Conveying character emotions to the reader is one of the most difficult aspects of writing. A form of “show don’t tell,” the author must illustrate an emotion without telling the reader what it is. So, instead of telling the reader “James was sad,” (Ugh. What a boring sentence!), it is better to show the reader “Tears tumbled down James’ face as he collapsed to his knees, sobbing.”
But the issue is, this approach doesn’t work for POV characters. Let me explain.
With Deep POV, the focus of the author is to forge as close a connection between the reader and the protagonist as possible. Instead of just hearing the story, the reader experiences it. The elimination of filter words and phrases like ‘he saw,’ ‘he heard,’ or ‘he felt’ and instead simply relating what they saw, heard, or felt keeps the reader right in the mind of the protagonist.
In maintaining a Deep POV, we as writers have been drilled to keep out of other characters’ heads. As the POV character, we don’t know what other characters are thinking or the motivations behind what they do. So, instead of conveying those thoughts, we can only convey that what the POV character sees – the actions and movements of the other person.
Instead of stating a non-POV character feels anxious, we write that they fidgeted, wrung their hands, constantly looked at their watch, or picked up and sat down the same magazine five times without ever opening it.
In fact, that is the fun of writing – conveying in a convincing and engaging way the situation and emotions of others. It is so much more entertaining to read that someone flipped through magazines without reading them or jiggled their leg like a piston instead of simply saying they were anxious.
But as writers get better at describing actions instead of telling feelings, the natural tendency is to start doing the same with the POV character. We show the main character figuring out a clue with a smile creeping across their face. Or if there’s a shock reveal, the hero drops their jaw with eyes open wide.
Though these might be great descriptions for non-POV characters, they don’t work for the POV character because people have no control over their own physical reactions. Let me say that again. People don’t know what their body is unconsciously doing. If we’re in the head of the POV character, they are not thinking “let me smile here” or “I need to drop my jaw and gasp right now.” They are not concerned with the physical action.
Instead, the character is dealing with the underlying emotion, and that’s what the author needs to focus on. Since we as the author are in their head, we have access to everything going on in there. What are they thinking? Does something dredge up a childhood trauma? Does it confirm their worst fear? Are they attracted or repelled by another character? Are they immensely satisfied that they put the puzzle pieces together, proving the people who doubted them wrong?
The story is much more interesting inside the head of the main character. And what makes stories great is the depth at which the reader gets to understand and relate to that character.
In short, when it comes to the main POV character, don’t show us their emotions physically. Tell us what is going on inside their head. Help the reader understand and connect. That’s right, I said it: Tell us, don’t show us. (And, yes, I expect the “Show Don’t Tell” police to be arriving at my door momentarily, but to me, it’s the exception that proves the rule.)
Disagree? Have something to add? Let me know in the comments.