Deep Third POV: Managing Its Challenges

Deep third POV

Deep Third POV: Managing Its Challenges

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One of the most common areas where I see authors struggle is in how to use deep third person point of view skillfully. This powerful perspective can open up a story to readers and draw them deeply, directly into it—but it comes with inherent challenges authors must master to mine its full potential.

What Is Deep Third Person POV?

Put first-person point of view in an intimate relationship with limited third and their offspring will be deep third–person point of view.

In simplest terms, this voice combines the immediate, firsthand intimacy of first-person, where the author and narrator voice are one and the same, with the he/she/they pronouns of third person.

It’s become profoundly popular in the current market for the way it deeply and directly engages readers, removing the “middleman” of the narrator voice, but it can feel bizarrely unnatural to use at first—there’s no real correlation to human experience in living someone’s life directly but from a third-person point of view, shy of game avatars or possession (the latter of which is outside most people’s abilities).

Read more: “Understanding Third-person Point of View: Limited, Omnisicient, and Deep

Picking a Point of View for Your Story”

That’s why several common challenges often rear their heads when authors are writing in this POV, but with a few key tips and techniques you can avoid these pitfalls in your own writing.

1.    Maintain Strong, Cohesive Point of View 

As with first-person point of view, the heightened intimacy of deep third means the author must know their protagonists profoundly and well—their history, formative experiences, influences, experiences, preferences, psyche, voice, and more. There is no room in deep third for “fudging” your character development—it requires the author to have an exhaustive familiarity and comfort inside the protagonist(s)’ skin.

Every word of the narrative in deep third–person POV is understood to come directly from the POV character: their thoughts, feelings, reactions; their background, orientation, biases, ideology, blind spots; their perceptions, sensations, interpretations, and experiences. This perspective plunges readers right into the head of the POV character, into their hearts, behind their eyes.

That means that not only must you unspool the action of the story, but filter every single element of it through the lens of the character. We want to see how they react to things that happen, how they process events, and how they are affected—in other words, what impact does each story development have on their attitude and subsequent actions? We want to see—and feel—firsthand how they react to other characters and how those interactions impact and affect them.

Open the window to your POV character’s inner life and let us in—not in endless swaths of explanation, description, or interiority, but simply by refracting everything through the prism of their perspective—much as we do in real life.

Here’s a brief paragraph from standard limited third-person POV:

Aisha clenched her jaw to keep herself from snapping a comeback about Rodney’s martyrdom and barely veiled insults. He’d managed to slight both her competence and her dereliction of duty in one sentence. Instead she forced out a smile of her own. She didn’t want to let him have the upper hand. “Well, thanks for being on top of it.”

Notice that while we’re privy to what the character is thinking and feeling, how she’s reacting, it’s told to us, described at one level of remove that is the narrative voice.

Here’s the same passage in deep third:

Oh, yes, you’re a paragon of virtue we all strive to emulate. Aisha bit down on the urge to let the snarky comeback fly. How did he always manage to layer on insults like that, taking a swipe at both her competence and her dereliction of duty in one bitchy little sentence? Instead she forced out a smile that felt like a rictus. She’d be damned if she’d let him be cock of the walk. “Well, thanks for being on top of it.”

In deep third, the story is told directly from the POV character’s firsthand perspective, so it’s colored by Aisha’s attitude, mood, mannerisms and vernacular, personality, etc., and we’re experiencing what she is alongside her.

One helpful exercise can be to try writing a passage or scene in first person, through the eyes of your POV character. That often helps an author internalize the idea of writing firsthand as the POV character, in their direct perspective and with no narrative remove. Then you can go back and recast the voice using third-person pronouns.

2.    Maintain Consistent POV

As with any point of view, deep third comes with some risks of POV slips, some more common than others.

Generally the guidelines of first-person POV apply—if your POV character doesn’t or can’t know, see, feel, experience something, then “you” as the author can’t either—remember, you’ve become the character, for all intents and purposes, as in first-person POV.

Remembering that will help you avoid point of view slips like, “tears ran shiny tracks down his face.” Unless he’s looking in a mirror (which often tippytoes on the edge of cliché), that’s not the character’s perspective. He might feel the wetness, but the visual description is an external point of view.

If something happens outside of a character’s direct purview, they cannot know about it unless they are told: for example that someone is waiting in a car outside their direct line of sight, or something that’s happening behind them, or something that happens in the future.

