How to write a book · Writer basics 101

Free indirect, deep point of view – two ways to get closer to your main character

1110472913_d5ffabe3b7_zFree indirect and deep point of view are ways to help readers walk in a character’s shoes. You may find you already use them. But if you’re told you need to get closer to the main character, you might find these two techniques helpful.

Free indirect
Free indirect is a technique used in third-person narration to show a character’s thoughts. To understand what it is, and why it has such an opaque name, we need to backtrack a little.

Direct speech. The character’s thoughts are reported in quote marks (unless you’re leaving them out as a style choice, like Cormac McCarthy). Example (unless you’re Cormac McCarthy)

She slammed the front door and thought about what she had seen. ‘Just what are those gnomes doing on my lawn?’

For today’s readers, this can look unnatural. It has the effect of making the character seem to utter the words out loud. Which you may or may not want.

Indirect speech aka reported speech For noveling purposes, this is dialogue without the quotes (not in the Cormac McCarthy sense), and with extra text to explain it’s thoughts.

She slammed the front door and thought about what she had seen. She asked herself just what those gnomes were doing on her lawn.

So indirect speech avoids that awkward mental picture of the character declaiming to an empty room…
… and is where we get the name…

Free indirect
In free indirect speech, we enter the thoughts of the character. It’s as though we’re having a first-person narrator’s experiences from a third-person perspective.

She slammed the front door and thought about what she had seen. Just what were those gnomes doing on her lawn?

It’s more intimate than normal indirect, less artificial than direct. (And therefore is the most direct of the lot, but let’s not get confused.)

Writers who aren’t using first person often wonder how to show the character’s thoughts. Some resort to quote marks, but that looks weird unless the situation calls for out-loud declamations. Some writers try italics, but this is hard to read. Italics are for emphasis. Great paragraphs of italics make for migraine on the page. Normal indirect speech flows better but adds a lot of extra undergrowth.

Free indirect, though, mimics the immediacy of dialogue without the awkwardness.

nynfiller2Deep point of view

This is another way to involve the reader in the character’s experience. While free indirect is about thoughts, deep point of view is about feelings and the senses.

She opened the gate. And stopped. On the front lawn were three small, jagged shapes. She peered into the gloom, waiting for a movement that would reveal perhaps it was a fox. Hopefully not a skulking burglar, but all the same her hands were tightening defensively around her keys. Behind, a car swished down the wet road. Its headlights filled the small front garden. Gnomes. Those things were three garden gnomes.

Now here’s the same scene told in a less deep point of view:

She came down the steps and saw an unexpected shape that made her stop in astonishment. For a moment she peered into the dark, wondering if it was a burglar. Then a car’s headlights revealed the truth. They were three garden gnomes.

The first example, in deep point of view, is closer to what the character is feeling. In the second example, the narrator (not the character) is the personality. Many of the words give distance, in this case slightly ironic – ‘made her stop in astonishment’, ‘wondering if it was’.

It’s not necessarily worse, by the way. If you have multiple story strands with several main characters it’s the natural way to wrangle them all.

If you have a single strong protagonist, whether first person or third, deep point of view will give you immediacy and vividness. You probably won’t use it for less intense moments, such as catching a bus or making breakfast. Readers don’t need every moment in deep point of view. But you can deep-dive to increase our connection to dramatic events.

Thanks for the image from Half-Life 2, Eric Sagen on Flickr

Do you have problems getting close to a character’s experience? Do you have any tips? Share in the comments!


28 thoughts on “Free indirect, deep point of view – two ways to get closer to your main character

  1. This is a helpful post, Roz. I’ve struggled with this issue in both of my first two books. It’s nice to have names now to go with the various options.

    In places where I wanted to show the character’s thoughts, I tried quoted direct speech and hated the way it worked. Like you say, the character seems to be speaking into the void, and it’s extra confusing if the character is in the middle of a conversation with someone else.

    For the most part, I’ve settled on free indirect (not realizing that’s what it was called). I do use italicized direct speech on rare occasions, but just for single-sentence thought quotations. In those situations, I chose direct speech because the wording of the thought revealed something important about the character.

    As for deep point of view, I think my writing could stand more of that. However, I also believe it can be overdone and become exhausting for the reader (I’ve stopped reading books that went overboard). I guess it’s a matter of balancing emotional engagement with pacing.

    1. Hi Daniel! Glad it helped to give each option a name! Sort of makes them official.
      Very good point about deep POV. If you do it all the time it can bludgeon the reader. A well-paced story – exactly as you say – will know when to use it and when to pull back.

  2. I use deep POV with a mixture of unabashed telling. It is storytelling after all 🙂 I do this because I’m not at all a master of deep POV, even with free indirect. It’s very difficult to pull off without making the project heavy with words and slowing down the story. However, I did run into a book through a reading group that absolutely blew me out of my chair (oh, what a sight!). It’s The Master by Colim Toibin and covers the life of Henry James. The deep POV is so masterfully done, I didn’t even realize that’s what this author was pulling off until a quarter of the way through. It’s something I need to work on a great deal.

