Fiction Q&A: Concealing a character’s identity

question answer

Q: I saw what you wrote about not hiding the POV character’s identity. Isn’t there some way I can hide the villain’s identity, so the reader won’t figure out who it is until late in the story, when the hero does? Like, if he’s an evil mastermind, can I just call him “the mastermind” in the scenes where he’s the point of view character, instead of using his name?

A: No.

No one thinks of himself in the third person that way. Unless he has some kind of dissociative disorder—yikes, that’s a whole other post.

The only way you can refer to a character by an epithet that way—the mastermind instead of Steven or I, would be if the viewpoint character were someone other than himself—for example, if you were writing in omniscient POV. But then, ideally, your whole book would have to be in that POV, including the hero’s parts.

As I’ve said before, omniscient POV is Not Recommended. Readers want a closer relationship to the characters. Besides, as soon as you introduce an omniscient narrator who is concealing information from the reader, your narrator is unreliable. Writing an unreliable omniscient narrator without alienating the reader is extremely difficult.

Now, if you’re very good, you can get away with mixing a few short glimpses of omniscient POV into a story that’s mostly told in a character’s POV. Kat Heckenbach does this in Finding Angel.* But the Prologue and the intermittent glimpses of the unnamed villain are very, very brief. Less than a page. And they are self-contained in chapters.

If you want fully dramatized, lengthy scenes featuring your villain, there are two ways I know of to do it. First would be to write those scenes not from his viewpoint but from that of one of his minions, who could call him Sir or Master or whatever handle you want to give him. Then the hero has some other name or handle for him.

The other, more subtle, way would be to write the scenes in deep POV from the villain’s viewpoint—which I recommend, because readers like to get into the main character’s heads—but have the villain use a different name for himself than the hero does. So maybe the hero only knows the villain by his last name, or some sobriquet, but the villain thinks of himself by his first name or nickname. So in the hero’s POV scenes the villain would be called only Moffat, but in the villain’s POV scenes he would be called Steven. You can wait as long as you like to reveal that Steven Moffat is his full name.

Steven Moffat Dalek
One of these is a killing machine who will destroy everything you love. The other is a Dalek. © BBC

* Disclosure of Material Connection: The Amazon link above is an affiliate link. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a pittance of a commission from Amazon. Regardless, I only recommend books I believe will be of value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” And yeah, I just put a plug for my friend Kat’s book and a Doctor Who reference into the same post.

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  1. Hey, cool! Thanks for the shout-out.

    And let me add that it took VERY careful wording on even those very short vignettes from the villain’s pov when writing them. And keeping them super-short was a must.

    Love the Doctor Who reference, too! 🙂

    1. You’re very welcome, Kat. My pleasure.

  2. Robert G. Miller says:

    Thank you for setting me straight. I have been trying to write a few short chapters from the POV of a character who reveals his name, but hides critical information about his identity – not human. You have convinced me that, no matter how creative and original I feel, this game of peekaboo does not play fair with readers.

    1. Yes, and the thing is, it’s not really that creative, because people try it all the time. I think that’s because it is done sometimes in film and TV. But those media have a removed viewpoint — similar to omniscient viewpoint in prose. So that kind of ploy doesn’t translate to prose unless you use an omniscient but unreliable narrator.

      The technique of having the character’s private name for himself being different from his public name is the best option.

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