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What Is He Thinking? (or, how to make non POV characters show themselves)

On one of my regular forays onto Twitter begging for blog post ideas, Sarah Drew asked “How do you subtly suggest what a non POV character is thinking?”

That is an excellent question, and one that looms large in the minds of anyone writing single POV romance: how do we ensure we know what the other MC thinks and feels? I think the difficulties with that are an excellent reason for the popularity of dual POV romance.

Here I will note that it’s not unknown to do scenes from one POV and then repeat them from the second person’s point of view to give the reader full information. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a terrible idea. I can imagine good reasons to do it and when it might work. But I cannot currently think of a romance where it is anything other than a terrible idea in practice, so, you know, there’s a rec challenge.

Right. So, how do you get into the feelz of a non-viewpoint (NVP) character?

Well, the first question is: do you want to? Presumably you picked your POV character for a reason, if it’s single POV, or if you’re alternating, you decided that this scene had to be played from A’s perspective. So it’s worth considering how much of B’s feelings you actually want to give away, either to A or to the reader.

This can vary dramatically. My book Any Old Diamonds is narrated entirely from the POV of Alec, who hires jewel thief Jerry to rob his father. Jerry is presented as very hard for Alec to read, and because he is very deliberately excluding Alec from his feelings, we the reader are excluded too. They have sex, and Jerry teases out Alec’s wants and also listens to him, but we’re in chapter six (of 14) before they kiss. This is very much a book where, like the hapless viewpoint character, the reader can only look at the moments of consideration or tenderness on Jerry’s part and hope they add up to something. And thus, this is very much a book where you can’t skip the sex scenes.

Are you hard now?” Alec grunted affirmatively. “Good. Don’t touch yourself. Christ, you’re beautiful.”

Alec looked up sharply. Jerry’s eyes were wide and startled, as if he was shocked by his own words, then his lips curled deliberately. “With a cock in your mouth, I meant to say.”

I did it this way for three reasons.

  • Alec is carrying a huge amount of damage and insecurity. We go deep into that. If I’d also dug directly into what the hell is wrong with Jerry (a lot) it would have been 500 pages and glacially paced.  
  • This book is very much about how hard it is to know the truth of people. So it’s important thematically that the only head we’re in is Alec’s, and all we see of Jerry is what Alec sees (from which we can draw our own conclusions).
  • Let’s be real, Jerry the enigmatic, sexually dominating jewel thief is just more fun than “Jerry Gets In Touch with His Feelings”.

Of course, you have to make up for this sort of thing. Jerry eventually comes up with a multi-page grovel/declaration of feelings, plus a massive Grand Gesture. It felt the least I could do.

So: you might not want to clue the reader in with more than direct visuals of how the NVP character looks. Or, you may. Let’s now look at how we might do that.

My latest book Masters In This Hall is a single viewpoint. John (VP) is a hotel detective who lost his job when Barnaby seduced him to distract him from a jewel theft. (I do actually write books that aren’t about jewel thieves occasionally but this one is in the same series as Any Old Diamonds.) Masters is single viewpoint because the main plotline is John starting off devastated by Barnaby’s betrayal (they were just starting a relationship), and the mystery / gradual reveal of why Barnaby did it. If I’d done Barnaby POV I’d have had to spend a lot of the time in Barnaby’s head while deliberately holding back that information from the reader and it’s possible for that to get annoying.

So I went for single POV. But honestly, it’s a Christmas romance novel, we all know Barnaby must have had a good reason, so let’s see how we know what he’s feeling. Deep dive ahoy!

(They are both in Abel Garland’s country house where Barnaby Littimer is master of ceremonies for the medieval-style Christmas celebrations and John Garland is the uninvited poor relation.)

Littimer leapt lightly onto a chair like the hero in a pantomime, tossing his over-long hair back. The arrant ponce. … Littimer’s grin glittered in the candlelight. “A programme of festivities with roles for all who wish them, and enjoyment for everyone. As your Lord of Misrule, I shall direct the house, and I must implore the fullest obedience. All will be revealed, lords, ladies—”

His gaze swept the room, and snagged on John at the back. Their eyes locked. The smile died on Littimer’s face for a full half second.

Then it returned in full force as though he’d never stopped. “And gentlemen!” he concluded, and swept a dramatic bow.

Here we see John”s mere existence shake Barnaby’s confidence and polished persona. This guy is no Jerry, able to control his emotional display, but he’s very good at performing and John nevertheless puts him off his stride.

That sets the tone. We have a couple of exchanges where Barnaby is being irritatingly mysterious and trying to get John to leave. Is he trying to clear the decks for a robbery, or something else?

