pov: the unreliable narrator

I’m not a huge fan of first person narration. In fact, I will admit that I often pick up a book and put it down immediately upon discovering that it is in first person. However, there’s one approach to first person that I truly like, and that’s the unreliable narrator.

writing is both mask and unveilingThe way to think about this is to imagine that the story you’re reading, the narrator whose words you are reading are not being addressed to you. The character is talking to a police officer or judge or some other authority figure.

You’re listening to somebody  spin a story. A narrator who has got more than the usual stake in being believed. We’re not talking the grandma narrator, the one who just wants to amuse you with funny stories of her girlhood. We’re talking grandma in the pokey, and the first time she sits down with her lawyer.

The first grandma might start:

We were poor, but I didn’t know that until I first went to school and found out that other little girls wore dresses that weren’t made out of flour sacks.

Grandma in the Pokey might start:

Now, you listen here. If I shoot a man between the eyes — and I’m not admitting I did anything of the kind — you had best believe I was acting in self defense. To let that black-hearted thieving scoundrel live even another minute would have been the death of me.

The first grandma may have a great story to tell, and she may write it down and sell it and find a niche audience and do very well. This Mitford-type approach is not so much my cuppa tea. I’m far more interested in the second grandma, grandma with a gun. She’s got a story to tell, but it’s only going to be one layer of a very complicated story, and I’ll have to pay close attention because now and then she’ll let her guard down and I’ll get a glimpse of what was really happening, how she came to shoot Jimmy O’Toole, he of the prize winning dahlias, between the eyes.

Here’s a setup that begs for a first person unreliable narrator:

Joan’s car is sitting in the garage with one fender smashed in, a ticket on the windshield, and the unmistakable smell of a common Illegal Substance wafting out a broken window. And the gas tank, which was full yesterday afternoon at three, is on empty.

Joan walks upstairs to the bedroom her twin daughters share and wakes them less than gently. They peek at her from underneath the covers.

Talk, says Joan. And it better be good.

All first person narrators are unreliable to some extent. They are limited by their own observations and memories, by motivations hidden and in plain sight, by necessity. But a true unreliable narrator is exciting. That narrator is a cat in a sack. Maybe a really mad cat with very long claws and a score to settle. Maybe a desperate little cat whose been lying so long to stay out of trouble’s way that she’s forgot how to tell the truth. Or maybe an evil cat, one who likes to mess with your mind. Purr and slash, just for the hell of it.
Two unreliable narrators come to mind first. Eudora Welty‘s “Why I live at the P.O.” is a wonderful short story with a narrator who will stick around in your head for a long time. And then there’s Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne. If you are at all interested in unabridged audio, this book was produced beautifully and perfectly narrated by Frances Sternhagen with a pitch-perfect Maine accent (PW review here).

Dolores is a fantastic unreliable narrator, because she herself isn’t completely sure what happened, and what she wants to happen. She’s got strong opinions and she’s not afraid to tell you exactly what’s on her mind. Or at least, the parts she can bear to speak out loud.

 

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dealing with a creepy character

So, how do you write a troubled or troubling character who is very different from everybody you know, totally outside your personal experience? Could you write from the perspective of a psychopath? A heroin addict? An anorexic? A child molester? A six year old who beats a newborn to death?

Most authors don’t take on this kind of material and I’m sure that for the most part, this is because they don’t feel comfortable with the subject matter. More to the point: they don’t want to feel comfortable with it, or do the research that would help them achieve the necessary understanding.

While most novelists avoid these extremes, we all do write difficult characters at one point or another. Narcissistic boyfriends, an alcoholic uncle with a gambling problem, a teenager who hasn’t gone a day without vomiting in many years. If you find yourself looking such a character in the face, you have a couple choices: you can take a shortcut and use the stereotypes available to you (and there are a lot of examples); you can keep the character in the background; or, you can undertake some research.

This line of thought started when I came across Robert Hare’s Without Conscience: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us. While I was reading it, I thought, this would have been useful when I was writing Queen of Swords, because there was one character who fits the bill, and another who might have, if I had had more background. Maybe I could have got closer to the truth of these characters if I had read Hare’s work before I started.

