Author: Sandy Vaile
Originally published in Romance Writers of Australia Hearts Talk ezine, September 2016.
Republished in Romance Writers of Australia 30th Anniversary Magazine, 2021.
I used to think Deep Third-person Point of View (DPOV) was one of those tricky sixth-sense kind of concepts that only the Dalai Lama understood.
Have you ever had feedback that says ‘author intrusion’ or ‘lacks emotional punch’? Have you heard DPOV mentioned in literary circles, but figured it was only for writers of erotic stories? Did you see DPOV fly past at a workshop, but weren’t able to catch hold of it? Then breathe easy, because I’m here to reassure you that DPOV is something already lurking on your pages, you just have to learn to identify and make the most of it.
Deep POV is a relatively recent concept (the last couple of decades), but it is all the rage, particularly in romance literature.
Clearing up any confusion
First up I want to promise that you don’t have to learn a new POV. Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to discuss the pros and cons of the different POVs, so I’m going to assume you understand how to write in third person POV, as most romance stories are told.
When you’re writing in the third-person subjective (showing the story through one character at a time), DPOV is simply a way of bringing the reader even closer to your character, which will result in a strong emotional response. And that’s a good thing!
So what is it?
Rather than telling the reader the story, DPOV is a way of moving them closer to the POV character, and using her senses so the reader can experience it through her. Pretend for a moment that you’re watching your POV character ¾ let’s call her Alice ¾ through the lens of a movie camera. Alice is strolling through a lush, tropical garden, reaching out to touch a bright orange Bird of Paradise flower.
Now zoom the camera in so that you are sitting on Alice’s shoulder, where you can better see the textures of the plants and the vivid blue centre of the flower. But you still haven’t reached DPOV.
It’s time to put the camera down and use your magic powers ¾ otherwise known as an imagination ¾ to transport yourself into Alice’s mind. Now you can feel the prickle of the grass under her bare feet, see the waxy texture of the stiff, orange flower, hear the musical lilt of the nearby creek flowing through the gorge, smell the damp moss on the stones, and when she licks her lips, taste the remnants of the chocolate she has been sucking.
Do you see what DPOV has achieved? Rather than watching Alice’s life unfold, you are experiencing it as she does.
Ideally you don’t want readers to notice how cleverly you’ve used the language, because you want them to be so engaged with your character, that they are completely immersed in her thoughts and sensations. The danger of not fully engaging the reader, is that they won’t feel emotionally invested in the story, and are more likely to walk away from it.
Getting into your character’s head
It’s important to know your character intimately, so you will know how she thinks, feels and acts. You can do this by understanding what she thinks and feels, and why, where she came from and where she’s going, and events and persons who have influenced her. The deeper your character development, the more likely you are to be able to experience the world the way your character would.
If each of us entered the same lounge room, we would experience it differently because of the influences of our life experiences, hopes and fears. A seamstress might notice the crooked seam on the curtains, a horse-rider might notice the jodhpurs hung over a chair, a gardener would marvel at the delicate blooms on the window sill, etc.
Remember that your characters are likely to have their own speech patterns, phobias, ideas about social etiquette, etc. All of these things will add layers to your character, but their flaws especially will help readers relate to and sympathise with them.
When to use DPOV
It can feel a bit scary when you first start to explore DPOV, because it almost feels like you’re slipping into first person, but you’re not. You’re still using ‘he’ and ‘she’, but you’re getting rid of the narrator as much as possible, and just leaving the fabulous story and charming characters.
It’s not appropriate to use DPOV all the time, just as you can’t always show instead of tell. There are times when you just need to drive the story forwards, like explaining the relationship between characters, or showing a big-picture scene. But only take that route if you can’t deliver the information another way, like through dialogue or interactions. Once you get used to using DPOV, you’ll be surprised at how it will affect everything you write. One of the huge benefits is making your writing more direct, because you will get rid of superfluous filter words.
As you can imagine, it would be exhausting to feel every emotion your character feels about everything from a cup of tea to the neighbour’s new car, but you can still use DPOV by incorporating your character’s senses. Let your reader see, hear, smell, touch and taste the environment as your character interacts with it.
Let’s talk tactics
DPOV makes your words work harder. Not only are they telling a story, but everyone is chosen carefully to layer in character development, emotions, tone, themes and attitude.
For example, instead of: Bob decided that this dawn signalled a new start for him.
Dig deeper: Bob threw open the door and sucked in a lungful of crisp mountain air. It was the best air he’d ever breathed. No city fumes or skyscrapers blocking the sun, and best of all, no Jenny strangling him with impossible rules and requirements.
So, do you have to use italics when you’re in a character’s head? If the character wants to break from third-person POV and think ‘I did this’, then yes, but the beauty of DPOV is that this is hardly ever necessary, and that helps the story to flow.
Don’t pre-empt actions and feelings, just show them happening.
Instead of: Sally’s skin began to prickle, and she wondered when the snarling dog would attack.
Try: Sally’s skin prickled. The snarling dog stalked closer, muscles bunch, haunches lowered, ready to launch at her.
Steer clear of passive voice, which is telling the reader that something is being done to someone, rather than by your character.
Instead of: Her face was stroked.
Try: He stroked her face.
Drawing on your own experiences and emotions can be helpful to really immerse yourself in the world of your character. The situation your character is in may be different, but you’ll be able to draw on the details you remember of a time, place or event, and the emotions they evoked for you.
[Top Secret: I find “The Emotional Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression” by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, a very helpful tool when I run out of different ways to show similar emotional responses.]
Many romance writers alternate between the hero and heroine’s POVs. If you do this, keep in mind that you want to experiencing the story through the character who has the most to lose, or will be most affected at that time. While you are in a character’s head, remember that you can only view the world as he/she genuinely would.
Using a lot of dialogue tags is another reminder that the reader is being told a story. Sure, they are necessary sometimes, but don’t overdo them. Quite often you can use language and movements that the reader associates with that character.
One of the most helpful things I learnt was to banish any distancing words, because they immediately let the reader know they are being told a story, rather than just letting them experience it. They also make your writing less direct, which provides yet another opportunity for your reader to wonder if there is still a piece of cake in the fridge, and put your book down.
Here are some examples of distancing words: saw, watched, thought, wondered, felt, seemed, looked, almost, noticed, realised, decided, heard.
Instead of: Alice felt sad at leaving her sister, Liz, behind.
Try experiencing it through her: Alice blinked furiously to stymie her tears, and waved as Liz raced along the train platform. It was only for a year, and Liz was old enough to fend for herself now. She hoped.
The second example uses DPOV to let the reader experience what Alice’s emotions feel like, with the added bonus of providing more insight into her hopes and fears.
Instead of: Alice heard footsteps behind her and turned to survey the dark alley.
Try: There it was again; a muffled footstep. Alice whirled around and glared into the dark mouth of the alley, heart thumping a staccato beat.
DPOV is all about weaving a character’s senses and emotions through the narrative. By inviting your reader right into the minds and hearts of your characters, you will allow them to experience the characters’ hopes and fears, exhilarating first kisses and heart-wrenching losses. For a little while the reader will be completely immersed in the story, and remember it long after he/she puts the book down.
I hope I have demystified DPOV and made you feel comfortable using it.
Empowering aspiring authors to confidently write novels they're proud to publish