Secretive POV Characters (Redux)

I recently RT’d the following message because it is a concern I’ve had before: @matociquala, @stillsostrange: Withholding obvious information from the reader/viewer/player is not actually narrative tension. The resulting Facebook comments reminded me that (back in 2007) I posted a blog post on this very topic. Since it’s no less relevant now, I’m reposting for my current readers.


I always thought there was nothing more frustrating than an “I’ll know it when I see it” answer, but I’ve found something…it’s when that’s the answer you give yourself. I recently did some critting (multiple authors and both novels and short stories) where I raised an issue with POV and the author hiding secrets. I thought it was simple: if you’re in someone’s POV, you know what he/she/it knows. Finding out later that they knew something important they didn’t reveal is just frustrating to me because it feels like author intrusion. If I’m holding a big secret, you better bet it crosses my mind a thousand times a day in a myriad of ways. I might not talk about it, I might not even mention it, but how I react and what I think will be governed at least in part by the thing that’s bugging or consuming me.

I do realize not everyone is as obsessive as I am. Heck, I went over asking a friend to be a bridesmaid at my wedding so much that I thought I’d already asked her. However, while I would accept that there are people out there who can hold on to something big, some important bit of information so well that a telepath couldn’t pry it from their minds, in a fiction environment, I find it contrived. It’s a case of where the facts serve the author’s purposes just a little too well to be plausible and end up seeming a little act of goddish.

So all that seems pretty straightforward, clear cut, and without exception…

Only in the book I’m reading now, a NASCAR romance of all things, I’m not bothered by the fact that I’m sharing POV with a character who knows something he hasn’t revealed. By everything I’ve said above, it should be killing me. Yes, I’m curious as to what the big secret is, but I don’t feel the author is intruding by keeping it from me.

I’ve thought it over and I think I have the answer. The author and character are not keeping anything from me. This problem of his is on his mind frequently, but it’s in the incomplete, scattered way that such things linger. He doesn’t stop time to contemplate the fullness of the problem, but at the same time it haunts him. He never sits back and says, “I’m in trouble because I will lose the family farm if I don’t manage to meet the requirements of the will by next year,” but he does think that he has a year’s deadline and that people are depending on him. (No, that’s not the problem, it’s just an example. I haven’t read far enough to discover what is really pushing him yet ;).) (And since I didn’t post this immediately, I now know the secret and it was a smooth transition from hints to knowledge.)

The point being that he is withholding information. I, as the reader, know there’s something I don’t know that he does, despite being in his head. And yet, I know enough to get the shape of the issue, I know the relevant elements, and I trust that the circumstances will be revealed in the fullness of time. Contrast that with finding out halfway through the book that the POV character has been withholding information, that he had something crucial to understanding why people were behaving as they were and it just never crossed his mind when the reader could see it. The author chooses when the reader shares the character’s headspace as well as what crosses the character’s mind. Therefore, when a character acts implausibly and the benefit goes to the plot, I see the author’s heavy hand.

It turns out the POV reveal/conceal is a lot like any other form of plot seeding for me. I want to be able to see the tracks that led me down this path, either while I’m walking or at least when I glance back over where I’ve been. If I can’t see what brought me to the current point, I feel cheated. And that feeling is not laid on the character, it’s laid on the book and on the author.

On the other hand, going back to the beginning with the “know it when I see it” issue, I think I’m right on the edge of really seeing it. People compliment me on my plot seeding, on how something that was mentioned in the beginning comes up as crucial in the end. It’s nice to hear, but I know something they don’t. It’s all instinct. I don’t really understand what I’m doing until I look back and see the plot seeding. On rare occasions I’ve had to go back and deliberately seed, but usually I find the element there waiting for me. And yet, with these kinds of questions and with seeing it both in published and in critted works, I’m starting to understand with my forebrain what my hindbrain has known all along. And once I get it to all come together? Well then I think I’ll write a mystery :D.

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16 Responses to Secretive POV Characters (Redux)

  1. jjmcgaffey says:

    LOL. I didn’t know you did the rehearse-until-you-think-you-did-it thing – I do that all the time, and it’s a pain. Particularly when it’s something I don’t really want to do…

    I agree completely with you on the POV thing. I’ve run into several stories where the POV character agonizes over something which doesn’t come out, or come clear, until later – and generally I find that I think they were worrying over nothing, but it doesn’t feel like the author’s hiding something. But if we see things from a character’s POV and then suddenly that character does something completely unexpected and it’s because of something we weren’t told…that drives me nuts. Plot progression via auctorial fiat is a very unpleasant thing to read.