So I’ve been reading more about abnormal psychology: other non-fiction work for laypeople, case studies and reports of criminal cases, memoirs and biographies. There are some good resources online; for example, interviews with people who have tried and failed to stop drinking or give up crystal meth, and the repercussions of their actions. Fiction and film are not a good source. How the next person interprets and represents schizophrenia is not what you need to know.

Some authors have a better instinctual understanding of characters and won’t need as much prep work. I wonder if Thomas Harris did a lot of reading and preparation before he took on Hannibal Lecter, or if Ken Kesey did the same for his characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. If I wanted to write my own version of an extremely disturbed individual, I would have to do a lot of work ahead of time, but first I’d have to challenge myself to take on something so dark. The idea of letting a character like Hannibal Lecter inside my head is frightening, in many ways. Once he’s there, it might be hard to shut him down.

Certainly there is no lack of factual material to draw from. The example cited above, of a six year old who beat a newborn, is true. It happened in the late 90s in California, as hard as it is to imagine. If you keep an eye on true-crime reporting, you may come across something that really catches your imagination. And then you have to work up the courage to follow that lead.

Update: I had wanted to include this quote from The New Yorker article “Suffering Souls” by John Seabrook which I couldn’t find when I needed it. But of course it popped up when it thought I had forgot about it completely. I like the bit about skin-crawling, it would make a good detail in a character description.

Harenski recently interviewed a Western inmate who scored a 38.9. “He had killed his girlfriend because he thought she was cheating on him,” she told me. “He was so charming about telling it that I found it hard not to fall into laughing along in surprise, even when he was describing awful things.” Harenski, who is thirty, did not experience the involuntary skin-crawling sensation that, according to a survey conducted by the psychologists Reid and M. J. Meloy, one in three mental-health and criminal-justice professionals report feeling on interviewing a psychopath; in their paper on the subject, Meloy and Meloy speculate that this reaction may be an ancient intraspecies predator-response system. “I was just excited,” Harenski continued. “I was saying to myself, ‘Wow. I found a real one.’ ”

tricks of the (craft) trade: the fictional footnote

Narrative techniques come in and out of fashion. First person point-of-view is the most obvious example. If you remember any one line of Jane Eyre, it’s most likely Reader, I married him..

That particular example also uses a technique which you’ll see less often — breaking down the fourth wall. Which means, simply enough, that the narrator looks right at the reader and consciously addresses that person.

This is done most often on stage, and when it’s deftly handled, it adds a whole new dimension to the story. The audience becomes complicit, in a way, drawn into the story itself. Of course, this technique works especially well for stage plays because the audience really is sitting right there,; there’s a real energy, a palpable energy, flowing back and forth.

In England there’s a kind of stage play I have never experienced here in the states. A pantomime is a play for children, with a lot of interaction between players and audience built in. (Wikipedia has a good overview of how pantomimes work, here.) I’ve seen a couple of these — Frog & Toad, and The Ugly Ducking, and I have rarely enjoyed a theater production so much. Kind of like going to a midnight screening of Rocky Horror Picture Show, but with a happier edge, and sometimes even wackier bent. Kids and adults seem to enjoy pantomimes equally.

If an author wants to break down the fourth wall in a novel, the easiest way is with a first person narrator who tells his or her story to the reader directly. This is not done very often. More usually the primary character is talking to another character within the story. In third person narratives it’s even less common to have a story narrated directly to the audience. John Fowles managed it in The French Lieutenant’s Woman by means of footnotes. He uses the space at the bottom of the page as a kind of parlor where he comes to talk to the readers about the story as it unfolds. I remember an almost visceral shock when I first read that novel and came across a footnote. Being allowed into the author’s creative process in that way jolted me. It wasn’t instructive in tone — no “observe this, reader” but collaborative: this character insists on going down to the Cobb, though I had no intention of her going there.