Littimer made a strangled noise. “If I swear to you that I don’t want to rob your uncle, or your cousin, if I promise on my life not to do anything that will harm you or your family—”

“As if I’d believe you.”

“—is there any chance you’d go away?”

John struggled to form words. Finally he managed, “You actually think I’m that gullible?”

“I’m not trying to gull you. But I really do promise it would be better if you just go home and let events take their course.”

“Why?”

Littimer gave a mirthless smile. “Because I’m trying to keep several balls in the air at the moment, most of them made of nitro-glycerine, and I’d prefer you to be somewhere else when I drop them.”

“What do you mean?”

“That I’m facing the immediate and unpleasant consequences of my own stupidity. If you think you fell into a trap and brought trouble on yourself, I can only say you are speaking to a master of that art. I’ve bollocksed things up so badly that all I can hope to do now is limit the damage. I think I owe you that.”

That had come out in a raw-voiced rush. John had no idea what to make of it. “Are you in trouble?”

Littimer swallowed, hard; John saw his throat move, and remembered how he’d kissed it, how it had convulsed when Barnaby spent. “A quite remarkable amount.”

His words say he’s sorry and cares about John still. He could be lying. But we’ve also got some clear physical indications of Barnaby’s distress (strangled noise, mirthless smile, rushed speech, swallow) along with the dialogue to support the idea that he’s telling the truth. Also, that he’s actually not very good at this stuff and not coping very well. He’s visibly frustrated and unhappy, which allows us to believe that he’s telling the truth with his indiscreet confession. The final para gives us a physical movement that emphasises the desire between them, but also gently nudges the reader to believe Barnaby is telling the truth: we’re being specifically shown it was an involuntary reaction that betrays his feelings.

Small touches, but they set John, and us, up to believe that Barnaby is yearning to tell John the truth, that he’s every bit as unhappy as John, that they are on their way back together. And thus, when he does confess all, we’re primed for belief and reunion.

The physical underpins the dialogue. Even showing an absence of reaction does something. Here’s Jerry again, looking through Alec’s sketchbook when they’ve had a massive break-up because of a terrible thing Alec did.

Jerry leafed through the book, page after page, unspeaking. There were the face studies, various sketches of eyes and eyebrows, and then he turned the page to reveal that accursed full-face drawing, and Alec decided he really did now want to die. He’d tried to catch Jerry’s expression in that long moment after they’d made love kissing—that intent look, the tenderness—and he’d put so much of his own yearning on the page that he didn’t believe any viewer could miss it.

Jerry looked at that picture for what seemed hours, face unreadable. He didn’t speak, he didn’t move, and Alec watched him, throat as constricted as though Jerry’s hand was gripping it tight.

At last he closed the sketchbook, though he still didn’t look up. “You’ll have to take a few of those out.”

The absence of reaction is a reaction, and the reader can draw their own conclusions onto that blankness. Here it’s crucial to show not tell (a maxim for which I have little time otherwise) because this passage would really not be improved by a detailed explanation of his probable feelings. Jerry is hanging on to his emotional coolth by his fingernails, as we see from the fact that he doesn’t look up: we may well conclude he can’t control his features.

Which leads to an important point: if you want the reader to know what the NVP character is thinking, you have to know what they’re thinking. I knew what was going on in Jerry and Barnaby’s heads throughout, and one of the things I looked for in editing was making sure their (offpage) motivations and thoughts were as sharply defined and consistent as any onpage ones. If you have a NVP character come in being offensive because the plot requires it, rather than because you know what put them in that place, it won’t convince.

That’s MCs. What about showing other, minor characters’ feelings? I’m going to cherrypick a few more examples from Masters In This Hall. Here’s Lord Sidney Box talking about his host (Abel Garland who is an industrial millionaire), whose daughter is to marry Lord Dombey, Lord Sidney’s best friend.

“Garland’s a fool as well as a vulgarian. But, a rich fool. And to be just, he is lavish to his daughter. One cannot fault Miss Garland’s dress, whatever one might think of her breeding, or looks.” They both chuckled again. “Well, Dombey’s not much of a judge of horseflesh, so it scarcely matters, and I trust her to forget her origins once she has her coronet. The ironmonger will have to celebrate his pagan festivities alone next year, and one can only hope he ceases to make a mockery of a house that deserves to be treated with a little more dignity.”

The bite in his voice was startling. The other man said, “Yes, this was your place, wasn’t it? I say, Box—”

“I really don’t care,” Lord Sidney drawled. “I regret seeing it in such ludicrous hands, or course—like witnessing a lady of whom one was once fond plying her trade on the street with a painted face. But it was always inconvenient and really, we barely used it. My father was lucky to get it off his hands, and Garland paid through the nose for it. I won’t deny that it stings to see part of our family history lost in such a way and to such a vulgarian, but it’s all of a piece.”

