrator voice is completely missing. Every word on the page (and I mean, every word), comes from or from within the POV character. There’s no external voice to fill in gaps in time, summarize, explain, theorize, look ahead or back. Zip.

The goal is to immerse the reader completely in the POV’s experience of the story, as they live out the story in real time. It’s about how things FEEL, rather than narrating movement, what is seen or heard or wanted.

What Is The Role Of The Narrator Voice?

First Person POV is about who is telling the story, deep POV is about how you tell the story.

Where I want to start telling is the day I left Pencey Prep. Pencey Prep is this school that’s in Agerstown, Pennsylvania. You probably heard of it. You’ve probably seen the ads, anyway. They advertise in about a thousand magazines, always showing some hotshot guy on a horse jumping over a fence.

JD Salinger, The Catcher In The Rye

Do you see how the POV character here, teenager Holden Caulfield, is narrating his own story for readers? This is additionally breaking the fourth wall, but this type of narrator voice is allowed in first person POV, it’s a feature.

How This Works in Deep POV

In deep POV, thoughts are written as though the character is alone inside their own head. To deliver this info to the reader, in deep POV, either the character needs a reason to think of it or another character can say it. Maybe the character is in the front passenger seat of a car and they drive past a billboard for Pency Prep. The character thinks about how there’s no escaping this school. Their ads are everywhere. That’s one way deep POV would deliver this information to readers.

We're standing on the deck that's all wooden like the deck of a ship. There's fuzz on it, little bundles. Grandma says it's some kind of pollen from a tree.

"Which one?" I'm staring up at all the differents.

"Can't help you there, I'm afraid."

In Room we knowed what everything was called but in the world there's so much, persons don't even know the names.

― Emma Donoghue, Room

Here, the character is a boy of five years old, narrating his own life. He experiences much of the world for the first time in the novel. There are few filter words, no dialogue tags, which are tools shared with deep POV. But, the character is narrating his life, he assumes a reader is leaning in to listen. Words like ‘knowed’ would tip us off to the narrator voice. Also, the character is telling the reader, summarizing, a conversation he had with another character the reader wasn’t privy to—this is the narrator voice.

In deep POV, time and place setting details, the history/backstory, would need to be delivered without that author voice, and instead through context, subtext, dialogue, etc. This book uses a lot of deep POV techniques really effectively, but there’s also heavy use of this first person narrator construct.

Deep POV Goes Deeper Than You Think It Does

Many will advocate to leave out filter words and dialogue tags (he said/she said) from first person POV to remove narrative distance. Room, Hunger Games, The Help—these all do that really effectively and create an intimate experience for readers. Deep POV aims for the reader to be immersed in the POV character’s experience. It’s a subtle difference, but once you learn to see the differences, deep POV offers a different level of intensity and intimacy.

An Example

Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he's a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

This novel is really good at using context and subtext to create setting, tone, backstory—all the things. It’s very economical writing, in that many of these phrases and sentences do more than one job—they convey information, but also emotions, motivation, backstory, etc. But do you see where the narrator voice creeps in?

Katniss here is narrating her backstory with this cat. She assumes someone is leaning in to listen. If this was in deep POV, this would be written as though she was alone in her own head. When alone with our thoughts, we don’t remind ourselves of things we know, we don’t label things, we don’t explain or summarize, or catalogue details.

How This Works in Deep POV

One way someone might use deep POV here is to have Katniss interact with the cat to bring these features to mind instead of cataloguing the details about Buttercup. Maybe she would set the bucket of offal on the floor for the cat, reaching down to touch its one ear and the cat hisses. Maybe she leans down and whispers a promise that she’ll never try to drown it again, and the cat just flicks its tail and glares at her. Then, maybe it walks away from the bucket to guard Prim. Whatever.

Deep POV is a shift in how you tell a story.

Choose the style that will work best for the story you’re telling, the genre conventions you have to work within, and your author voice.

Do you struggle to identify the author/narrator voice in your work?

