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Posts tagged ‘Characterization’

Escaping into Fantasy: Thoughts on Transportive Fiction


I’ve got a confession to make: I read for escape.

I don’t just read to learn, or to shape my moral compass, or to consider the deeper truths of life. If any of that happens, I’m ecstatic. I love to think, and I’m thrilled to have to have my horizons broadened. But literature can only achieve such effects when it has engaged the reader on an intellectual, emotional, and physiological level.

There is a difference between being engaged with a story, and being transported by it. Engagement need not be visceral: it can be distanced, nuanced, and cerebral in nature. Escape is transformative, in the sense that for a time I am taken out of my day-to-day concerns and focused entirely on the story and its characters. A story that engages me might hold and maintain my interest. A story that allows me to escape will not let me put it down.

That type of engagement – when we temporarily check out of our day-to-day existence and inhabit a fictional world (whether it is fantastic or not) – opens us up to whatever deeper truths we may find in the written work. And (on a superficial but no less important level) it makes the experience enjoyable. But what makes that kind of escape possible? What makes some stories a means of escape?

The Difference Between Escape and Engagement

When I read, I find that there is a fundamental difference between engagement with the story, and escape. It is not, however, a difference in kind, but rather in degree. I can be engaged with a story, interested in seeing the characters’ fates, curious as to how the plot resolves, etc. without divorcing myself from my everyday reality.

Plenty of good books generate engagement. Many of the Russian classics (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, etc.) and more modern SF writers like Greg Egan, Gregory Benford, or Kim Stanley Robinson engage me. But I find that they do so on a very cerebral level, and that as I read their stories I remain fully aware of my surroundings, my reactions to their text, and what I have cooking on the stove.

To be clear, this is in no way a criticism of the quality of their stories.

However, I find that their focus on intellectual exploration of “high concepts” keeps me intellectually focused on the topics they explore. It grounds me, in a way that stories which allow me to escape do not. Other SF writers – like John Scalzi, Peter Watts, Samuel Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, and early David Brin – do manage to provide me with an imaginative escape that goes beyond “mere” engagement.

But your mileage may vary. It is entirely possible that a different reader might have an inverse of my experience, and there is nothing wrong in that. It merely suggests that different readers have different tastes, and respond differently to different stimuli.

I believe that stories have certain building blocks, certain broad conceptual components, that are all inter-related and which together affect the reader. The balance between these components will vary from story to story, and certain configurations will produce escape, while other configurations will produce engagement. The configurations that work for a particular reader will be different from those that work for anyone else. And the configuration that works for me today may well be different from one that will work two years from now.

And while the configuration of components that drives escape may vary, I think the list of components is pretty solid.

Character: The Root of All Tension

I like to believe that everything flows from character. The character drives the plot, not the other way around. And yet, character is also one of the trickiest components because it percolates through all of the others: voice, world-building, concept, etc.

As a human being, I have a certain degree of empathy for other members of my species, and so I am naturally interested in understanding a new character whenever I meet one. I respect depth even more than affability, and the degree to which I can understand or engage with a character is a high indicator of the story’s ability to grant me escape.

China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station opens with a prologue, written in first person, from an (initially unidentified) narrator. This prologue fails to develop much in the way of character, although it does establish a tone and begin the process of world-building (see below). But the character who dragged me into the story, who made my escape to New Crobozun possible, makes his appearance in the first chapter: Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin.

Mi&eacue;ville’s descriptions are rich and varied, and they imbue Isaac with a depth of character that is instantly engaging. They make me curious about where Isaac will go and what he will do. They make me care. However, this in and of itself would not have been enough to actually transport me. It might earn my engagement, but it would have done little besides.

Miéville manages to transport me by having his words do double (or triple) duty: while his sentences and paragraphs tell me about the character of Isaac, they are simultaneously contributing to the other components of the story, particularly its world-building.