Your deep third–POV protagonist can’t know other characters’ thoughts, feelings, or motivations—just interpret them based on what she sees: for instance in the other characters’ expressions, reactions, affect, demeanor; what she hears or interprets in their words; what she makes of their actions, etc.

And it means making sure every word of the narrative reflects the character’s experience, history, background, knowledge, vocabulary, mannerisms, quirks, etc., and not offering knowledge or experience the character wouldn’t have. For instance, if your character refers to an Adlerian interpretation someone’s behavior, we have to see how or why they have some knowledge of psychotherapist Alfred Adler, a lesser-known contemporary of Freud and Jung. Everything must be consistently filtered through the POV character’s life experience and history.

3.    Maintain Momentum

Authors are often concerned of the risk of too much interiority in deep third, which is admittedly a perspective oriented from inside the character looking out. But that doesn’t mean getting trapped in navel-gazing. While this point of view allows readers directly into a character’s head, it’s still paramount to keep the story moving. We do want direct access into how a character is reacting to, affected by, and processing what’s going on, but we don’t need it in every line and paragraph, and it’s not necessary in every happening in the story.

For example if your character is waiting for a bus, we don’t need all their thoughts about running late, or worrying where the bus is, etc., unless that is directly germane to the scene or story in some way. Move the story forward and get to the main action. As with any point of view, don’t let the action and forward propulsion of the story get bogged down in swaths of narrative about a character’s inner life.

Use interiority where most effective—where direct character insight is most important/ or germane, for instance:

  • Revealing and developing character or key relationships
  • Showing character movement along their arc
  • Establishing and raising stakes
  • Introspective processing scenes (“sequels”)

You can orient readers to what’s going on inside a character without stalling momentum simply by consistently and cohesively casting the whole narrative into their perspective, weaving reactions, thoughts, emotions amid the forward movement of the action.

Here’s a passage in limited third:

“I’ll leave you two alone,” Maggie murmured, sensing that her presence here was inappropriate. Arturo needed to work things out with Gia on his own. She didn’t want to be part of that, and if she were honest with herself, it was because she was still hoping against hope that she could preserve some kind of relationship with her friend.

And the same passage in deep third:

“I’ll leave you two alone,” Maggie murmured, the awkwardness of the situation sending ants marching beneath her skin. She had to get out of here and let Arturo deal with Gia however he planned to do it. She wanted no part of that—she still fiercely, desperately wanted to believe that she and Gia could somehow salvage their friendship out of all this.

These are almost the same length (60 words for the first, 63 for the second), and while we’re privy to Maggie’s thoughts in both, in the second we’re more intimately thinking, feeling, and reacting along with her.

And yet the deep-third passage doesn’t slow momentum—if anything it may add even more forward movement in the heightened tension she’s feeling, and her strengthened goal to get out of the room and to hold on to her friendship with Gia.

4.    Handling Reveals and Secrets

I’ve heard authors say that deep-third and first-person POVs mean you can’t incorporate secrets or reveals because everything the character knows is exposed to the reader. However, handled skillfully, you definitely can.

The easiest way to incorporate secrets and reveals in deep third is if the information is unknown to the POV character, since if the character is unaware the reader will perforce also be unaware, and we will (ideally) experience the impact of its revelation along with the protagonist.

But there are many techniques for keeping information from readers even though the POV character would know it, including:

  • misdirection: using ambiguous or oblique language that may lead readers to make assumptions that are incorrect; double meanings
  • the unreliable narrator: characters not wanting to think about or suppressing things; characters deluding themselves; characters whose perspectives are untrustworthy; character blind spots and misinterpretations
  • shifting to another point of view (in multiple-POV-character stories)

Also consider that not all reveals are secrets to the reader. There can be great power in letting your character—and thus readers—know a secret that builds suspense based on whether and when other characters find out, or on the impact your POV character fears the fallout of its revelation may have for him.

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While every point of view can—and arguably should—offer insight into characters’ inner lives, only first person and deep third give readers an all-access backstage pass, allowing them to break the metaphorical “fourth wall” of story and plunge into it directly along with your protagonists.

With great power comes great responsibility—but mastering this unique point of view can lend tremendous immediacy, intimacy, and impact to your stories.

If you want to learn more about using this vibrant, dynamic point of view skillfully and consistently, join me (and Jane Friedman) for our live webinar “Write Powerfully in Deep Third Point of View,” Weds, July 12—with video playback for registrants ($25). We’ll talk about the guidelines for using deep third, the potential pitfalls, all with plentiful examples, and practice identifying and using this potent POV.

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