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Monday, September 14, 2015

Point of View Penetration

Over the last few weeks, I've been talking about point of view. I talked about first person, third person, and then last week I talked about some ways to pick your viewpoint character for a scene. This post follows up on those. It's about point of view penetration.


In the fiction-writing world, the term "penetration" refers to how deep the narrator gets into the viewpoint character's point of view. (What is with some of the writing terms?) People usually use it in reference to third person point of view. Many say that penetration, and its different levels, doesn't relate to first person since in first person we are always in the character's head, and therefore, we're always deep into their viewpoint. I'm going to argue against this somewhat, but first I'll talk about penetration in reference to third person since that's how it is usually used.

Distant (aka Objective)

In the most distant third person, the narrator never gets in the character's head. At all. The audience may see what the character sees. Smell what the character smells. But they only see him on the outside. Sometimes I hear people call this "cinematic writing," since it's similar to watching a movie. It's also called "objective third person." Distant third person is like we are following around a friend everywhere.

Crime fiction is traditionally written this way. Pick up The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett and you won't get any inside knowledge on any of the characters. It's left entirely to the audience to guess the characters' true thoughts, feelings, and motives.

Distant third person can work well in these situations: 

  • Your character is unlikeable, very complicated, or so different from most people that you need to include much exposition to make him clear and vivid. (from Character, Emotion, and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress)
  • Your prose has an interesting personality. The way your narrator tells the story is entertaining, or funny, or colors the story in a particular way the characters wouldn't.
  • You want to create distance because the content of the plot is too emotionally traumatic if rendered in the character's viewpoint. In that case, this might be a good choice.


On the opposite side of the spectrum is the very close third person. This is basically like first person. The prose takes on the views and thoughts and emotional tones of the viewpoint character. The narrator takes us into the character's head and tells the story from there. Close third person is great for a high, raw, emotional impact. It brings the reader close to the character.

Nancy Kress says it best in her chapter on third person, "the essence of close third person delivers the maximum emotion and maximum reader identification with the character."  But, if you tell the whole story in close third person, you have basically all the same rules to write by as first person. You just get a little more wiggle room, since it is still in third person.

But remember how flexible third person is? There is a whole spectrum between distant and close at your disposal, and you can use all of them as it suits the story you are telling.

Full Spectrum

In third person, you can look at a character from a distance and later sink deep into her mind. You can zoom in and out of the character's head. But you have to be careful. If you suddenly jump from deep penetration with one viewpoint character to deep penetration of another character, to distant viewpoint of the first character--all too fast and all too quickly--the prose will feel choppy and uncontrolled. You got to sink in and slip out and have control over it all.

Here is an example of four different points on the spectrum, from the most distant to the closest:

(Point 1) Out of breath, Todd wiped the sweat off his face and fanned himself. He got a glass of cold water.

(Point 2) Todd was thinking about how hot it was outside as he got a glass of cold water.

(Point 3) It's freaking hot outside, Todd thought, like the devil's oven. He got a glass of cold water, even though it wouldn't do anything to fight the heat. Better than nothing, Todd thought.

(Point 4) It was freaking hot outside. Like the devil's oven. A glass of cold water wouldn't do squat, but it was better than nothing.

Notice the first example shows that Todd thinks it's hot from the outside. In the last example, the prose takes on his thoughts and attitude and we know he thinks it's hot from the inside. When you want your reader to feel the most emotion from your character, when you want them to feel that empathy, the last example is usually where you want to be. But not every emotion your character feels is important for the reader to feel too. Sometimes you want the reader's experience to differ from the character's. I did a post about that here.

Side note. The last example, Point 4, is "showing" and "telling" simultaneously. The writer is "showing" us the thought process in the character's head, but humans (usually) think in "telling" sentences. Don't shy away from deep penetration because you have been told it's "telling" and that "telling" is bad. This kind of "telling" is actually "showing," and if used correctly, can render emotion more raw and more powerful than just regular "showing."

Let's look at an example that goes through part of the spectrum. I've used this example on here before, but it's a good one. This comes from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Harry wished his scar would burn and show him Voldemort's thoughts (Point 2), because for the first time ever, he and Voldemort were united in wanting the very same thing. . . .Hermione would not like that idea, of course (sinking into Point 4) . . . .But then, she did not believe. . .Xenophilius had been right, in a way. . .Limited. Narrow. Close-minded (very Point 4). The truth was that she was scared of the idea, especially the Resurrection Stone...

