Creating Reliably Unreliable Narrators

narratorsCreating Reliably Unreliable Narrators

In the last post, we talked about ways in which unreliable narrators can be unreliable. This post will take the types discussed last time and work through what you need to make each sort unreliable but still credible.

Narrators with believable unreliability

We believe her from the get-go

In this type, we don’t know until the end that the narrator wasn’t telling the truth. You need to pay attention to:

Keep the reader entertained. Because the big reveal is at the end, you need to keep the unsuspecting reader interested. The story must work as a story, even without the twist ending. Otherwise, the reader may not bother to keep reading.

Drop hints.  Having said that, drop hints along the way that the reader will not pick up as significant until the ending and which allow him to re-evaluate what he thought was happening.

Have a good reason for the ending. That is, the shock ending must make sense in the context of the story. If it doesn’t, you risk a Deus ex Machina. Or in the vernacular, your reader will be left with a what-the-hell? feeling. So, “I was unreliable just because I thought it would be fun,” doesn’t cut it.

We’re not sure of whether she’s telling the truth

Here, the suspicion comes up somewhere in the story that the heroine isn’t truthful.

Keep clues ambiguous.  For as long as you can, keep the clues as to the heroine’s real nature equivocal. Did she not see Larry or was she avoiding him? The longer you can keep the reader guessing, the better.

Resolve ambiguity.  I suppose it’s possible to end the novel with the reader no wiser than when he started. Might work but prepare for lots of angry letters. Because the reader has a theory of what is going on, he needs an ending that has him shouting either, “Ah ha! I knew I was right!” or “Wow, I didn’t see that coming! “ Either way, the ending can’t just whimper off. It needs a clear resolution.

Pretty sure she’s lying

Cue early on. Very early on, let the reader know what kind of story you’re planning. The heroine being taller than a tree would do it as would her boast of being faster than a car.

Have satisfying ending.  The ending needs to pull all the exaggeration and fibs together in some way. I know this sounds a bit vague but you are going for your reader smiling at the ridiculousness of the ending while still finding it satisfying. It doesn’t have to be any more likely or true than the rest of the story but it has to feel like it coalesces the disparate elements.

Believes what she is saying

Make heroine’s assumptions credible. This type is very similar to the first type in that we need to believe what the heroine believes. If her flights of fancy are too obvious, the reader may start to doubt her.

Drop clues, of course. But again, the clues need to be super carefully laid. If the reveal is to work, the reader cannot pull out of the continuous dream to think, “Really? If she believes this, why is she doing that?”

This might be a walk-before-you-run thing

My inclination would be to avoid using unreliable narrators until you’re pretty comfortable writing reliable ones. It’s challenging enough to create a believable tale; it’s even tougher juggling the conventions of the novel if you’re still working on getting the rules down pat.

The Unreliable Narrator

unreliable

The Unreliable Narrator

Generally speaking, we assume that whoever is telling the story is telling the truth (including fictional truth). In fact, as we discussed in authority of the author, trusting the narrator can be critical to allowing your reader to sink happily into your world. But an interesting twist on this convention is to purposely present your reader with a first person chronicler who is unreliable.

Why use an unreliable narrator?

An unreliable narrator can create tension and intrigue. If we start to doubt the story-teller, then we will be unsure whether what she says is true. This can keep the reader guessing and second guessing what’s really going on. It’s basically playing with your reader’s mind, but if you do it right, he’ll love you for it. There are various ways to use this phenomenon.

Types of untrustworthy story-tellers

This is not an exhaustive list but here are some ways the reader can interact with this unusual heroine. This is all about the extent to which we believe her and when we start to doubt her.

We believe her from the get-go

From the beginning often to the bitter end, we believe the heroine is being straight with us. This novel uses the typical structure where the narrator’s veracity is taken for granted. Only near the end does it become clear that the heroine has been misleading us from the first page.

A famous example is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. The narrator is Doctor Sheppard who lives next to detective Hercule Poirot. He records his often humorous reactions to Poirot’s investigation of Roger Ackroyd’s death. He is astute and charming. He is also the murderer.  Which we only find out right at the end.

We’re not sure of whether she’s telling the truth

Either at the beginning, or as the novel progresses, we suspect that the narrator isn’t completely honest. We doubt whether we can trust the story as it is being told.