What do we know now about Lord Sidney from these two paragraphs? He will sneer at a man while living off his lavish hospitality. He’s got a pretty grim attitude to women, and a strong belief in the superiority of the upper classes. And he is trying to sound sophisticated and blasé with all his drawling, but we see the flash of uncontrolled temper when he reflects that his old family home has been sold to an industrialist. You are unlikely to be surprised when he turns out to be the villain.

Or how about Abel’s daughter Ivy? She is a formidable woman making an exceedingly calculated marriage to an earl:

The Earl of Dombey was not a very impressive specimen, being of no more than medium height, with rounded shoulders, limited conversational horizons, and a tendency to let his mouth hang open. On the other hand, he was the Earl of Dombey, and thus a remarkably good catch for Miss Ivy Garland, who had no claim to noble birth and brought to the marriage nothing but shrewd intelligence, superb dress sense, and a massive amount of money.

She manages her father ruthlessly, and she will clearly manage Dombey ruthlessly. He is without question an inbred idiot and she’s marrying him to become a Countess. But she’s on John’s side (ish) and it’s a Christmas book. So I put in this tiny sequence at the Christmas table:

“That footman’s got a nerve.”

It was Barnaby Littimer. John ought to have told him to find another seat, clear off, go to the devil. Since all his energies were being spent on digestion, leaving very little for thought, and his general mood was of befuddled benevolence, he said, “Which?”

“The one who just offered Lady Jarndyce gin-punch. I bet she’s never touched gin in her life. No, you fool, don’t offer it to Box. Argh.”

At the far end of the table, Lord Sidney Box recoiled from the steaming jug with a pantomime of dismay. “He could just say no,” John remarked. “You’d think they were giving him horse piss.”

“If only,” Barnaby said. “Look, Dombey’s having some. I didn’t expect that.”

John watched the peer take a glass of gin-punch and raise it to Abel. “Good for him. Though he’d probably drink horse piss if you gave it to him. Jolly good vintage, eh what?”

Ostensibly this is showing us John and Barnaby ganging up to mock the toffs, enjoying one another’s company, the start of a reconciliation. But we also see that Lord Sidney deliberately make a point of his contempt for the working-class gin punch favoured by their host, whereas Lord Dombey shows fellowship and courtesy.

And then at the end, when Lord Sidney is exposed as the villain, we see Dombey’s reaction.

Dombey nodded slowly. “Yes. I beg your pardon, Garland: I believed him. My friend, you see.”

Ivy squeezed his arm. “I’m so very sorry, my dear. This is dreadful for you.”

He put his hand over hers, and their fingers linked. “Well. Box. Very poor show. Not sure what to think. Dare say you can tell me, eh?”

He may be thick as mince, but he’s decent, and he recognises that Ivy is the brains of their outfit, and that plus the moment of mutual linking fingers—comfort, allegiance, relying on one another—tells the reader that in fact there’s more to this marriage than exchanging money for title.

I didn’t want to make a big deal of it; it’s not their story. I absolutely did not want to hammer the point home because urgh.

He put his hand over hers, and their fingers linked. “Well. Box. Very poor show. Not sure what to think. Dare say you can tell me, eh?”

John sighed with relief. It looked as though his cousin might even be making a love match in her own way after all.

There’s no need to explain everything. As with any lie, fiction becomes less plausible if you overdo the supporting details. Just drop the hint and let the reader pick it up.

And that, I think, is the key to clueing us in to NVP characters’ thoughts. Don’t over-egg it. Trust the reader, show us words and reactions, and let us draw our conclusions even if we’re not in their heads. After all, that’s how we understand people every day.


Any Old Diamonds and Masters In This Hall are both in the Lilywhite Boys series. Get your Victorian jewel thieves here.

4 replies
  1. chacha1
    chacha1 says:

    I am congratulating myself for having read ‘Masters’ the instant it came out, having then promptly re-read ‘Diamonds,’ and then having served myself dessert by reading ‘Masters’ again – so all these scenes are fresh in my mind. 🙂 You really are an expert at putting on the page exactly and only what is needed to convey a character.

    Reply
  2. Emma
    Emma says:

    I have to say I adored the craftsmanship of those short lines:

    He put his hand over hers, and their fingers linked. “Well. Box. Very poor show. Not sure what to think. Dare say you can tell me, eh?”

    I read it like five times the first time reading Master In This Hall. The ratio of character development to words was impeccable, and it made me feel so fondly towards those two.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Thank you! It felt absolutely necessary to have that connection (and I’ve had a surprising amount of reader feedback on it, which just goes to show how necessary it was).

      Reply

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