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


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


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.

Why Now?


Why Now?

In a previous post, I discussed what you can do if the first draft of your novel is too short. This post covers another question you may need to ask yourself as you are strengthening the manuscript: Why now?

Obviously, your novel is set at a particular time, even if an indeterminate present, and at a particular point in your hero’s life. I suppose the exception might be a family saga which is going soup to nuts.

But generally, writers pick a period in the main character’s life to focus on. Might be middle age, might be just starting out, might be on the brink of death. Whenever it is, a good question to ask yourself is why you picked that age/state of life. Why does your hero do what he does at this moment in his life?

An example of why now?

For example, your hero (Todd) might be a downtrodden spouse who has been married for twenty years and then suddenly announces he wants a divorce. Why now?

Why didn’t he do it early in the marriage when it became clear that things weren’t going as envisioned? How come he didn’t see the signs before the wedding? Why wouldn’t he leave it until his dying day and make it his last words?

Asking yourself this question can prompt two possible lines of thought.

First, you might need to adjust or rewrite so that it makes sense to the reader why this is the right time in his life. Sure, he might have fallen in love and that would be the impetus. But isn’t there a compelling inner reason why Todd chooses this moment to allow the new love to be the dominant factor in his decision?

Second, although I know you’d have to be dragged to this option, is there a dramatically more interesting time in his life to leave the marriage than the one you have used? Is there a stronger reason to justify the act at some other point?

Why not earlier, later, or not at all?

So, let’s continue to play with the why now? issue.

What if it is earlier?

What if Todd makes the decision to leave early in the marriage? What prompts it? Could be another woman but then are you painting a picture of a man who can’t make a commitment? What about him allows him to break from the easier path of putting up and going along?

Or later?

What if he decides leave the marriage much later?  Does he struggle with abandoning what he might think of as his duty? Or does the angst come from how he has to change himself to make this move? Or does he revise his personal definition of duty?

Or not at all?

I know—this is the all-bets-off option. If he doesn’t do the central thing of the novel, it’s a whole new ball game. But if you have created a truly interesting character, might there be more scope to explore who he is in a different situation? Just asking.

Who cares?

I know that reading this may cause a certain level of discomfort, especially if you believe you have completed a first draft. But playing with the concept of why now? at very least encourages  you to make sure that what Todd is doing in the present tale is well grounded in an understanding of why he chooses to act at this moment in his life.

Playing with options may open up possibilities that hadn’t occurred to you. Might not mean a rewrite. Could just be a deepening and strengthening of your story.

Next: subplots.

Interior Dialogue—The Bad


Interior Dialogue—The Bad

As covered in the previous post, the use of interior dialogue is a useful device in a writer’s toolbox. But it can be a double-edged weapon to wield. Let’s discuss its downsides.

Tell dressed up in sheep’s clothing

Let’s assume you are coming to a critical point in your plot which you express as:

Aidan thought, “I’ve got to do something. I’m too impatient to let this just happen. Just because Peggy told me yesterday that we were through doesn’t mean I have to buy it.”

You want to establish Aidan’s impatience and his breakup with Peggy as key points in your story. But actually, you haven’t. Or at least not well. Using interior dialogue this way is a kind of a cheat TELL. This is the most common misuse of interior dialogue.

When an event/characteristic is important to your plot, you’ve got to slow down and give it the space it deserves. You need to show the impatience. Aidan jumps up, paces the room, and/or writes an ill-advised text to Peggy.  You need to let the reader be a fly on the wall when Peggy and Adrian have their final blow-up. What she said, then what he said, she said, he said, etc.

There are some pragmatic reasons for expanding on important plot points. First, if you don’t, the reader is unlikely to remember this almost off –the-cuff treatment and may be confused about the protagonist’s motivation farther into the narrative. Secondly, even if she remembers, she won’t be convinced emotionally of its veracity because she hasn’t seen it for herself, so to speak.

However, it is possible that this is not an important plot point (although sort of hard to see how it wouldn’t be). If it isn’t, you might be able to get away with it. But it’s still TELL in quotes.

In action/high tension sequences

What if you are writing a high tension scene? You want your reader on the edge of her chair. Would this work?

Brad’s head jerked up. Something was happening in the cabin. A whiff of smoke was coming out of the chimney. Oak probably, although it might be pine. Brad started to creep forward.

Well, it’s not a chargeable offense but Brad is presumably keyed up and as tense as you hope your reader is. In this situation, I think that this bit of internal dialogue is not only unnecessary but distracting. In an emergency situation, do you notice how pretty the accident victim’s dress is? Or remark on the fluffy blue clouds as you are tumbling down the mountain to your death? These are not good places for internal dialogue.

If the type of wood is significant to the plot (although I am blanking as to how), you can have Brad think about it after the high tension situation is concluded.

Excess use

Yes, Hamlet can spend the whole play agonizing about his choices and let’s face it, we buy it. He thinks his way through and delays action in pretty much the whole play but it works. But because of the particular genius of Shakespeare. There is another set of rules for the rest of us.

And the rule is: Shit or get off the pot.

Audiences, particularly modern ones, just don’t have a lot of tolerance for vacillating protagonists. A certain amount of interior dialogue is okay as the character is deciding what to do but sooner rather than later, he must act. If he continues his indecision too long he’ll likely be seen as weak, dithering, and even morally bankrupt.

So, by all means use interior dialogue (only one POV, please) but be aware of when and how to use it.