by Lisa Hall-Wilson
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.