Four Tips for Creating a Compelling POV

A week ago, I talked about why the portrayal of a character’s internal thoughts and emotions is inherent to the novel, and how excluding that component can hinder the potential of your story. However, crafting a distinct, compelling POV (point-of-view) isn’t as simple as inserting more of your character’s emotions or thoughts into the book. We’ve all read that novel where a character overanalyzes something to death or is so emotional that the whole book becomes melodramatic and annoying. It’s important to portray characters’ thoughts and emotions, but it takes practice and skill to do it well.compellingpovpost

Here are four tips to help you accomplish this.

1. Capture the Character’s Ethos

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when delving into a character’s mind is to be generic. Bland. Normal. Boring.

It isn’t enough to give your characters interesting moral dilemmas and questions to wrestle over. Those certainly help to flesh out characters, but their voices also need to be compelling and distinct.

Consider this: if two characters in your story were struggling with the same moral dilemma, would the two inner narratives sound any different, other than the logical arguments being used?

Allegiant serves as a helpful, though negative, example. In the last book of her popular Divergent trilogy, Veronica Roth chose to alternate chapters between two different POV characters. This had the potential to deliver a more compelling story since it was being told from two different perspectives, which initially intrigued me. However, it became problematic when I constantly got confused about whose head I was in. Because both POV characters sounded identical, I would often not realize till halfway through the chapter that I was in Tris’s mind instead of Four’s and vice versa. Many other readers felt the same way about the alternating POVs too.

POVs cannot be generic—especially if you have multiple POV characters in your book. Maintaining a unique, consistent voice for each character is important, so you’ll need to capture the character’s ethos. I suggest beginning the development of your character’s internal life by contemplating the following questions:

  • Does your character think quickly or slowly?
  • How much do his emotions affect his thinking?
  • Does she overanalyze situations or never have a second thought?
  • How judgmental is she of the people around her?
  • What type of humor does your character have?
  • What frame of mind is your character in? Is he often happy? Depressed? Afraid?
  • What excites your character?
  • What does your character notice first about a person or place? What does she rarely notice?

2. Show Your Character’s Thoughts, Don’t Tell Them

I imagine that most writers have repeatedly heard the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule. Delving into your character’s mind doesn’t mean you tell the reader more often what she’s thinking. It means you directly show her thoughts and emotions.

Consider the following narrative:

Jake was mad. He hated how much Nick could get away with without suffering any consequences. He stomped away, frustrated.

Although we do get a glimpse of Jake’s emotions and general thought process, we haven’t actually gotten into his head. We have a superficial understanding of who he is instead of an up-close and personal understanding. Compare the above narrative to the one below:

Jake balled his hands into fists. Did Nick really just do that? If anyone else had done that, the principal would have stopped them. But there was Nick, leaning against the wall with his trademark expression of feigned disinterest while he bragged about his accomplishment to his friends.

Jake stepped toward them. All it would take was one blow. One strike to the face to wipe away Nick’s smug look. But of course that would require having guts in the first place.

Jake turned on his heel and walked away.

This isn’t a perfect narrative, but now I’ve given the audience insight into Jake’s mind by describing his physical reaction (“balled his hands into fists”), relating his direct thoughts (“Did Nick really just do that?”), and showing his perspective on the events in the story (“trademark expression of feigned disinterest”). Then I allow the reader to fill in the implication (Jake is afraid to stand up to Nick).

By putting the reader directly into Jake’s head and forcing the reader to interpret Jake’s emotions, the narrative becomes much more engaging.

3. Err on the Side of Less

I know that this two-part article series is supposed to convince you to develop your character’s internal life more. But sometimes less is more. Be careful not to overdo it.

Remember that you’re writing to contemporary readers. While classical authors like Hugo or Dostoevsky could get away with long scenes exploring the inner workings of a character’s mind, readers today aren’t so patient.

It’s better to have your readers wishing you included more internal depth than boring them with pages and pages of your character’s thoughts. Find a balance of enticing the reader while developing your character’s inner life, and you’ll be well on your way to a solid depiction.

4. Cut Scenes to Build Suspense

Just because you’re inside the character’s head doesn’t mean the reader needs to know everything. Allow the POV character to keep secrets from the reader. Whether this is achieved by using an unreliable narrator, or by cutting out of a scene before the reader fully realizes what’s up, few tactics are better for baiting and fooling the reader.

Cut the inner monologues in a way that builds suspense and forces the reader to guess about your character’s inner motivations. (And try to encourage the reader to guess wrongly so that you can spring a twist on them later.) Avoid translating scenes and force the reader to do the work, similar to my example in point two.

