ness writes about writing

The Masks We Wear

At the moment, I have two projects that I am working on. One has multiple points of view, the other a single one. Both have their advantages. With the single point of view, there is the challenge to subtly show other characters’ emotions/thoughts without stating facts that the POV character doesn’t have a clue about – after all, we are stuck in his/her head and can’t reveal things to the reader that the Main Character doesn’t know.

For example, here is a character who has no idea of the true, deadly identity of the man in the room with her. Writing the following is blatantly wrong – because, unless she suddenly developes an improbable case of telepathy, the truth is hidden from her:

‘He was angry with Anne and gave her a chilling smile – the sort a snake would give if it possessed the ability to smile. Because he was the murderer and she had just laid open a vital clue like a monkey peeling a banana.’

Yes, the man may be a murderer, and yes, the clue may be vital … but the POV character doesn’t know it. The truth is there, but it’s hidden. All she is seeing is a man smiling a little unpleasantly after she has told him a theory of hers.

John smiled slowly and it felt like someone had left the door open, allowing the cold air in. Anne shivered and gave him a weak grin.

It is almost like playing a game of hide and seek – I, the writer, am in possession of all the facts, but my character isn’t. It is up to me to show the facts through the character’s eyes – but quietly, not in your face. It would be cheating to have someone come up to the Main Character and say, “Well, I dislike you immensely and am planning to poison you tomorrow.”

Who does that? No – the MC would pick it up through the little things – a sneer here, a scoff there. A cold word or a disdainful look. Or maybe the villain hides his hatred and tiny, hints have to be dropped; a brief, frozen look before the welcoming smile drops in place. Perhaps the MC remains oblivous to all this – perhaps because of her background – and maybe it is the readers who must pick up the hints alone.

click to return to the previous pageIn a way, it is a little like a masquerade – the POV character has her mask in place, and both she and we know what lies beneath it (though sometimes the POV character can wear a mask to the readers – which of course is another layer of subtlety). Everyone else, however, has their masks on. Thoughts, ambitions, feelings all run beneath their masks but she and the reader cannot see it – and must endeavor to peek beneath the masks through observations and conversation.

It’s fascinating.

8 thoughts on “The Masks We Wear”

  1. I wrote a post on this too, glad to see I’m not the only one who struggles with it! 😀 I want the reader to know certain things, but if the character whose POV it is can’t see or know what it is, I can’t write it. So annoying at times! Great post 🙂

    1. Yes, it is certainly a challenge, but a fascinating one none the less. In real life, I can tend to be quite oblivious to certain things, so writing a character and knowing the facts of their world yet funnelling it through their POV is a very interesting study : )

  2. I like to think of writing as playing a game of poker, but the writer has all the key cards. It’s our job to lay the cards out and surprise the reader by the end. Though, it’s tough to keep a good poker face when you want to jump up and shout out the next big twist.

    1. Oh – a good analogy. Though do you prefer to have laid out all the facts in plain view so that the reader can see them but can’t *see* them and then zap ’em with a plot twist that they see and think ‘ah! I should have seen this coming?”

      Or do you like to surprise the reader out of the blue?

      1. It really depends on the plot twist. Typically, I think the reader should have small clues sprinkled in throughout the story. A plot twist needs to be a surprise, but also make sense in the context of the story. Tap-dancing penguins would probably not be a good plot-twist in a dark-sci-fi story.

      2. Agreed. But in a murder mystery for example – I quite like the facts being there all along – they don’t have to be blatant, they can be mere hints and clues. But having a phone call that Explains All (and dumping a load of hitherto unknown facts) come out of the blue is annoying and unsatisfying.

        … but what if they were assassin tap-dancing penguins that sent deadly shock waves out with every tap? Oh oh … they could be cyborg assassin tap-dancing penguins.

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