It was nearly dawn when he remembered 
Luna (Point 2), alone in a cell in Azkaban. . . .If only there was a way of getting a better wand. (Point 4) . . . And the desire for the Elder Wand, the Deathstick, the unbeatable, invincible, swallowed him once more. . . (Point 2)

It was as though a flame had been lit inside him that nothing, not Hermione's flat disbelief nor Ron's persistent doubts, could extinguish. . . .Harry's belief and longing for the Hallows consumed him so much that he felt quite isolated from the other two and their obsession with the Horcruxes. (All Point 2)

"Obsession?" said Hermione. . .when Harry was careless enough to use the word one evening (Point 2). . ."We're not the ones with an obsession, Harry!"

This example pretty much goes between two points, but do you see them? Here would be an example of a Point 1 sentence.

Harry spent most of his days away from Ron and Hermione.

We get no insight into what Harry is actually thinking. We don't know why he is removing himself from Ron and Hermione in this sentence. We just know that he is.

Here is Point 3.

Hermione wouldn't like that, Harry thought. Xenophilius is right. She's limited. Narrow. Close-minded.

Moving between the spectrum, for the effect you want on the reader, is one of the beauties of third person. It's just another reason why third person is so dang flexible.

Back in my third person post, I listed the cons of third person. Here they are again.


  • Third person feels more distant. It's not as personal. Readers don't get to put on the character's body and mind (they can get close, but not quite), so they won't get as personal with the character.
  • Tends to have less distinctive language patterns.
  • It can be harder to switch between memory, flashbacks, and opinions, and the switches are more likely to feel choppy.
(Some of these taken points are from Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint.) 

Do you know how you can minimize and get around all these cons? You go deeper into your character's viewpoint! You go to Point 4. You let the prose take on the mind of the character, so it's nearly the same as first person. It brings the reader right close to her. It gives you the ability to write in your character's distinctive language patterns, because the prose takes on his personality. You can slip into memories, flashbacks, and opinions basically the same way first person does. You can do it seamlessly.

And it goes beyond the cons and gives you some of the pros of first person. People say first person is great for writing unreliable narrators. And it is. But it can be done in third person too, by getting deep, deep into that viewpoint. You can write unreliable viewpoint characters (read how to do that here) as it pleases you. That's not something just reserved for first person.

So get close to your viewpoint character. If you want. It's up to you and the effect you want for your scene. It's about what makes a better story. Writing in third person gives you the option of being as close or as distant from your viewpoint character as you need. Like I've said before, if you want that raw, tense emotion, get deep and write it that way. But when you want/need your reader's experience to differ from your character's, pull further away, become more distant.

Often I see writers who zoom in and zoom out of their character's viewpoint seemingly randomly. I'll see scenes written in distant third person when it would be better in close third person. If you need something to work on in your writing, work on gaining control of penetration. Try to learn when a scene would be better in close third and when a scene is better in distant third, and everything in between. Get beyond just letting it happen. Gain control of it. Then use it to your advantage.

Penetration in First Person

Does penetration apply to first person? You will find people who argue, no, it doesn't. After all, we are in the character's head the whole time.

But the truth is, in a way, different levels of penetration do happen in first person. Kind of. They usually happen in summary or when the narrator is thinking back (or looking forward) to something.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss as the narrator says, "I spent the whole afternoon crying." That's not Point 4 on the spectrum. That's Point 1. I guess in a way, you can argue that it is Point 4 and Point 1 simultaneously, since it sounds like she is thinking that in the present and looking back on the afternoon.

How about this? "All week I kept thinking about my Uncle's ATV."

That's Point 2. Or is it Point 4 and Point 2?

But even when you cut out the summaries as examples, it still seems to happen. There is a part in Mockingjay that is very close to distant first person. It is happening in the present and we do not get Katniss's thoughts on it. Not really. It's a vital part of the story, so we can't just say she wasn't thinking anything. She was. And the reader isn't told. Not really.

Is this supposed to render how distant Katniss is from herself in that moment? Does she feel "out" of herself? Or has she closed herself off--closed herself off to the audience? She's withholding her direct thoughts from us. We are in her viewpoint, but we aren't able to penetrate it deeply.

What if you were writing about a murderer who was distant from himself when killing people? He is a machine. Would that be distant first?

This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen by Borowski, seems to very much be written in distant first. After all, it's in first person and critics have considered it almost cinematic.

The more you look at this, the more complicated you'll see it get. It can come down to categories and semantics. But I don't think we should limit ourselves by saying that first person has no levels of penetration. Because on some level, it does. It might be simultaneously distant and close, because the character himself is distant from himself, and therefore we are getting his close thoughts, because he is distant.

See what I mean about confusing?

But think about it.


  1. I love how you post more original perspectives than what I have foun in other blogs =)

  2. This is basically what John Gardener describes as "psychic distance" (narrative distance) in his book The Art Of Fiction. I love how you put it, it helped me understand it even better!

    1. I'm so glad it was helpful! I haven't read that one yet, but I should look into it. If my memory serves me right, I think Orson Scott Card talks about the idea in his book Character & Viewpoint as well.


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