Sebastian Faulks, in his brilliant novel, Engleby, creates a character who seems a bit odd from the first. He doesn’t quite fit into university life. He makes casual reference to his therapist. Not that unusual but the astute reader’s antennae are probably up. He is interested in a girl but is reluctant to approach her. Shy? He follows her around, wishing to connect. One day, he sees her drop an envelope. He picks it up. And reads the contents!  And steals more of her letters.

Now we’re pretty sure we can’t trust Engleby but we are kept on our toes by constantly trying to figure out what he’s up to. The ending is surprising but satisfying.

Pretty sure she’s lying

We’ve all heard tall tales—about fishing, mountaineering, writing, etc. The reader is not expected to believe the tale but enjoy the way the story is told, or how cleverly the writer weaves together unrelated items so his heroine can accomplish what she wants. Mark Twain used this technique in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Believes what she is saying

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is the classic example of using a narrator who is undependable, not because she is willfully trying to deceive, but because she herself believes the story she’s telling. The heroine has impulsively married Maxim de Winter, only to find, she believes, that de Winter is still in love with his dead wife, Rebecca. She continues to build on her premise, only to find at the end, that she is completely mistaken.

As you can see, this technique gives you plenty of scope to juggle the normal pieces of a novel and come up with something really interesting. The next post discusses how you go about creating Unreliable Narrators.

Writing Villains

villains

Writing Villains

Oh, for the good old days when villains wore black (Stetsons, if appropriate), twirled their handlebar mustaches, and revealed their evil ways in every word and deed. Think Uriah Heep from David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, Dr. Hyde from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Scoundrels we love to hate.

But while we can still appreciate the all-out, no-holds-barred malevolence of these anti-heroes, most modern readers expect a more nuanced approach to their (well, your) villains.

Villains are needed

You write the story from the protagonist’s point of view. It’s a challenge enough to show this character as real and sympathetic. The antagonist/villain is there but frequently only as foil to demonstrate the hero’s sterling qualities.

Now, you need this kind of a dynamic to make the novel work. For interesting reading, the leading character cannot sail smoothly to his promised land. Wants to be an Olympic athlete? Gets the gold. Wants to write a famous opera? The new Mozart. Not only is this progression boring but it doesn’t do anything for how we feel about the protagonist. You like people whose success comes easily? No, we like people who struggle and then conquer.

Enter, the villain. He can be the personification of the world blocking or thwarting the hero’s objectives. But if that is the only role he plays in the novel, the villain can also become boring or at least repetitive and unidimensional. And, not particularly believable. Or only in the style of the mustache-twirling from above.

So, you need the villain to be as believable as your hero. And if you can, you have a great opportunity to deepen the story.

How do I make my villain believable?

So, the big thing is to make your heavy as human as possible. What he needs is:

  • To be well-motivated. It is not enough for him to say, “I’ve always hated Harry [your main character] and I’m going to stop him.” Show, show, show. Why does he hate Harry? What did Harry do to him? Is he perhaps justified in his wish for revenge?
  • To care about something or someone. And getting Harry doesn’t count. It could be a dog. Or a place. Could be a lost love. Whatever. But he needs to have more in his life than retribution. (Unless of course you want to make him a psychopath but that has its own writing challenges.) Showing him with loving emotions both humanizes and makes the reader reassess him.
  • His own agenda. He cannot just act in reaction to the hero’s goals. He needs his own ends and desires. He has a plan. He will walk all over Harry to get them. But necessary in his mind to reach his destination.

Playing with antiheroes

In fact, if you make both the villain and the hero very human, and dare I say, sympathetic, you may be able to do the coolest thing: you may make it hard for the reader to decide which is which. Is the villain the tyrannical father who refuses to let his daughter take art lessons? Or is it the well-meaning teacher who tries to help a young girl be free? The ‘easy’ villain is the father. The ‘interesting’ villain is the schoolteacher who is imposing her morality on a situation she doesn’t understand.

This is one time when it’s okay to confuse the reader. She’ll love it.

Next post: the unreliable narrator. Also a winner with readers.

Acquiring Author Credibility

Credibility

Acquiring Author Credibility

In the last post, we discussed the concept of the authority of the author.  In general, I think it’s your ability to allow your reader to sink happily into the world you have created for as long as you want her there. In this post, I’ll make a stab at delineating how you acquire this credibility. Truthfully, I’m a little nervous about this as it’s a difficult idea to pars. But let’s give it a try.

Some parts of author credibility

I think of these as necessary but not sufficient conditions for your reader to trust you.

