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So the novel I'm writing is in (multiple) close third person perspective, or limited, as the whole action is seen through the eyes and thoughts of a given character. The issue I'm having is that it all starts with a prologue, in which the character must remain totally unknown to the reader (until later on in the book).

The reason why it must remain totally unknown is because he plays a vital role in the plot, and his identity should only be revealed as a major surprise, kind of a plot twist in the story. So in the prologue we have this mysterious character, where any information such as name (doh!) or title or role could give away his identity.

The scene starts with the character looking at distance from a balcony, soon after the sunset. In the first paragraph, the reader sees the distance through the character's eyes and interpretation, so it starts with a description. Then, the character gets introduced (by the narrative voice) and the reader only now learns that the description was through this character's feelings. Here is my current transition:

"(...) and there was nothing but silence. He raised his head, trying to discover their way. The silence was much too unsettling to him." (please mind that the novel is in a different language, so translation is rather approximate, just to get the idea).

The character then changes impressions with a man sitting behind him. Through the course of the action, the reader learns that the unnamed, untitled character is a middle-aged male, a leader of some kind (rather an important figure among his folks), who keeps running from something. That is about all the reader should know.

The limited perspective of this character will only appear in the prologue, as the character will be dead for the rest of the book (prologue happens a couple of years before the actual plot begins to take place and its actions is what triggers the plot).

I have tried writing in first person, doesn't work. Can't remove the prologue either. Can't write in omniscient third view, it gets way too impersonal. By all means, it must remain in limited third view and the actions must be presented this way.

I have no idea however of how to avoid the over usage of "he", "him" and whether it's good and alright to introduce him as shown above in the transition. How can I introduce him other than "He raised his head, trying to..."? It seems a bit rough, abrupt this way.

I guess I just don't like the "He" as being the first reference to the guy, neither as being the only reference for the rest of the prologue.

  • May I ask what language you're writing in and whether you're planning to keep it in that language or eventually translate it into English? When I write in my own language (Portuguese), I've got the advantage that the verb forms already possess the information of which person is speaking so I never worry about overusing the pronouns. In fact, it makes the limited perspective work even better. Especially because some tenses have the same form for the first and the third person singular. My advice is to first check what strategies your language gives you to overcome the problem. – Sara Costa Aug 17 '17 at 18:33
  • Sure, it's in Romanian. If the novel will be successful I'm thinking of translating it into English, otherwise no, I don't think so. But I see what you mean. Thank you! – Acss Aug 18 '17 at 7:23
  • While writing one of my novels, I ended up with a similar need for a mysterious female. In my case, instead of referencing her by a name I used "the woman with cobalt eyes", mixed in with some other pronouns. I only used the word "cobalt" to refer to the color of her eyes, so it was easy to produce a identity to her for the reader while keeping the air of mystery. – T. Sar Aug 18 '17 at 18:31
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As @TomDacre suggested, you can just use indistinct descriptive nouns in place of "He", such as "The figure", "The man" or "The traveler". Then, you can take the focus off of the character by moving deeper inside to look at his motives and beliefs.

(...) and there was nothing but silence. The traveler raised his head, trying to discover the way. The silence was much too unsettling to him. Too many dangers use silence as cover. Crickets or the stirring of leaves would be one thing, but not absolute silence. It's never good when life gets this quiet.

  • 1
    Thanks Henry, and Tom also included! That is a very good shift I believe. The only question is, let's say we call the character as "The traveler" in the beginning, but then in the next scene he is shown reading a book (the one where he is alone in the room, scene of a few pages long). Should I keep calling him "traveler"? Seems a bit odd since the better label for him would now be, for example, "The reader". Should I start calling him "The reader?" I guess it works with "The man", or "The figure" but should I stick with a single descriptive noun through all pages? Or use several of them kind? – Acss Aug 17 '17 at 14:43
  • Each point of view character comes with their own set of initial and accumulated knowledge. So a self-reference to the character as "the traveler" in the prologue can be considered to be based on the character's existing knowledge of himself. In later chapters, when seen from other point of view characters, that knowledge would not exist, so a new reference, such as "the reader" would be preferred there. You then need to tie the two references together with a physical detail... "The traveler with the dark eyes" from the prologue becomes "the reader" only when the new pov notices his eyes. – Henry Taylor Aug 17 '17 at 14:58
  • That makes perfect sense, but I was talking about prologue, where the POV remains unchanged. So it's not about other POV's references to the mysterious character, it's about the "self-reference to the character", as you put it, "based on the character's existing knowledge of himself". This is where I was wondering whether I should stick with "the traveler" through all pages in prologue or use other self-references as well. – Acss Aug 17 '17 at 15:26
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    I think you can go either way with that, based on need. Perhaps you could start with a compound reference such as "the travelling fool". Then later, you could split it into "the traveller" and "the fool", metaphorically splitting the burden that each must carry. – Henry Taylor Aug 17 '17 at 15:32
  • Quite interesting, never thought of that. Thank you! – Acss Aug 18 '17 at 7:19
11

You could refer to him with descriptive terms in addition to pronouns. "The dark-haired man ran through the streets...", "'Relax', said the man in the coat, 'I'm not here to hurt you'", etc.

