Thursday, July 24, 2014

Deep POV: Fast Track to Compelling Character Voice

Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles on demystifying viewpoint. The originals will appear first as posts on my Spontaneous Combustion blog, then be archived on my website as downloadable PDFs.

Deep POV is single viewpoint on steroids.

In the first article of this series, I compared single POV to viewing a scene through the eyeglasses of one particular character. Deep POV takes single POV and intensifies it. It's like putting two tiny cameras with powerful microscopic lenses in those glasses; installing microphones in the character's ears, and sensors in her nose, tongue, and skin; then finally inserting a silicon chip in her brain to channel every single thought, perception, sensation, and emotion directly to readers.

Lars Norgaard, "World's First Cyborg Artist"
 Handling POV like this is a fantastic way to immerse readers in your story. Although I'm not a gamer myself, it seems to me that Deep POV is like turning the protagonist of a novel into an avatar of the reader: the line between fictional character and reader of fiction gets blurred, so that the reader experiences the events of the plot as if they are happening to her. Readers slip so deeply inside the skin of a book's narrator that it's as if the two are fused into one.

I told you Deep POV was intense!

The best way to get a feel for the difference between "regular" single POV and Deep POV is to read it in action. Here is a masterful example from the Okay for Now [Clarion 2001], a Newbery Honor book by the gifted children's writer, Gary D. Schmidt. The novel's narrator is eighth grader Doug Swietek. Here is he speaking about a Yankees baseball cap that his older brother had stolen.

"I guess now it's in a gutter, getting rained on or something. Probably anyone who walks by looks down and thinks it's a piece of junk. 
They're right. That's all it is. Now.
 But once, it was the only thing I ever owned that hadn't belonged to some Swieteck before me."

This is Doug, talking straight to readers. There is absolutely no sense at all of any author sitting there with a pen or a typewriter or a computer making this up. Rather, Schmidt is writing as if he were possessed by Doug, being used by the character to transcribe his words onto the page. Now that's how to create a vivid, authentic, compelling character voice. Schmidt's novel is persuasive testimony of the power of Deep POV. There is no better way to bring a character to life. 

Contrast this with regular single POV, in another wonderful middle grade novel, A Drowned Maiden's Hair [Candlewick Press 2006] by Laura Amy Schlitz.

"Maud had a hazy idea that the Battle Hymn had something to do with with war and slavery. She felt that by singing it she was defying authority and striking a blow against the general awfulness of the day."

Though this is single viewpoint, since it's written from within Maud's head, it is not Deep POV. It's phrases like she felt and Maud had a hazy idea that put readers at a subtle but real distance from the heroine.

The cumulative effect is a slightly more formal, slightly more adult voice. There is nothing wrong with this, but for me at least, it makes the ghost of the author more evident. I'm aware that there is a writer at work here; I don't feel that Maud is speaking directly to me. 

"Duh!" you may  object. "That's because Schlitz was writing in third person, and Schmidt was writing in first person, Nancy, you dolt." But it is possible to write Deep POV in third person. How? 

First, avoid writing anything that distances readers from your POV character in any way. Here's an example.

She jumped when she heard the door slam.

The phrase she heard is a tiny little wedge driven between the narrator and the reader. Do some quick and simple word-surgery, and you've gone a little deeper into your character's head.


The door slammed. She jumped, her heart ping-ponging in her chest.

You don't tell readers that she heard the slamming door, you simply show it happening—followed immediately by the character's response. So one way to achieve deeper POV is to follow the same old literary advice you've heard time and time again: show, don't tell.

In a similar vein, avoid distinguishing the narrator's thoughts in any way from the rest of the text. Certainly don't treat them like dialogue and set them aside in quotes, and don't italicize them either. That creates distance between your character and your readers. 

Also, don't apply what I call "thought tags," words such as thought, felt, surmised, guessed, supposed, etc. Again, just write the thought directly. For readers, this creates the sense that they are in the narrator's mind, hearing her thoughts by some kind of literary telepathy.

One of the places that it is easiest to slip up and forget to remain in Deep POV is in descriptive narrative. Writers—myself included—get carried away in describing a scene and start writing lyrical passages that their thirteen-year-old skateboarding hero would never say or think. Writing Deep POV is a humbling experience. With every word, you are trying to make readers forget that you, the author, exist. If you succeed, kids won’t even remember your name. Your goal is to convince them the main character is the one telling them the story, not you. 

So it's definitely possible to write Deep POV in limited third person. But don't assume that you are automatically in Deep POV simply by virtue of writing in first person. I've read many first person narratives that remained aloof from the narrator. I see this mainly in student work, and when it happens, I think it's because the writer gets so caught up in setting down the events of the plot or what other characters are saying and doing that she forgets to let her narrator react to all of it.

Another way of putting that is to say that the POV glasses that the writer sets on her first-person narrator's face have clear lenses, as if the hero were a scientist recording "just the facts, ma'am." And who of us sees and responds to life in such a completely neutral fashion? It's the way a first-person narrator shares plot events and her observations of other characters that reveals to use what kind of person the narrator really is. There is color to the narrator's lenses.

[© Infrared photos by Nancy Butts]

A fine example of this is the Newbery-winning novel Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson. Told in first person, we believe that the cutting remarks Louise makes about her twin Caroline are accurate. It isn't until the end of the book that we realize that Louise has been envious of her sister all along, and that her observations have been tainted because she has been looking at her sister through green-colored glasses.

That taint is what you want when writing in first person: that is, if you want to achieve Deep POV. Let every word your narrator says—even if that is about something as ordinary as the weather, the menu in the school cafeteria, or the shoes his sister is wearing—reveal more about your hero than perhaps he'd like to admit.

I've read articles and books that are almost prescriptions or recipes for how to do Deep POV, but I'm not sure that's the most helpful way to look at it. You don't have to go "all in." Such intense identification with a main character can get claustrophobic, especially if she is whiny, depressed,or unpleasant in some way. Not being able to get out of her head for even one moment can turn readers off. So you need to choose your project well. If you've got an anti-hero, or a character who might initially seem unlikeable for one reason or the other [perhaps the point of your book is show their transformation], Deep POV may not be the technique to choose, not exclusively.

Perhaps you could use it only for brief passages, borrowing techniques from Deep POV so we can hear your main viewpoint character's voice loud and proud. To me, and to many editors and readers, the voice of your protagonist is what makes a book stand out. What makes a thousand books about yet another dysfunctional family forgettable, and one book like Okay for Now so memorable that it haunts you for weeks after you finish it? Character voice. And one of the most powerful techniques for creating that is Deep POV. What better reason is there to learn as much as you can about it?

[© 2014 This article is subject to copyright. Please do not use or reproduce without express written permission from the author.]

Next in the series—Power Can Go To Your Head: The Perils of Omniscient POV

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