    • MarFisk says:

      It’s a delicate balance. I used to think it was impossible, but obviously I’ve mellowed on that. As with anything, if done well, it can work, but it has to be done well.

  2. Her Grace says:

    Hmmm… Actually I see how the sporadic thinking thing could actually work as a literary device.

    Yes, big secrets dance across the mind’s stage all the time, many times. But it’s not the whole secret all at once. It’s bits and pieces here and there, as something external may trigger memory of that particular aspect of the secret. Eventually the reader will get the whole picture.

    Of course, the secret is not a simple thing. It’ll be complex with different facets.

    Cool trick. I’ll have to try that some time.

    • MarFisk says:

      Oh yes, the sporadic thinking worked for me. It’s the constant I HAVE A SECRET thinking with nothing concrete besides that shouted thought that makes me cringe. Good luck with playing. Maybe I should pass it to Walt for a monthly challenge :).

  3. Dawn says:

    …um… if this hadn’t said repost, I’d swear you were talking about the story you critted for me. LOL But it’s timely. I just need to show that she’s learning about the issue so the reader can learn too. 😉

    • MarFisk says:

      Umm back. You made me go check your story because I wouldn’t have connected it with this post at all :). Yours showed a different issue in which the author, not the narrator, was hiding key things. The POV character didn’t know anything to hide. To address that issue, would warrant the post that I have been planning to write for years on problems with plot seeding, another thing that is a rather common issue, but once realized, it’s fixable.

  4. Karen Cioffi says:

    Plot seeding is such an interesting topic. I try to use this in my stories. Thanks for the information.

    • MarFisk says:

      Well, this isn’t actually about seeding, though I suppose the opposite is that if you seed something well, the reader doesn’t get frustrated. Glad to have sparked something. And another hint that I should put together the seeding post :D.

  5. joylene says:

    Thanks for bringing this up. I am in total agreement and fretted about this very issue constantly during the first draft of my current WIP. I’m challenging myself to write a first-person present tense deep POV from the viewpoint of a mentally disturbed protagonist who suspects she’s mentally ill but isn’t quite sure. It’s been fun challenging myself in this way, but I had to. This WIP is my 6th book and I felt the urgency to push the envelope. I hope what I’m trying to do works. Time will tell.

    • MarFisk says:

      Wow, you believe in challenging yourself for sure :). Good luck, but it should be doable if you’re aware of the pitfalls.

  6. Maripat says:

    You know, I agree, there are places and stories where seeding is needed. Some twists just don’t make sense. BUT–I think it can also be subjective. Some readers love mysteries and detective stories so they learn along with the detective. In most mysteries, red herrings are needed. Some folks hate them and it becomes annoying to the point they stop reading. Others love the herrings and want them and expect them in the story.

    Now granted, some characters hide bits about their life but the clues are there all along. Shrug. Sometimes I feel it works. Sometimes…even I needed more. hehe.

    • MarFisk says:

      Well, the premise here is if you write in close third (or first), the reader is in the character’s head. There’s ways to hide bits, but it’s hard to be plausible when I’m in your head, and often fails me as a reader because I know the character would have thought about it before the “big reveal.”

      That said, learning along with the character is wonderful, especially if the seeds are so small that neither reader nor character realizes it until later. As long as I don’t feel like the character lied to me within their own head without lying to themselves, as long as it doesn’t feel like I’m being manipulated to create artificial tension because there isn’t an real tension, I’m actually delighted when an author can pull something over on me :D.

    • jjmcgaffey says:

      What I hate is mysteries where, yes, you’re given information – but it takes specialist knowledge to apply the info. Then at the end the detective (who has the specialist knowledge) looks at (his audience and the readers both) and says But it’s obvious! and explains – stuff I wouldn’t have gotten in a million years. The specific example I’m thinking about is Gerald Hammond’s Calder mysteries. Keith Calder is a gunsmith, and way too often at the end of the story he says ‘Oh, but of course he couldn’t have fired that – a Ledger Copperman can’t shoot that calibre’ (I made that up, but it’s the right flavor). So all I know about that gun is what Keith’s said in the process of the story, and he never said that! Drives me nuts. Hammond’s Cunningham mysteries, on the other hand, are similarly about a dog breeder and frequently require specialist knowledge (often about guns), but the answers are clearly seeded – I never feel like I’m blindsided by a piece of knowledge the author deliberately withheld. I don’t know why he writes the two so differently (though part of it is that Keith Calder is presented as a know-it-all), but it makes me very much like the Cunningham mysteries and very much dislike the Calders.

      • MarFisk says:

        Interesting point. While it would be difficult to seed something like the caliber without making it stand out as obvious, yeah, I agree with you. The plot should never hinge on something the reader does not know. That’s just cheating :).

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