8

I don't think you have a point of view problem, I think you have a storytelling problem. You are trying to introduce a character without introducing them, identify them without identifying them.

You are doing this because you are planning a surprise for the reader. Fine, you can certainly surprise the reader, though I think many writers grossly overestimate the reader's appetite for surprise. But you are trying to do it artificially by withholding from the reader information that they would have if they were naturally experiencing the events of the story for themselves.

This is artificial surprise, and it does not work. You are effectively making one of your characters walk around with a paper bag over their head just so you can whip it off at a critical juncture and yell "surprise!" Readers will stand for that in fiction just about as long as they would stand for it in real life.

If you are going to surprise the reader, it ought to be a natural surprise, that is, something that would surprise them if they were actually living the events of the story themselves.

  • It's a bit more complicated than that. The element of surprise is not entirely related to the unnamed character. He dies after the prologue, so his identity is indirectly revealed in what follows. It's not as he is wearing a bag on his head. Think of it as watching from distance a scene on the street, one that intrigues you. You don't know any of the people from it, you don't know anything about them. Perhaps you don't memorize their faces. Then as the scene ends you want to know who they were, so you suspect one and another as you walk daily until you finally find that. – Acss Aug 18 '17 at 7:05
  • One other analogy I can think of is a murdering case. You see the victim laying on the floor with an unknown identity (this would be the unnamed character). You know it's a murder, so you must find who the killer is. As the investigation goes you suspect one and another. You get to know who the victim was, and so on and so forth you make the puzzle from pieces. I hope it's more clear now. Thank you Mark! – Acss Aug 18 '17 at 7:13
  • This is the correct answer. There is nothing wrong with identifying your character in the Prologue. I would even suggest, if you choose the "surprise" formula, throwing in a few tidbits from the people he knows in dialogue. "Have you heard about Ted?" "Yeah, he got dead." – Stu W Aug 18 '17 at 9:32
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One approach to this is to adopt a 1st person "minor character narrator" -- a character who is peripheral to the plot, but is an observer. If he/she doesn't know who your mystery character is or his/her significance, the reader can't, and it doesn't get awkward to hide what the narrator character doesn't know.

An example of this is Aronax in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea -- the main plot involves Nemo vs. the world, but Aronax knows only what he observes about Nemo and the Nautilus. He's involved, but peripheral to the main action.

  • Thanks for replying! I thought of that too, but some of the actions the character takes (and which are important to plot) are done while being alone, so no other character can observe his actions. Introducing the unknown character through a minor observer and then leaving the observer to hop inside the unknown character's mind doesn't seem to be the right way of showing his part in the story. – Acss Aug 17 '17 at 13:46
  • With third limited, you could also describe the actions of the mystery character without going inside his head. Even the narrator character could do this, if you preface his narrative with something like "some of this I learned much later." Many authors have done exactly this, and it works well when done well. – Zeiss Ikon Aug 17 '17 at 14:26
  • Other third person character ideas: An ancestral ghost following their actions - this character can place feelings about what the person is doing into the reader. The "all seeing eye" of justice (or injustice if there is no justice in the end), where a nebulous Blind Liberty follows the character and judges them as they go. The person's own conscience - portrayed as though the actions are weighing on the main characters mind - they are seeing themselves out of body or split personality. – Keeta Aug 17 '17 at 19:18
  • Great ideas, thank you! I might actually apply this in one of my parallel books, if there will be any :) – Acss Aug 18 '17 at 7:17
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Could you use a pseudonym for the unnamed character, something he can go by that obscures his other details? Something like Strider/Aragorn from LoTR.

  • Hmm that could work, in the idea that the ones who know it are a private limited group that perhaps never come back in the story. Interesting idea, thank you! – Acss Aug 18 '17 at 7:18
  • This is a good start, but could be an even better answer if it were expanded. Do you have anything to add? – Neil Fein Aug 18 '17 at 21:47

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