You don’t see the footnote-as-parlor approach very often. My guess is that most authors are afraid of it. I personally love the idea, but it also scares me. If I put that door at the bottom of the page, what kind of complications might ensue? Maybe you, the reader, will use it to creep into the story.

tone and/or voice

People who spend their professional lives reading, analyzing and talking about novels have a vocabulary, a kind of short hand they share that makes it possible to talk about  fine points. So do fishermen, prostitutes, software engineers, poodle breeders and just about any other group you can name. Every kind of work has its own specialized vocabulary.

If you skim essays in literary criticism, a lot of the terms you’ll come across won’t mean anything to you, and to be honest, they don’t need to mean anything to you. You can have a deep understanding of a story, an empathy for the characters, a full sense of the themes without ever deciding if the novel is a bildungsroman or a roman a clef.

But if you are writing, and you find it would be useful to talk to other writers about what you’re trying (and maybe not achieving) with a particular character or plot point, you might have need of certain terms. And there are a lot of them, some more difficult to appreciate than others. Two that my students often had trouble with were tone and voice.

Tone is quite easy and instinctive.

“Young man, I do not like your tone.”

“You know that tone he gets, when he’s going to ask for a favor that’s way out of line? That oh-put-upon-me thing he does.”

“That talk she gave at the meeting? I thought her tone was way off. She sounded like an air-head, you’d never know she’s the best chemical engineer in the company.”

Tone is as universal as emotion. Snotty, imperious, jovial, condescending, those associations are clear no matter what kind of character they come from. A bus driver who tells you this is your stop in an imperious tone, an oral surgeon who gives you really bad news in an impatient tone, the seven year old who informs you he never eats vegetables in a tone that might be snotty or apologetic.

So any given character can use many possible tones. On the other hand,  he or she has only one voice (theoretically, at least). The author establishes the character’s voice, and uses tone to shade in meaning.

One way to think of this is to imagine the author as a ventriloquist with four dummies (is there another word for that these days?). The idea is to tell a story, using the four characters, and of course the ventriloquist will be involved in the narrative. He (or she, though I don’t think I’ve ever seen a female ventriloquist) creates four different characters, each with a distinctive voice. A manner and style of speaking that distinguishes one from the other, and the characters from himself. If all four sound exactly alike, something is not working.

One way to tell if your characters have distinctive voices is to ask them all the same question.

I heard there was a fight on the corner last night, what happened?

1: What are you looking at me? What do I know? I’m nobody. Nobody cares about me. I got no interest in anybody else. So Tony from the bakery got knocked over the head, so what? Ain’t got nothing to do with me.

2: I hope you aren’t insinuating that I had any connection, any possible connection to something like that. You must know that I have always been, and will always be, law abiding. If I had seen something amiss, if I *had* — which I did not — I should have called the police immediately, and possibly the fire department as well, though of course they tend to disregard my calls these days. They seem to have entirely the wrong idea about me, I don’t know who has been talking to them.

3: Oh my dear, oh dear, it really was very, very frightening. Have you ever seen a fight, a real fight, right in front of you? Of course you’ haven’t. Of course not. My dear, do you know what it sounds like when a fist hits a cheek bone? Of course, you could not.  Would you like some coffee? Of course you would, you must be parched. And wouldn’t you like to hear all about it? Because I certainly can tell you, but only if you are truly, truly interested.

4: There’s not much to tell. Tony got drunk, he made some remarks about Jerry’s girlfriend, and things took off from there. One or two punches thrown, and Tony went down. Jerry took off before the cops got there, I don’t think he even realized Tony hit is head on the curb. It must have been a shock when the police showed up at his door and arrested him for manslaughter.

If you’ve got a large cast of characters, and the time and energy, you can interview every one of them. Later, when you read over what they’ve dictated, you’ll see where the thin spots are, which characters’ voices aren’t well formed.

Authors have narrative voices, apart from the voices they create for their characters. Some authors are so distinctive that you know who wrote what you’re reading even if you haven’t looked at the cover of the book. Annie Proulx has a very idiosyncratic style and voice that carry over from one novel or story to the next. So did Hemingway. You may be able to think of others.

Some people will tell you that you can’t be a great writer unless you develop a distinctive voice of your own. I don’t think that’s true.  There are too many counter examples. A distinct authorial voice is a good thing, but it’s far more important to get the characters’ voices right.

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