What if the main character in your novel has a secret you don’t want your reader to know? How do you handle that? Is it cheating to keep secrets from your reader?
Geoff posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I’m 70,000 words into my first novel. The main character is written in first person, other characters are in third person. The main character has murdered someone and the novel opens with him going to the funeral, but I don’t want to reveal he’s the killer until near the end. How do I conceal this as the main character will have been thinking about this murder from, literally, the first chapter.
Randy sez: That’s a tough one.
When you put your reader inside the head of a character, you’re obligated to tell the truth. And what do we mean by the truth?
You Owe Your Reader the Whole Truth
Witnesses in court are required to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Readers expect no less when they get inside the head of a character in a novel.
A little terminology before we go on: In most scenes, the author chooses one character as the “viewpoint character” (also called the “point-of-view character” or the “POV character.”) We’ll use “POV character” here.
The key point is that for the whole scene, the reader experiences life from inside the head of the POV character.
- The reader sees what the POV character sees.
- The reader hears what the POV character hears.
- The reader knows what the POV character knows.
- Most importantly for our purposes here, the reader thinks what the POV character thinks.
Your reader has paid for you to put her inside the head of your POV characters. You owe it to your reader to do that. If you don’t do your job, your reader can vote with her feet—she can walk away from your story. If she does, then it’s probably the last time she’ll pay you. That’s why you owe your reader the truth—because she paid for it.
Personally, I hate it when I read a novel and learn that the author has withheld essential information that the POV character knows. I still remember the rage I felt when I was reading a World War II novel once and discovered right near the end that one of the main characters, an American commando, was actually a Nazi sleeper agent. And he never once thought about this during scenes when he was the POV character.
When it’s natural for a character to be thinking about some thing (“Oh, by the way, I killed that guy in the casket.”), then it just seems wrong for the character to not think about it.
Are there any ways out of this?
Yes, there are a few, but they’re not easy and they normally don’t last very long. Here are a few ways it can be done:
- Befuddle the POV character
- Distract the POV character
- Interrupt the POV character
How to Befuddle a POV Character
Your POV character may not be a very bright cookie. Or he may be drunk. Or he may heavily medicated. Or he may be suffering from the effects of a whack to the head. Or he may be reeling from some emotional trauma. Or he may be, in some other way, an unreliable narrator.
In any of these cases, it’s plausible that he might not be capable of thinking the thought you don’t want your reader to hear. But you have to work hard for him to be incapable for a long time.
How to Distract a POV Character
Your POV character may be fighting for his life. Or he may be obsessed with some other thought. Or he may be responding to a series of intellectual challenges that are maxing out his brain. If your POV character is able to compartmentalize his mind enough that he can fully focus on something else, and there’s a very good reason to focus on that something else, then he’ll do it.
These are possible ways he might not get around to thinking the thought you don’t want your reader to hear.
Interrupt the POV Character
Your POV character may be just on the verge of thinking the thought you don’t want your reader to hear when there’s an interruption of some kind. Maybe an explosion draws everyone’s attention over there. Or maybe some other character interrupts to say something important.
This can work, although an interruption generally doesn’t last very long, so you need to be near the end of the scene when you play this trick.
Don’t Cheat the Reader
These tricks work, but they’re tricks. It’s very possible the reader will resent them. You don’t want your reader to resent you. She paid for an honest story to be told. Tell an honest story. If you need to have a POV character withhold the truth from your reader, you’d better have a very good reason—a reason your reader will agree to. And you’d better come clean at the first opportunity.
If you fool your reader once, shame on you.
You won’t get a second chance.
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