World-building: What Most Folks Think of as Escape

Because so much speculative fiction deals with secondary worlds or imagined realities, and because the portal fantasy structure has played a major role in genre history, world-building is often associated with the concept of escape. After all, we escape to some place, right? And in speculative fiction, we are specifically escaping to a fictional reality that someone else (the author) has made up.

Effective world-building, however, is not a rattling off of hard-to-spell place names, or of cramming eons worth of mythology down the reader’s gullet. Transportive world-building is all about evoking a reality that is compelling and plausible and real for the reader on a sensory and emotional level.

Miéville’s Perdido Street Station does a great job with this, too. His exposition simultaneously informs us as to character, while giving us extensive detail about the world of New Crobuzon. The details provided, however, are slipped in sideways: we are introduced to a Dickensian environment, with over-crowded tenement streets, with grime-encrusted slipways, and with all of the economics such an environment might suggest.

Miéville doesn’t tell us that much of New Crobuzon is reminiscent of a Whitechapel slum. He instead demonstrates this fact by opening his first chapter with the prosaic act of buying groceries. In the space of several paragraphs, he evokes a mood and feel for the environment which will carry through the rest of the novel. In one sentence – where he off-handedly mentions hissing constructs stomping up and down the street – he shifts us into a fantastical mode, where such “constructs” might walk unimpeded.

Taken on its own, this opening would have engaged me pretty quickly. Miéville uses all of the senses to evoke the feel for New Crobuzon. Two passages in particular stand out for me, one olfactory and the other aural:

Below the basket the salls and barrows lay like untidy spillage. The city reeked. But today was market day down in Aspic Hole, and the pungent slick of dung-smell and rot that rolled over New Crobuzon was, in these streets, for these hours, improved with paprika and fresh tomato, hot oil and fish and cinnamon, cured meat, banana and onion.

Between the stalls stomped hissing constructs. Beggars argued in the bowels of deserted buildings. Members of strange races bought peculiar things.

The sensory detail is fine-grained and carefully selected. It creates a mélange of sensation specifically tailored to convey the chaos and layering of scents and sounds that such a bazaar would have. It is verisimilitude, but of the most fantastic variety.

From these “establishing” passages, Miéville introduces us to the character of Isaac, and here his world-building ratchets into high-gear. While simultaneously introducing us to the character’s values, priorities, and personality, he introduces us to some of the fantastic races that live in New Crobuzon, and paints lines of cultural tension into the city.

This is the point where, for me, Perdido Street Station became transportive. The combination of depth of character and simultaneous, evocative world-building transported me into the story’s fictional world.

Pacing & Tension: A Consequence of Character

To establish a fast pace and build tension, the characters need to be well-drawn. However, I find that well-constructed tension can often over-ride weaknesses in world-building. This is a phenomenon I have observed most often in television, particularly in spy shows like Covert Affairs or police procedurals like Castle.

By giving us characters who we invest in, and then by ratcheting up the tension and the pace, the writers can distract us from the implausible or slapdash world-building that permeates the story. This is, I think, a risky technique because it places escalating tension and world-building in opposition. At some point, the implausibility of the world-building might overpower the tension, and throw the reader out of the story. This, I think, is a weakness often found in much of the thriller genre.

But when the world-building and the tension both contribute to and derive from characterization, when all narrative horses are pulling in the same direction, the effect is to heighten the story’s transportive capabilities.

Intellectual and Moral Exploration: High Concept Escape

Intellectual and moral exploration can be highly stimulating, and I do not doubt that for some readers it provides the imaginative escape that I find in character, world-building, and pacing. But for me, I find that the intellectual dimension on its own cannot transport me. But when the intellectual/moral dimension supports and is supported by the characters, tension, and world-building of the story, then the transportive effect is greatly multiplied.

I am reminded of two very different reading experiences: Peter Watts Blindsight and Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket. Both books feature high-concept intellectual conjecture, and both are interesting and engaging on that front alone. However, Blindsight also builds compelling characters who are engaging and stimulating, and whose actions and choices directly reflect on and feed back into the novel’s intellectual considerations.

