I kind of like the style of writing the thoughts and feelings of many of the characters, most of which aren't the protagonist.

The problem arises when some of these characters are hiding a certain secret from the protagonist, the general public and the reader, which one of them will reveal or be found out at a dramatic moment.

This seems like it would be a bit off to me, because if the reader is "inside their head", surely they would be privy to this piece of information. However, I do see a similar thing done in, for example, in movies / TV shows, where the camera will follow a character giving the impression you have their perspective, but not reveal something important they've seen - perhaps saving the surprise for later on.

But I feel like, when writing for readers, since I'm writing the actual thoughts of this character, this shouldn't be done.

Should I just avoid writing from the perspective of this character?

But even then, what about a conversation between two such characters? i.e. Two characters know something, and are having a private conversation. This secret may be on their minds, the conversation may even be loosely related to it, but they don't speak it out loud. Would this feel almost like the characters themselves are trying to hide it from the reader? Does it behoove the author to reveal it at this point?


(to elaborate in response to comment)

Alice is the lead detective investigating a murder. However, it will turn out she knows all along who did it, and it's her friend, Bob. Now she can't find any evidence that doesn't implicate Bob, and she wants to protect him, so to everyone else the murder remains "unsolved". So her short-tempered sergeant1 enters and gives her an earful because of the lack of progress in the case. Now, can I write from Alice's POV, to portray her hatred and contempt for her annoying and ignorant sergeant, as well as the stress she's under, without revealing to the readers that she knows it's Bob?

Let's say I don't. But later, Bob and Alice are having a conversation, where Alice is ranting about her sergeant and the aforementioned altercation. Now, she has no specific reason to say out loud, "blah blah blah... the murder, which you committed", but wouldn't it be a bit dishonest of me, the author, to leave out this particular piece of information during this conversation, even if I'm not writing the thoughts of either character?

1 Apologies if I am mixing up my ranks, I'm assuming the sergeant is the detective's boss...

  • 2
    So, you have a POV character, and you want to hide his/her thoughts? It would be rather uncommon to totally hide some thoughts, but quite usual to give an inkling of something going on, like: "Then he got an idea! An awful idea! The Grinch got a wonderful, awful idea!"
    – Alexander
    Jun 21, 2018 at 17:59
  • @Alexander - not exactly what I'm talking about, I've added an example to my question.
    – komodosp
    Jun 22, 2018 at 8:21
  • Ok, I see. If Alice is not your only POV, there are ways to sidestep "dangerous thoughts". For example, in "Game of Thrones" Tyrion is POV character, but for a while we don't know how involved he is in conspiracy against Starks, if involved at all. But putting it all together is a more difficult act on the part of the writer. Also, don't worry that much about police ranks. While sergeant does not automatically outrank a detective, detective's supervisor is often a sergeant.
    – Alexander
    Jun 22, 2018 at 16:44
  • Something like this happens in "Mockingjay", where Katniss agrees to do something, all the while intending to do something else, but her interior monologue is vague enough to hide this from the reader. But this trick is hidden from the reader for a few pages, not a whole book.
    – swbarnes2
    Jun 25, 2018 at 23:04

5 Answers 5


I don't think it is fair. Writing the thoughts of several characters in a single scene is generally called "third person omniscient", writing the thoughts of ONE person only is "third person limited"; and that can be done serially with different characters (each chapter is third person limited, only one character's thoughts are revealed, but the person may change every chapter).

If you are showing thoughts of a character, I THINK the reader will feel cheated if there was an obvious point a character would be thinking something and you kept that from the reader. If Bob knows he is Emily's biological father and Emily does not, and Emily brings up how much she hates her biological father for putting her up for adoption -- it is a ripoff if you are showing his thoughts and they don't betray any reaction to this information.

Serial 3rd person limited can fix this problem for you; in a chapter from Emily's POV with her thoughts alone, Bob's pained expression can be taken as just disapproval of her hatred; not the result of personal guilt, or despair of ever telling her the truth.