Following these techniques will build up more mystery about the character. It will make them seem more deep and complex. And the outcome will be more effective when you pull back the curtain and unveil the truth that the character was hiding from the reader all along.

Remember the End Goal

Hopefully these four tips help you as you seek to develop the inner lives of your POV characters. Portraying this inner life isn’t easy, and it often takes a lot of work. But remember that you don’t want to write a book that readers breeze through and quickly forget. You want to create something memorable, and one of the best ways is to give the reader intricate, fascinating characters.

The greatest books either rise or fall based on how much their characters interest the reader. So go the extra mile. Develop the inner lives of your characters, and do it in a way that showcases their uniqueness.

Profile photo of Josiah DeGraaf
Josiah DeGraaf is a high school English teacher and literature nerd who fell in love with stories when he was young and hasn’t fallen out of love ever since.
He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations. What causes otherwise-good people to make really terrible decisions in their lives? Why do some people have the strength to withstand temptation when others don’t? How do people respond to periods of intense suffering? What does it mean to be a hero?
These questions drive him as a reader, and they drive him as a writer as well as he takes normal people, puts them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then forces them to make difficult choices with their lives.
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as entertaining as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. In the meantime, you can find him writing articles here or short stories at his website (link below) as he works toward achieving these goals.
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  1. This article is really helpful! I’ll definitely be coming back to it. Thanks, Josiah!

  2. Yessss… awesome stuff. Thanks for the list, Josiah— lists are helpful, even if I have mixed feelings about making them myself. 😛
    *cough* And guys *coughcough* the next step is to familiarize yourself with the *cough* inner workings of *coughcough* MBTI. *cough*
    Sorry. Something in my throat. XD

    • YES! MBTI is the BEST!!! 😀

    • Hmm… what’s that? Couldn’t make it out over that coughing fit… 😛

      Haha, seriously though, I agree. MBTI types and Enneagram types and the such can definitely be helpful in this. I personally tend to avoid them because I find that when I use them, I tend to put my characters into personality boxes way too easily, but I know several writers who use them to great effect!

      • Yes, there’s definitely that danger if you only know the surface of the system, but if you really delve deep and learn to recognize the functions themselves instead of their collective symptoms it’s absolutely amazing. I write a lot of really messed up characters, and learning what messes up what function and what it does to the human mind and how that effects their behavior and perspective… it’s SO FASCINATING. Learn to use the functions as tools, not rules.
        Hey, that’s kinda catchy… XD

        • *headdesk* That should have been ‘affects’ not ‘effects’… *sigh* Those two words are the bane of my existence. 😛

        • That’s great. I probably haven’t researched MBTI types enough to use them effectively then. xD And yes, that’s a great little slogan there…

          I can never remember which is which between affects and effects. =P

          • I think it’s ‘affects’ when talking about fundamentally changing the status quo, and ‘effects’ when talking about simply altering/pertaining to it on the surface… maybe… I think… that’s probably an awful theory. XD

            Well, I’ve found the best research ground for MBTI is real life. *nods* I had the time of my life learning to type people after a few minutes of conversation, and it has done so much for my understanding of the human mind. The first steps were more difficult— learning the differences between the alternate functions (how S is different than N, for instance) and then learning to recognize them in people I met everyday… challenging at times, but it’s so worth it.

            *ahem* Yes. In case you can’t tell, I’m a little obsessed with this. 😛

          • My education professor at college once gave a simple but brilliant explanation of how they were different… And of course, that’s the day I forgot to take notes to remember her rule. >.< Ha; that's fun. I wish I could do that. It would make my interactions with others so much more entertaining. ^_^

          • Wow, that’s helpful… XD No worries. I’ve lived with struggling over it this long. 😉

          • @kate-flournoy @aratrea
            I know I’m arriving late to this discussion, but I couldn’t sit idly by and let you both remain confused about affect vs. effect. I don’t have a clever way to help you remember the proper usage, but maybe I can at least clear some of the fog. 😉

            Affect is always a verb (except for when it’s a term in psychology) and primarily means to influence or cause a response/reaction.
            For example:
            The bouquet of flowers on the table affected Sally’s allergies, making her sneeze.

            Effect can be a noun or verb and its definitions are: a result or goods/property (noun) and to bring about (verb).
            For example:
            The price hike at the grocery store had an adverse effect on its customers.
            The deceased man’s effects were claimed by his family after the funeral.
            The new manager of the department store will effect changes in service policies.

            If you still struggle to differentiate between the two words though, no worries. I’ll just fix the error if it appears in any submissions, since I’m the humanoid autocorrect around here. 😛

          • @theliterarycrusader You’re the best.

  3. Great article as usual, Josiah! This is very helpful. 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

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