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3rd Person Limited - A Lie Through Omission?

Would it be fair to "lie" about the intentions of a POV character by leaving out their true reasoning? I have a character who is an assassin and he (for obvious reasons) keeps this fact a secret. In his first POV chapter, he meets someone who he is going to kill at the end of the chapter. During the first encounter, I don't explain any of his deadly indentions because I wanted the kill scene to be a surprise. There are some subtle hints that he is... slightly remorseful that he has to kill this person. But, it's his job; he has to do it, so he doesn't let it bother him too much (until later). Is this okay? Or is the reader supposed to be privy to every intimate thought of the character?

Mad Swede

This isn't about the reader being privy to every thought the character has. Rather, it's about how you build up to the scene where the assassin kills their target. And that in turn depends on how you have developed the character - and by that I mean created a back story for them. You wrote that the character seems slightly remorseful about what they do. If that is so, maybe they wouldn't think (even to themselves) about killing someone, they might just mentally (and physically) go through a series of preparations ready for the kill itself. That way, your readers won't easily work out what is going on until it happens because your character won't be thinking about the job like that.
Thank you! I have added details about the character being observant of the surroundings and he pays close attention to gossip so the reader isn't just completely blindsided. I even have some inner dialogue where he thinks about killing someone that sounds like a joke at first.


All is fair in pleasing the audience. If it works best that way, then go for it.

If a bunch of readers show up on your twitter account with torches and pitchforks, maybe try it differently.

S J Lee

was he thinking, feeling, aware of this motivation at the time? If not, then keep it from the audience. If he WAS thinking about it while he did X, then it's harder to justify ... or rather, it is less likely to work when the reader figures it all out

most people in a do or die situation would feel adreneline, would have to concentrate on the job / go throuh on auto? Remorse and philosophy might not show up till later...
I'd write it with the character thinking all the necessary thoughts, effectively foreshadowing, then do the deed. A surprise that isn't a surprise, so to speak. Otherwise, these sort of knowledge games are always being played by narrators.
Anything done well works.

Brandon Sanderson does something similar in the first Mistborn book, where one of the main characters is hiding a secret, even from the reader. He solves it by actively making the character not think about it. As in, you'll see mentions of "no, he didn't want to consider that solution just yet."

That said, it is hard to do well without leaving the reader feel cheated. Of course, it depends on how deep you are in the POV of the character. As in, the more thoughts you show the harder it will be. But being in the room with someone who you know you will kill in the near future makes not thinking about it feel very strange.

I would ask yourself what you're trying to achieve with this. Why can't the reader know about it? I personally feel surprise is often a bad reason.

Of course, the only way to tell if it works is to give the chapter to a few readers and ask them if it works. As a side note, if it doesn't work, could you switch to a different POV for the chapter?
I think third person limited is the hardest POV when trying to create an unreliable narrator. Typically, the connection between POV character and reader needs to be solid. The reader needs to be able to trust the narration.

Clever writers can occasionally create POV character secrets or surprises using various strategies. I would echo Prince of Spires: What are you trying to achieve with this? Generic surprise might not be worth the potential cost, i.e., not worth the feelings of betrayal or lack of trust in the narration.

If you want the murder to be a surprise, particularly a shocking surprise—and not so much a surprise that the POV character could be capable of it, per se—then the best route would be to make it a surprise for the character as well. Something aligns during the course of events, and the character is forced to murder that target. This kind of thing is rather common in third person limited narratives, heh. The general rule of third person limited: align the character with the reader. If it's to be a surprise for the reader, then make it a surprise for the assassin.

For instance, the assassin might have been given a vague description of the target which the actual target doesn't fit—until something is revealed. Maybe someone else fit that description for most of that chapter, and it's only at the end when we get to see who is the real target.

The type of foreshadowing I'd use, were it mine, might fall into one of two approaches. You could make the actual target a thoroughly horrible individual, so the reader might begin to think that is the person who ought to be killed regardless of what the POV character is planning. Alternatively, you could make the actual target someone who, until the very end, seems like a thoroughly wonderful person the reader and POV character might approve, thus making the final reveal even more shocking to both character and reader.

If the POV character is entirely aware of his actual target, it would still be possible to have him focused on other things, not outright thinking about the fact he's going to kill the target. I think, if you want the murder to be surprising for the reader, you'll still need to work in other things to distract the reader. (Again, POV character and reader, both distracted, heh!) Readers' minds wander, they notice things even the POV characters might not notice, so this approach might not be as simple as having the POV character being entirely focused on other things. You might need to do some of that foreshadowing even in this case, or else use some false flags and other sorts of distraction for the reader.
3rd Limited comes in flavors, so it really depends. You can have a full-blown narrator who is only inside one character's head and still be 3rd Limited, It's omniscience with respect to only one character and the narrator decides what to say. A 3rd Intimate takes you into dicier territory, but, to be blunt, most readers don't expect to be privy to the character's every thought because they want to be entertained. Entertain the reader and all is well... see Fifty Shades of Hideous Writing, heh heh.

If a character known to kill folks is sneaking up on someone at a party and the narrator leaves out what their intent is, leaving the reader fearing the POV will kill the target, but instead POV pulls out a diamond ring, drops to a knee and proposes, Most readers, like moviegoers, are playing the game right along with the writer/director. It's understood and accepted. Of course the writer could have told us, but if it destroys suspense or humor or whatever desired effect, then it sucks.
You can have a full-blown narrator who is only inside one character's head and still be 3rd Limited, It's omniscience with respect to only one character and the narrator decides what to say.

I'd probably still not call that third limited, if only to keep a clear demarcation between third omniscient and third limited. An example would be some fairly long passages in Dune, in which Herbert will stick with Paul for a bit, then maybe his mother. The passages feel a lot like third limited, although the narrator still seems present and may give an overview of the milieu or at least insert things the specific character might not have in mind.

For third limited, I'd probably divide into two broad styles. One is the intimate "in the head" approach. The other is a less intimate, "over the shoulder" approach. It's a lot simpler to avoid addressing motivations and such when following the character from behind and merely peering over his shoulder.

But this brings to mind the odd fact that online forums like this one tend to focus on the difference between omniscient vs limited, breaking each down into various styles within first and third person, but tend to miss the subjective vs objective consideration of narration. Can those two be broken into various styles as well? An objective narration could be limited to a focus on only one character but never enter the character's head or in any way tip the reader off to what the character is thinking except through objective means. I'm not sure there'd be any other way to do objective narration, hah. But subjective is a trickier beast. Subjective can be done lots of ways, whether in omniscient or limited. An assassin could be quite wrapped up in some sensations, thoughts, activities, etc., but have his ultimate goal locked behind a door further back in his mind until the moment he opens the door when he commits the act. Another example: We don't often see third limited POV characters tying their shoes, noticing how worn their shoe strings are and how dirty their shoes but—this could just be me—I imagine many of them might have noticed these things. The narration might simply say Kate slipped her sneakers on and quickly laced them. * :barefoot:


*Since it's you, I'll note the "on" in that example bothers me greatly but I'm choosing to leave it.