Questionable: How Do You Show What the PoV Character Doesn’t See?

Sarah asked:
My question is about how to write a book in one PoV only, while still implying someone else’s PoV.   I’ve seen it done (clumsily, I think) in many many books: the PoV MC will say something off-hand to a potential lover (John) and the author writes, “John paused for a moment before replying, as if her remark had hurt him.” That seems to me to be cheating: the PoV MC is meant to be oblivious of John’s real feelings at this point, but the author shows us the card anyway. How blatant do I need to be in using the PoV MC to reveal someone else’s feelings? I know I need to a bit, but I’m struggling between clumsy (as above) and so subtle no one else gets it. 


Unless you’re writing in third omniscient, you only get one point of view, no implying others. So let’s review PoV first, then I’ll answer your specific question. There are four PoVs to choose from: first person, second person (don’t pick that one), third person omniscient and third person limited.

In first person, you’re in one person’s head as “I,” so you’d write “I saw John pause for a moment as if my remark hurt him.”  There is no doubt that it’s the narrator’s observation so she saw him and interpreted that.  John may be thinking something completely different, but the narrator has to have seen him pause to come to that conclusion.

In third person omniscient, you’re God, so you’re in everybody’s head and making comments: “Jane told John it was none of his business, and of course John took that personally, which Jane missed completely because she’s so self-involved. Of course, John took it personally because he thinks the world revolves around him.  These two people are selfish and deserve each other.”  That’s God, seeing all, knowing all, passing judgment. (Terry Pratchett is a master of this PoV.)

In third person limited, which is what your example is, I’m pretty sure, you’re in Jane’s head and only Jane’s head, seeing and hearing and feeling only what Jane sees and hears and feels, so if “John looks hurt” is on the page, then Jane sees that and knows he looks hurt, and you’re right, you can’t cheat and pretend she’s missed that, she saw it.

So how can you stay in rude Jane’s head and show John being hurt without Jane noticing in third person limited? (Yes, we’re finally back to your original question.)

You give Jane something to notice that she dismisses but the reader thinks, “Ouch, that hurt.”  So Jane says, “This is none of your business, John,” and John steps back, and Jane thinks, Good, he got the message, and moves on, and the reader thinks, “You hurt him, you bitch.”

But to be sure that’s going to work, you need to have laid in the groundwork first, building characters as you tell the story.  If throughout the course of the story, the reader has learned that John desperately wants Jane’s respect and affection, then when Jane dismisses him offhand, the reader already knows he’s going to be hurt, so even a minimal action like his stepping back or even just blinking confirms that.  And Jane can continue being clueless.

Here’s the thing: One of the great pleasures of reading fiction is getting to know the characters through their actions.  The reader seeing John trying so hard through several scenes without anybody saying, “Wow, John is trying hard,” means that when the reader interprets that, she’s connected to John.  And that means that when Jane says, “This is none of your business,” the reader reacts with John, even if she sympathizes with Jane.  She knows them both, she’s invested in them, and she cares about their story.

Plus, you get the added benefit of showing your reader that you respect her.  It’s really insulting to have everything in a story spelled out for you—“I’m telling you John was hurt because you’d never figure that out on your own, you dummy”–but a story with character clues that lets the reader build an understanding of character is a story that respects the reader and makes her feel smart and part of the narrative.  At that point, a story can become almost a Rube Goldberg machine for the reader, so many moving parts meaning so many different things, creating a rich tapestry of characters in motion.  Which is so much fun to read.  

If you’ve just arrived at John’s pain, not having realized it was there before, you can always go back and layer the foreshadowing in the rewrite. If you don’t foreshadow, his pain comes out of left field, and your reader is likely to miss it, since PoV Jane does. So plan ahead and get your reader involved, and you’ll be fine.

Dahlia commented:
The reason I don’t like most modern first person is because it’s often badly written. It’s tell in the skin of show. For me, first person is difficult. If you want to write it, try switching it to third, or writing it in third and switching it to first. It should track.

First person and third limited seem alike but they’re vastly different because first person is very, very, very close and third person limited has distance (not as much as third omniscient, but still distance).  A voice that’s entertaining in first person will be way too personal and annoying in third. A voice that’s authoritative and unobtrusive in third person will be flat in first. A story in first switched into third will have way too much interior monologue. A story in third switched into first will be powered by a character with very little internal life. It’s like trying to take a ballad and redo it as rap. You can do it, and the results may work, but you’ll need to do some heavy duty rewriting and reconceptualizing, and the flavor and meaning of the work will change drastically. It’s not just switching pronouns.

8 thoughts on “Questionable: How Do You Show What the PoV Character Doesn’t See?

  1. I think Sally Thorne’s The Hating Game works because she does such a good job of letting the reader figure out what the hero is feeling through his actions before the heroine has figured it out herself. It’s first person, so you only get her POV.

    It lets Thorne tell a fairly straight forward story – Man Secretly Pines for Coworker who Hates Him, Until She Falls For Him, At Which Point He Admits He’s Always Loved Her – without losing tension. From his POV, that would be boring, and it would be easy for him to come across as either passive, or manipulative. But when it’s from her POV, laced with clues about what he’s feeling, you get the tension of her not knowing what is up with this guy, mixed with the pleasure of figuring out the puzzle before she does.

  2. The thing I love about first person is getting inside the pov character’s head. I quite often think things that it might be rude to say. It’s fun to read people’s inner eye-rolls. I like writing it too, but I’m stuck in limited third for the foreseeable future. Mores the pity.

    1. In third limited you can use those italicized internals to get inside the POV character’s head and enjoy her rude thoughts.

      From WTT:
      “A good reason to call an electrician and a plumber,” Sophie said brightly. Not the police and the government, Amy. “Really, there’s no need–“

  3. I love well-done first person – Dick Francis, Robert B. Parker and Lawrence Block do it excellently in my opinion. But I’ve always felt it works best in mystery/action novels, not romance. While I always enjoy Kristan Higgins, there’s something missing for me because there is little clue to the hero’s feelings except what the heroine reacts to. For me, the romance is in how the two people view each other to start, and how that changes. In a mystery/action, I’m good with first-person because then I’m travelling the adventure with them, learning what they learn at the same time.

  4. Your explanations are so good. They really make me wanna start writing again, if only for my own pleasure. Thank you!

  5. Hi Jenny, Thanks for such a comprehensive answer to my question. Really appreciate that. I foretell some rewriting in my future!

  6. When I tried to understand previous explanations of the concept of PoV, I clutched my head and moaned. Reading yours brings clarity.
    As you say, *smooch.*

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