Don’t hide the POV character’s identity

One of the most common point of view errors we see in amateur novels is what I call Hidden Identity Syndrome.

This seems to be an attempt on the part of fiction writers to replicate something we see in movies: A nondescript figure walks into a darkened room, rifles the desk or cracks the safe or plants a bomb. Because of the lighting and camera angles you can’t tell who it is. So when the perpetrator is exposed later in the film, it’s a surprise.

We get a lot of manuscripts that start with characters called only he or she, or by some epithet—the Hungarian or the masked man or the accountant. He did something, she went somewhere, the accountant heard something…

But a novel isn’t a movie, so in most cases this is a POV violation.

If your narrator is omniscient, he knows who’s doing what and should reveal it. If he doesn’t, he’s unreliable. It takes a skilled writer to make an unreliable narrator work well. Also, if your narrator is unreliable, he must be consistently unreliable throughout the story.

Photo by Marc Garrido i Puig
Photo by Marc Garrido i Puig

But if the Nameless Pronoun Person or Epithet-Bearer is the POV character, that’s just not acceptable. The POV character knows his own name and will use it, if you’re writing in the third person.

When writing from the character’s viewpoint, in what’s called these days Deep POV, it’s best to use the character’s name early, to give the reader something to attach to. Then you can use pronouns all you like: Blayse did something, she went somewhere, she heard something…

But epithets are right out. A scene written from Blayse’s POV will never contain a sentence like the accountant answered her phone. Unless Blayse is watching some other accountant answer a phone.

If you’re writing in first person, you would not use the character’s name. Instead, you’d put I: I did something, I went somewhere, I heard something. Then the POV character’s name isn’t revealed until another character uses it.

I believe the inability to get the POV character’s name in early is one of the drawbacks of first person. And the ability to give the POV character name early is one of the benefits of third person. So use it.

Hidden Identity Syndrome works in film, but in a novel, it’s cheating. Don’t cheat your readers.

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