The difference between third person POV and Deep POV

question answer

Q: I keep hearing about Deep POV. What is it, and how is it different from what the writing books call third person POV?

A: Point of view is one of the most complicated elements of fiction, and POV slips are among the most common errors we see in amateur manuscripts.

I believe a large part of the confusion comes from the use of “person” to describe POV. Grammatically speaking, “person” only refers to what pronouns you’re using. It’s not useful for describing POV. If I tell you a work is written in “third person” all you really know is that it uses he and she pronouns.

Traditionally, “third person limited” referred to a sort of POV in which a character’s interior monologue was presented in his own voice, but the narrative was in a sort of generic narrator voice. This looked something like this:

One magnificent spring day, Mary Lou skipped home from kindergarten, utterly oblivious to her big brother hiding behind a bush. Wearing an ogreish mask, he leaped out, growling fiercely. She screamed and sprinted away, eager to evade the malefactor. She took refuge on the neighbor’s empty porch. How will I ever get home now, she wondered.

I exaggerated for effect, but you can see a couple of elements that mark this out as what some call third person limited POV. Some of the vocabulary, like magnificent and malefactor, are beyond a kindergartner. The thinker tag she wondered is the real tip-off that we’re not deep inside her head. We’ve also been shown information she can’t know—that her brother is hiding. This used to be acceptable. Most editors today, including me, would call that an omniscient slip. But back in the day, that is, way back in the ’80s when the textbook for my college creative writing class was written, third person limited implied two personas at work in the narrative: the author/narrator and the character. The narrator was permitted to see things beyond the character’s range of vision, as a movie camera might. These days, that’s Not Recommended.

Third person limited looks a lot like omniscient, because they’re both written in—are you ready?—third person. You see the problem. The only real distinguishing factor between limited and omniscient is that limited usually reveals only one character’s thoughts per scene, but the omniscient narrator can share anyone’s thoughts at any time.

Also, in omniscient POV, the narrator persona can give commentary on or interpretation of the character’s thoughts, as when Tolstoy, describing his character Anna Scherer in War and Peace, compares her to a spoiled child—not an interpretation she’d likely make of herself. This kind of judgment is not usually made by a generic limited narrator. The best omniscient narrators show real personality, such as the narrator of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. That narrator is downright snarky.

Just to confuse things more, there’s also an “objective” POV, in which the generic narrator delivers only what is externally discernible, does not share anyone’s thoughts, and does not have a personality, snarky or otherwise.

Deep POV eliminates the generic narrator, so the POV character essentially is the narrator. This requires showing only what the character knows, seeing things through the character’s eyes, and writing the narrative in the character’s own voice.

Mary Lou skipped home from school, enjoying the sunny spring day. A giant ogre leaped out from behind a bush, growling fiercely. She screamed and ran away. A monster! A real monster right outside her own house. She hid on the neighbor’s empty porch. How would she ever get home now?

You see that by putting her thought in the same person and tense as the narrative, we eliminate the need for setting the thoughts in a different typeface.

You probably also noticed that the second section could have been written in first person: I skipped home from school… That’s because point of view isn’t really about person. It’s about character. Deep POV puts you into the heart of the character, which makes for a more engaging reading experience. And that’s what modern readers are looking for. It really doesn’t matter which pronouns you use.

For more about this topic, read Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson. It’s the most helpful and concise book I know of on the subject.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are affiliate links. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a pittance of a commission from Amazon. Regardless, I only recommend books I believe will be of value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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  1. Great explanation, Kristen. I did purchase that book on your recommendation. Read through it in one sitting. I now keep it available at all times. It is full of examples that show how deep POV works. Often it just takes small tweaks to make it happen. Thanks!

  2. Excellent! Bravo! Bravo!

    1. Thanks for your encouragement, Eva Marie!

  3. […] we saw last week, the goal of deep point of view is to eliminate the narrator. Which means there are two primary choices for POV, each of which has some subsets: You can have a […]

  4. […] This doesn’t refer to the number of miles across which your telepathic characters can transmit a message. It refers to the depth to which the author embeds the reader in the POV character’s psyche. An omniscient narrator is not deep at all: he’s almost completely exterior to the characters. Although he can describe how they feel, he does it from outside. When your POV character is your narrator, you put the reader inside the character’s head. This can be done at a moderate distance, often called middle third person or, as Nancy Kress puts it in Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, medium-distance third. But modern readers, as we’ve said before, prefer deep POV. […]

  5. […] I’ve noted before, there is a difference between person and POV. Gramatically speaking, person only refers to what pronouns are being […]

  6. You’re first example isn’t 3rd person limited, it’s 3rd person omniscient. The narrator is aware of things the POV character can’t see.

    1. Yes, a third-person narrator can reveal information not known to the characters. Whether the narrator is limited or omniscient has to do with his scope of knowledge and how many characters’ thoughts he reveals. The limited narrator only reveals the thoughts of one person per scene. The omniscient narrator can reveal anyone’s thoughts at any time, including multiple people within a single scene. For more on the difference between omniscient, limited, and objective narrators, see my Reedsy article, “How do you choose the right viewpoint and narrator for your novel?”.

  7. oy. I’ve just realized I switched a short story from first person to third/omniscient without trying Deep POV.

    1. Ack! That’s always frustrating. Rather than re-editing the omniscient version, it might be easier to go back to the first-person version and edit that. Because deep POV is really similar to first person. It just uses the he/she pronouns instead of I/me.

  8. Hello Kristen and others,

    I appreciate your point about point of view being more about character. I am new to the various third “person” POV considerations, and recently critiqued a chapter in someone’s novella who says she is writing in third person limited deep POV. I notice in her writing, the narrator may make judgment calls about a given person’s actions. She/he impulsively, She/he stupidly, She/he gave no thought to, etc. Do these phrases fit within the descriptive of “limited deep POV?”
    David C. Russell

    1. Yes, either an omniscient or a limited narrator can issue judgments about a character. The main difference is that the limited narrator reserves these kind of comments for a few principle characters, whereas the omniscient narrator may comment on the personality of even minor characters.

      I would quibble with your critique partner only in that I don’t feel a limited pov can be deep. As soon as one removes the viewpoint from a character and hands it to a narrator, the viewpoint automatically loses depth.

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