    And one of those ways is taking a class on writing a TV Pilot Script. In that class we’ve had access to an interview with the writer and showrunner of “Criminal Minds” and now “Justified.” Film and TV are mediums where you can’t do anything but show without telling, and I’ve learned a great deal. Without blowing the lessons of the class (it is fair that their expertise is paid for by those who want it, not given away for free), I will say the writer gave one valuable suggestion I’m applying to prose. He goes through each script revision from each character’s POV. Are they vivid and have a purpose, are they being shown with enough of their inner story riding on the surface, have they ended up as set decoration, and all the other questions we can ask about our characters. It’s been a wonderful lesson, if for no other reason that having a second purpose for those re-writes that seem to go on forever.

    Thanks for helping us with this tricky tool of the trade. It’s yet another humbling aspect of writing that keeps us on our toes.

    1. Hi Cyd! You’re right – sometimes we are allowed to tell instead of show. We don’t have to be nose to nose with the characters the whole time.
      I don’t know that Toibin but shall certainly take a look. BTW, he’s on Facebook if you want to grab one of his friend slots…
      I love that screenwriting tip about the characters. I do a similar thing. Once I’ve got to the stage where I’m familiar with what’s going on and I feel in control of the manuscript, I ask myself if each character is behaving like an individual – ie they are not just there to do my bidding. That has some interesting results.

  3. Like others, I had no idea free indirect was a name. Fabulous explanation.

    One thing I’ve tried on the occasions when I don’t use first person is giving each character a primary sense so as to help the reader experience the world more as they do – so when one character is on the page I’ll talk mainly about sounds, another sights, another smells and so on – the filters we use for experiencing the world can say a lot about us, and as wriers we can convey a lot of that through the parts of the sense fields we show the reader

      1. I claim no credit – I got the idea from Thomas Harris when he said that Hannibal Lecter’s primary sense is smell – I thought what an interesting way to filter characters

  4. Good one, Roz, I’ve added the link to this post to the Awesome Indies explanation of the criteria page. It’s this kind of subtlety in the writing that I often find missing in indie books.

  5. Hi again Roz – this post has stayed in my inbox for some time and I’ve been using it as a handy reference, so thank you!

    Now I have a question about “Free Indirect” (and I think I just need some more examples maybe) as I’ve been trying to use it more. I have a few characters who individually take their POV across a chapter for example and this is a great way to help the scene advance and the reader get to “know” the person better, without descending into exposition. (At least that’s how my novice writer persona sees it!).

    So at some point you have to introduce the idea that the character about to become free and indirect is engaged in (or about to be engaged in) thinking?

    For example:

    Raymond slipped in through the back gate and wondered about the car he had seen. Was that the same car as the one in Smith Street? How odd if it was. He looked around carefully, perhaps it was time to be more careful … very careful.

    Is that right?

    I know there are no real “rules”, is it OK to just launch into internal dialogue with no “I’m a character and I’m about to have a thought” preemptive line?

    For example:

    Raymond ran past the window and ducked reflexively as the curtains opened suddenly. Was that BLAKE he had spotted behind the glass? Surely not … but if so, what was he doing inside the house already?

    Hmmm, this comment might end up being longer than my chapters, sorry about that! So to my final question:

    Can free indirect use the personal pronoun and still sound OK?

    For example:

    Raymond picked up the note and peered at the handwriting and wondered if his vision was worsening. I really need my glasses for this, he thought as he brought the note closer to his face and the writing came into focus … which was quite a shock when he recognized the author of the note was not who he thought it was. Margie? Why you? Am I going mad?

    Please excuse my puerile made-up examples, they are a first draft for this comment only!

    Speaking of which, as I’m in first draft mode and trying to incorporate deep POV and Free Indirect and became quite dispirited … and then opened my e-copy of “Nail Your Novel” and … everythng you say about First Drafts is surely true! I was re-motivated and you confirmed for me that what I’m doing is OK — and so I am now actually enjoying the First Draft, even when it is clearly crap!

    And so I see the teasing image “Bring Characters To Life” and am still looking forward to your next non-fiction masterpiece! (And I’d be happy to be a beta-reader or Kindle/iPad tester if you need one. I am also technologically empowered having been the creator of all our current published e-versions and been through the formatting nightmares of epubs so would be happy to help with any formatting feedback and the appropriate tech solution etc).

    Thank you again for all your input and invaluable posts.

  6. Answering my own comment here as I’m now deep in the editing phase (Yay! The torturous first draft is done!) and I must admit to having found inspiration in the marvellous book “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print” which answered my question nicely.

    Pretty much this: Try to avoid attribution (the ‘he thought’, ‘she wondered’ markers) where possible to allow for seamless moving from beats, to dialogue, back to beats, then into the character’s head. It makes for a more involved experience.

    Interior monologue in quotes is regarded as old-fashioned and italics should be used very sparingly.

    From what I can see, I’d be best NOT to move from 3rd-person to first-person unless there is a deliberate intent to jump perceived ‘distance’.

    I thought I’d post back here as that book has a wonderful reference on the entire “Interior Monologue” technique. (Not to take away from “Nail Your Novel” however, which I credit for a multi-coloured, multi-page and invaluable beat-sheet)

Your turn!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.