In a later chapter from Bob's POV, just be careful (as an author) this topic doesn't come up, so he really isn't thinking about being Emily's biological father.

For myself, I find my natural style is just one POV throughout a story; usually my other characters have some secrets they are concealing from my protagonist, and that forces them all into an emotional crisis, and dealing with that crisis becomes the climax of the story.


It can be done: Randall Garrett in the Lord Darcy novel Too Many Magicians.

The viewpoint character in the very first chapter is looking at a murder scene and his mental dialogue notes he doesn't see any clues as to who the killer might have been. Because, of course, at the end of the novel it's revealed he was the killer and therefore in that scene he was making sure he hadn't left evidence of himself for a crime he'd committed a minute before.

It wasn't lying on the part of Garrett; he just didn't reveal what happened in the minute prior, nor that the viewpoint character was intentionally looking at it as someone else might. And for the rest of the novel, whenever he goes back to that character's viewpoint, what's on the character's mind at that moment is something other than the question of who the killer was, and what they're thinking happens to be something that someone not the killer would also be thinking in those circumstances. When the killer is shown seeking information, the information is required for their own motives, but is also information someone trying to identify the killer or doing a legitimate investigation would want to know.

For an example, someone is leaking inside information on a mob family to the press; someone investigating to identify the source of information could just as easily be a detective trying to find an inside person they could flip, or a professional hitman contracted by the family Godfather to find the leaker and eliminate them. It's entirely possible to write the story such that you don't reveal until the last moment what the investigator really is.

In the specific example you're working on, I can see how it might work. Simply have Alice think (or mention verbally) that while it's apparent all the evidence points at Bob, there could be someone else it could implicate, or an as-yet undiscovered piece of evidence that exists that might exonerate him, or at least cause doubt it was him. You're setting it up to make it appear that Alice believes someone is trying to frame Bob, but never explicitly state it. Imply it to the reader, let them make that leap.

So in the scene in question where she's talking to Bob, she might rant about the pressure the sergeant is putting on her and say something like "And the sergeant is so fixated on what the evidence seems to indicate and demanding I close the case that she won't even consider the theory someone else could be the killer!"

A line like that implies that the sergeant is so obsessed with what the evidence seems to be indicating that she can't see a frame-up or a mistake about the identity of the killer, and just wants to end the investigation prematurely. But Alice doesn't say the sergeant (or whoever) is wrong. She doesn't say the evidence isn't pointing at the right person. She doesn't say the theory of someone other than Bob being the killer is the correct one, only that others aren't considering it. She doesn't say they have very good reason not to consider it, nor that she knows herself it's wrong. She's ranting because she's upset she can't find a way to get Bob off the hook. It only sounds like she's ranting because she thinks he's being falsely accused.

So at no point are you, as a writer, lying to the reader. You, and Alice, are using Exact Words that imply something else, but the assumption is on the part of the reader.

  • I love these exact word villains. Always my favorite.
    – hszmv
    Jun 22, 2018 at 19:55

First of all, there is only one set of thoughts that you need to be worrying about, and that is the thoughts of your point-of-view character. Normally, you shouldn't have more than one POV in a story. Rarely, a dual POV will work, and there are some extreme violations (George RR Martin and David Weber leap to mind). Mr. Martin can carry us through because of his fascinating and intricate plots don't require us to identify strongly with any one character, but normally multiple POVs simply come across as lazy writing. David Weber pulls it off in his Honor Harrington series because even when the POV is not Honor, the subject either is Honor or is obviously going to impact on Honor, so we are always focused on a single character and we never feel interrupted from our connection with Honor.

And, BTW, even if you have more than one POV you should never switch POVs mid-chapter.

TV can get away with that sort of perspective hopping because although we might be looking at things seemingly from a character's physical location and perspective, we never touch the character's thoughts. Unless we hear the character's voice thinking inside his head, and even then there is the knowledge that we aren't hearing everything, only what the character chooses to tell us.