Expertise. Well, obviously. If you’re writing historical fiction, you make the reader uneasy if you write, “Sir Galahad said, ‘Get your buns in gear.’” (unless the intent is comic). Similarly, even in science fiction, violating basic principles of the physical universe need careful and well-reasoned explanations for the reader to buy it.

Confident handling of structure. This is where mastery of craft comes in. Your ability to seamlessly handle the mechanics of story-telling like the judicious use of description, dialogue, showing not telling, etc. The novel should flow seemingly effortlessly to its inevitable close. You accomplish this only by a lot of effort and technical proficiency.

Believability. The tale itself needs to be believable or at least, the hard to believe parts are carefully explained. This is also true of depicting human interactions. You don’t want to kick the reader out of the continuous dream by having her think “Really? Would he actually do that?”

Belief in your story.  You presumably believe in your story because you’re writing it. And you continue to do so despite the occasional quiver in confidence. However, you can show your belief in the story by avoiding bombast—that is, the desire to tell your reader how she should feel about what you are writing. Instead, you just show the events and let the reader come to her own conclusions. You believe in your plot enough that it doesn’t need these artificial supports.

Belief in self. We all have occasional attacks of writer’s block, or are discouraged by how hard this all is, or are convinced that everything I write is junk. Belief in self will allow you to tough through these wobbles and keep writing. Without it, there will be no stories over which to have authority.

Is this enough?

I wish I could say with confidence that I had wrestled all the components of author credibility to the ground. But I’m pretty sure I haven’t because there is a know-it-when-you-see-it residual which resists analysis.

This is the magic I have talked about. It is that indefinable fairy dust that sometimes you can sprinkle over your writing and sometimes you can’t. But you keep writing in the hopes that your Muse or inner spirit or the drop into the right space, will give you the magic. And by the by, credibility, too.

Authority of the Author—What is it?

authority

Authority of the Author—What is it?

Sounds a little New Age, doesn’t it? Authority of the Author.  It is, kind of. I think the best way to start is with an example.

As always, I remember reading this but can’t remember the source so you’ll to have to take my word for it.

In her earlier writing, Margaret Atwood published a short story about girls at a summer camp who collaborate on writing a novel. A bad, clichéd one as it turned out. The humor is in how inept it is.

But what would have happened if the writer herself had been a bad writer? The joke would fall flat or disappear because the reader wouldn’t see a difference between the quality of the writing of the novel-in-progress and that of how the story itself was being told. For the short story to work, Atwood had to establish that she herself as a good writer before she introduced the girls’ efforts.

She does this by her vivid description of the setting and the dialogue through which she introduces the idea of the group effort, among other ways. Atwood has established her authority to tell the story.

What is this authority of the author?

The Atwood example is the clearest I’ve found where a lack of authorial authority makes a difference. But it gets murky beyond that. Honestly, there’s not even unanimous agreement on what it means.

Brooke Warner in her Huffington post article believes “getting published writing under your belt (including books, of course) is the key to true authority.” That doesn’t quite sit right with me as I’ve read plenty of unpublished pieces which have authority.

The blog Wistful Writer comes closest to a definition I agree with:

Authority is important in any sort of writing, but especially so in literary fiction. Because the writer is creating a world that is essentially made from thin air, the reader must feel safe and confident that the world she is entering into is real and true. The reader must be able to trust the writer in order to engage with the work. As such, the writer absolutely must work hard in order to gain the reader’s trust.

However, the blog then gives an example which doesn’t actually capture the concept for me.

Memoirs should have this power

Memoir writers presumably have this completely covered. They certainly are experts on their own story. They have sort of spontaneous authority, no?

But even with this presumed knowhow, memoirs can also be seen as self-serving, light on truth, or verging on the unbelievable. So they don’t automatically get a free pass into being trusted.

Defining authority primarily as a writer’s expertise on the topic of the narrative doesn’t feel right to me. While I agree a writer needs to know what he’s talking about in both content and craft, I think authority encompasses a realm which I may not be able to adequately define but will nevertheless give a try in the next post.

But for a final word:

Why does it matter?

Really, who cares if you have authority? Big deal.

But actually, it is. If you do, your reader will relax into your story and go willingly where you want to take her. You have put her in the continuous dream state.

Authority has another, practical advantage. With it, you can probably rely on your readers to stick with you through bumpy/puzzling plot bits or necessary but slow scenes. So they can experience your dazzling ending.