Hiding your main character’s thoughts from the reader

The first question might be: why would I want to hide my protagonist’s thoughts from the reader? This usually happens when the protagonist knows something that would spoil the climax of the book if it were divulged too soon.

Let’s say your protagonist is a police detective (Joe) who’s the lead investigator in the department’s attempts to discover and stop a serial killer. If you’re writing from the detective’s point of view, let’s say, third-person limited, then the reader knows only what Joe knows, sees, experiences, thinks about, or learns through conversations with other characters.

If the reader thinks your writing process looks like this, s/he might not finish the book.

However, the author of this story has a surprising climax in store for readers when it’s divulged in the last chapter of the novel: the detective is, in fact, the killer, and one aspect of Joe’s warped motive is the “fun” of misleading fellow police officers (Bob, Sam, and Bill) without appearing to do so.

So you see the problems here?

First, how do we account for the Joe’s time when he’s killing somebody and getting rid of the evidence. One way to try and do that is to tell the story through multiple points of view, say–one per chapter. We have a Joe chapter, followed by a Bob chapter, followed by a Sam chapter, etc. If, none of the killings takes place during a “Joe chapter,” does that solve our problem of hiding what Joe is doing?

No, because when we do come to a Joe chapter–whether it depicts Joe and others searching a crime scene and/or Joe talking about the evidence and the suspects–it’s unrealistic (I say impossible) for Joe to do any of these things without thinking about the fact he committed the crimes and, perhaps, even wondering whether he hid the evidence or the bodies well enough.

The minute he does the natural thing and thinks about any of that, the big surprising ending has been spoiled. If he never thinks about it (and doesn’t have a split personality), the readers are going to feel cheated when they finally learn Joe’s the killer.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because one of the main characters in my novel in progress has some secrets I don’t want the reader to know until late in the book. My solution is to avoid writing from that character’s point of view.  Will it work? I don’t yet know. Suffice it to say, it was obvious to me from the beginning that I couldn’t let the reader know directly what this character was thinking.

Maybe you can think of other ways of hiding the main character’s thoughts from the reader. My solution might crash and burn. It’s hard to know how these kinds of things will turn out.



Author’s error: violating your point of view choice

Very few authors these days use an omniscient point of view, so I find it quite jarring when an author writing in third person restricted suddenly tacks an omniscient sentence onto the end of a scene or chapter as a cheap way of creating suspense.

If the reader thinks your writing process looks like this, s/he might not finish the book.

When you’re writing in third person restricted, the reader only knows what the character knows. That said, it’s a foul to have the main character step out of a house, get in his car and drive off, and then follow that with Bob didn’t see the man in the woods across from his house taking pictures.

If Bob didn’t see it, it can’t be in the book.

I’m reading a black ops book by a name author who writes a lot of these novels, and he’s been cheating on his point of view with these kinds of sloppy POV deviations  throughout the book. I’m used to them, but I don’t like them. And I wonder why the line editor at his publishing house let them get into the published copy.


Breaking point-of-view rules

Several days ago, I posted this comment on my Facebook profile and, as it turned out from the comments, I’m not the only one who thought the author was breaking point-of-view rules:

I’m reading an interesting mystery, filled with misdirection and clues that may or may not be true.

I won’t tell you what it is because I’m not here to bash the author but to mention point-of-view errors that mar the book. Like many novels, this one is told in alternating chapters about the major characters, each in a third-person restricted point of view.

This means that if the character doesn’t see it, hear it, think it, or intuit it, it (whatever) can’t be there.

What mars these chapters is the intrusion of the suddenly omniscient author who says things like:

“Bob did not see the man hiding in the shadows behind the steps.”

“Sally turned off the TV set just before a major story from her hometown aired. Had she seen it, she would have done things differently.”

You can do this if you’re writing from a consistently omniscient viewpoint. If you’re writing from inside a character’s head in first or third person, you’re playing games with the reader.

Most of those commenting thought the writer as sloppy and/or that the book needed a better editor. One person mentioned the distinction between “close” and “distant” third person. As Writer’s Digest puts it, “The advantage of middle-distance and far-distance third person is that instead of hearing the opinions and reactions of one person, the POV character, the reader can now hear those of two people: POV character and author. Distant third person lets the author put in his two-cents’ worth of interpretation of events.” Frankly, I think this is an abomination because the author has intruded himself or herself into the story.

So, what do you think?


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” one of the three novels in the Florida Folk Magic Series in which the narrator is a cat. 

Review: ‘The Store’ by Patterson and DiLallo

The StoreThe Store by James Patterson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The story idea is compelling and, what with people talking about privacy issues in an Internet world these days, the plot is also timely. Others here have already said they didn’t care for the writing. Definitely, not anywhere near the best of James Patterson branded novels.

The glaring trouble with the book is the ending. It’s a trick. The ending is based on the fact that certain things earlier in the novel aren’t what they seemed to be. The trouble is, when the ending occurs, the main character turns out to have known the whole time that those things weren’t what they seemed to be. The flaw here is that we are inside the main character’s head throughout the book and know what he’s thinking. There is no way a real person wouldn’t have thought about the on-going trickery at some point. The ending is only a surprise because the authors don’t allow the main character to think about something that he couldn’t help but think about. This is a very large point-of-view error.

In the Amazon/GoodReads review above, I don’t include a spoiler about what happened. In fairness to those who might enjoy this novel in spite of the trick, I’ll leave out the spoilers here as well.

Most publishers’ editors would have told the authors to fix the ending. Maybe they can’t say that to Patterson. However, it’s very jarring and unfair to the reader to conceal the main character’s thoughts about important matters from the readers unless the character is established as unreliable, suffering from amnesia, or hypnotized. None of these options were present in The Store.

The main character Jacob Brandeis participates throughout the story in a planned subterfuge but never once thinks about the fact that he–and others–are role playing. No real person would be capable of doing this. Outside of experimental fiction, no fictional character could help but think about what he’s doing while he’s doing it. With proper finesse and foreshadowing, an author might get around the problem of concealing the third person point-of-view character’s thoughts from the readers.

That was not done here, so we ended up feeling cheated–because we were.


View all my reviews