* * * * * *

About Lisa

Lisa Hall Wilson

Lisa Hall-Wilson is a writing teacher and award-winning writer and author. She’s the author of Method Acting For Writers: Learn Deep Point Of View Using Emotional Layers. Her blog, Beyond Basics For Writers, explores all facets of the popular writing style deep point of view and offers practical tips for writers. 

She runs the free Facebook group Going Deeper With Emotions where she shares tips and videos on writing in deep point of view. 

Top Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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23 comments on “Why First Person POV Is NOT Deep POV”

  1. Very helpful, thank you. I think there needs to be alternation with first person POV and deep POV, or it can become a bit claustrophobic on the one hand, or too distant on the other. Easy to say, not so easy to do!

    1. To each their own. I’ve had students write first person in Deep POV. It requires a removal of the narrator voice (and many writers don’t even realize how much they rely on that device to explain, justify, summarize, etc and deep POV requires immediacy.

      It’s a stylistic choice that’s not for everyone, certainly, but it is achievable and delivers really compelling fiction.

  2. Very good article and clears up the correct meaning of deep POV for me. I have a question though.

    What you call First Person-Peripheral, I’ve always referred to as Second Person. Are we talking Po-tay-toh / Po-tah-tow? Or do I misunderstand what Second Person narrative is? Honest question.

    1. First Person POV uses the I, me, we, us pronouns.
      Third Person is he/she or often a name - Sherry stomped off…
      Second person uses - you - it’s a device to break the fourth wall. The reader becomes a character in the story.
      This isn’t uses very much at all. I think Erin Morganstern’s novel “Night Circus” uses second person POV here and there, but not throughout.

      Dr Seuss wrote some in second person.
      “You have brains in your head.
      You have feet in your shoes.
      You can steer yourself
      any direction you choose.
      You're on your own. And you know what you know.
      And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.”
      Oh The Places You’ll Go - Dr. Seuss

      1. I understand second person in this context.The author is giving some advices, but in a story, I find it strange to be told what I'm doing. It would have to be a truly amazing story for me to read it.

  3. Lisa, this is enlightening.

    I still write the occasional head-hop but am improving with practice and the help of lots of eyes-on. I find POV is a struggle, but I'll get there.

    I've written First Person Central but not using Deep POV techniques.

    What trips me up is 3rd person close and omniscient. Sometimes it seems like a continuum.

    1. It’s a learning curve. POV hasn’t really been a stumbling block for me. Where I struggle is the narrator/author voice. It creeps in everywhere and it’s such a hard habit to stop.

  4. I've struggled forever with these issues. Omniscient vs. headhopping, and on and on. And I STILL don't get deep POV. I think I would need to see the same exact paragraph in both 1st and deep POV, side by side.

  5. Wow, very helpful. I wasn't aware of all these layers going on. Lisa, I have a related question on POV. What are your thoughts on "rogue POV characters" when using multiple POV in a novel? By that I mean two main POV characters (one protagonist leading more than the other) and a third character that is a romantic interest. If I bring in the POV of the third character at about half way through the novel (in his own chapter), is that an acceptable shift to add a POV late in a novel? Are there any guidelines or rules that I should use? Do you know of any novels that introduce a character's POV late in a novel? Thank you!

    1. I’m sure I have. Epic fantasy comes to mind. But those stories have a large cast of POV characters and I’ve never seen deep POV used exclusively in that situation.
      As for adding a love interest POV later in the story, your genre is going to play a part. If you’re writing romance, they want both romantic POVs introduced within the first three chapters.
      POV plays a role. Genre conventions play a role. Age of intended audience plays a role. Find others writing what you wrote and see how they’re approaching these questions.

  6. This was really informative and, for me, timely. I've been trying to read up on deep POV lately, but had no idea how much I relied on narration to tell the story until I read this article.

    Thank you!

    1. Recognizing and removing the author/narrator voice is perhaps the most difficult aspect of deep pov to learn. there's so much more to it than removing dialogue tags and filter words.

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