When you are in a character's head, and you have information that the character would know but which you wish to hide from readers, it becomes a very tricky balancing act. You don't want the reader to feel that you have deliberately misled them by hiding information, that is a violation of writer-contract. So you need to create a situation where that knowledge would not even be expected to come to mind. Or, even better, they think about it but in such a fleeting and casual way that readers are intrigued but don't twig to the total truth. Ideally, when the truth comes out, it will be an aha! moment rather than a huh?

One way you could get around this is by adopting a first person POV, with mental commentary from the character. In this case, like the TV example, readers would understand that we are only hearing what the character chooses to tell us, so if the character chooses to hide information, that is all part of the story. One of the difficulties of this style is that you must limit yourself to only those details that a character would feel are comment-worthy. If they are not an aesthetically appreciative sort of person you wouldn't expect them to notice elaborate details about setting, only those which are relevant or interesting to the POV.

This writing style also changes how the reader experiences the story. In a traditional tight 3rd person POV story, the reader should feel as though they were experiencing the story through the character's senses. The information flow should feel unfiltered. In the first person, they feel like they are walking (or running) along beside the POV listening to what (s)he wants to tell you. In the first case, sympathy for the POV or an interest in experiencing the story events are important. In the second, you are listening to a story, so it needs to be interesting and well told.

  • 3
    I don't think your comments on multiple POV are objectively supported. Multiple POVs are common in today's market. In some genres, particularly fantasy, I'd say that single POV books are even in the minority. Many of them are set up with chapters representing a single POV, like Martin, but it's not a universal rule. Frank Herbert wrote Dune in an omniscient POV and he not only switched viewpoint characters in a single chapter, he frequently did it within a single paragraph. I agree it's more difficult to pull off successfully but that doesn't mean it's any sort of hard and fast rule.
    – Dan J.
    Jun 21, 2018 at 21:50
  • I find Stephen King does it quite a bit, switching from character to character, good and evil, and it can be very engaging.
    – komodosp
    Jun 22, 2018 at 8:04
  • 1
    I would argue that these authors succeeded in their style in spite of rather than because of, their multiple-POV styles. For every writing "violation" you will be able to find examples of people who violated it and succeeded. What you don't have information about was how many attempts to pull off a multi-POV style, especially for a beginning author, failed because the editor doesn't like head-hopping. Once you are a big name you can get away with the unconventional, but the truth is that every "deviance" from established style guidelines makes your work more likely to end up in slush. Jun 22, 2018 at 19:18

I'm not a big fan of doing this, and if it's done poorly it can certainly feel like cheating to your readers. That being said, some very good authors do hide things. One example is Steven Brust in his Vlad Taltos series. The series is written in first person, as though Vlad is talking directly to the reader. He'll frequently write things like "I loaded my usual accompaniment of weapons into the various pockets of my cloak, and grabbed one additional item that I thought might come in handy." The reader won't find out what that item is for several chapters. Or "I had figured out how to distract the guards, and get past the magical wards. All that was left was to get the mark to choose a seat at the east end of the bar. I had some thoughts on that, but they still needed work." Again, the reader won't find out how he accomplishes that until much later. (Note: the quotes are just my paraphrases of the techniques Brust uses, not actual quotes from his book.) In your example, you could perhaps have Alice thinking something like "All the evidence pointed in a direction she didn't want it to go. She refused to allow herself to even think of that possibility." In other words, you make it plain that you're intentionally hiding something rather than just leaving it out and surprising the reader later.

  • But that doesn't sound like Vlad's thoughts, that narration sounds like Vlad relating the tale to somebody else; which would permit hiding.
    – Amadeus
    Jun 22, 2018 at 14:59

Going with @KeithMorrison's thing up there, during the movie Frozen, there are quite a few times where the movie forshadows the entire plot. One well noted scene is the "Love is an Open Door sequence" where there are no end of people discussing how the song takes on a different meaning after later revelations of the plot.

In Disney musicals, it's not uncommon for the music to capture the singers thoughts about the current situation and while subtle at first, Open Door, does capture some rather important thoughts the betray the characters, but seem innocent enough upon first viewing.

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