The Clockwork Rocket, by contrast, fails to develop plausible characters or to develop plausible world-building outside of the novel’s central conceit (see my earlier review here). It remains an engaging and interesting read, but for me, the weakness of its characterization and the shallowness of its world-building prevented it from being transportive.

Point-of-View: The Lens which Mediates the World

The more I think about it, the more I begin to subscribe to the thesis put forth by the Scribblies that “POV Fixes Everything.” In terms of enabling escapist reading, point-of-view is the foundation: it informs and shapes the way in which all other tools are applied in a given work.

If a story’s capacity to transport is determined by its characterization, its world-building, its pacing/tension, and its intellectual conceits, these components all must be communicated through the writing. The words we choose, the sentences we assemble, and the paragraphs we construct are all determined by the point-of-view the story is told through.

On a superficial level, the point-of-view determines which details get noticed (read: communicated to the reader), which values get explicitly communicated and which get implied, and which sensory details are presented. At first blush, this might seem to be the same as characterization, but point-of-view and character are not necessarily identical. They may be congruent in a work with limited POVs, but they need not be: the narrator always exists, even if a story is told in close or distant third person.

A story’s point-of-view – which may be distinct from its characters – informs the voice through which it is told. This affects the prose, in terms of its style and lyricism. It affects the way sentences are constructed, and while prose alone cannot transport me, it does constitute the grease that lubricates the story’s engine.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the stories which allow me to escape, those that transport me into a fantastic environment divorced from my quotidien concerns, have one over-arching characteristic in common: every component – their characterization, their world-building, their management of pacing, and their underlying intellectual concepts – are all unified according to the point-of-view(s) through which the story gets told.

What do you think? Which factors – or which configuration of factors – drives your escape into the stories you love?

Character Plausibility in Prose and on Screen


Over the last two years, The Professor and I have gotten really into police procedural TV. We’d been casual fans of NCIS and Criminal Minds for awhile, but when we got Netflix we started to systematically churn through shows like Numb3rs, Lie to Me, Sherlock, White Collar, Bones and most recently, Castle. We tend to like all sorts of flavors in the sub-genre: whether it’s comedic fare like Psych (the Professor asks me to note that she is less of a fan of this one), beyond-the-law like Burn Notice or Leverage, or forensics like Bones, we dig it all. But having recently completed the first season of Castle and simultaneously thinking about characterization for my current WIP, I had a bit of an epiphany:

The plausibility of plot is a conceit I will grant any story, provided the characters are plausible.

At first, this epiphany might seem obvious. But the more I’ve been thinking about it, the more I’ve come to realize it as a bone-deep pillar of solid writing. And that pillar supports all narrative media: prose, comics, film — anything.

Characterization at The Center of Every Story

Mystery — whether in film or prose — is always centered around a small number of crime fighters. Sherlock Holmes/John Watson, Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin, Don and Charlie Eppes, Michael Weston/Sam Axe/Fiona Glennan, etc. They are the heroes of the story, but more than that they are the window through which the plot is revealed. We find the mystery interesting for more than thirty seconds only insofar as we find interesting the heroes through which our experience is filtered.

Engagement with a character rests on that character’s plausibility. If we find ourselves calling bullshit on a character, then we won’t be engaged with them for long. This doesn’t mean that they need to be realistic: some of the best characters are completely unrealistic. Batman? Sherlock Holmes? People like that don’t really exist in real life. But we love them as characters because they are portrayed in such a way that we can conceive of a world in which they do. When an essential character fails this plausibility test, then the narrative’s ability to keep us engaged will be crippled.

A Study in Implausibility: Bones

I have an enormous problem with Bones. Granted, I’ve seen every episode that’s available on Netflix so far (I blame the Professor), but I have a real problem with much of the show’s writing. I find the show’s principal character (Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan) to be utterly unbelievable. I have no problem with her copious knowledge of anatomy, with the all-too-convenient pseudo-anthropological theory she espouses. Instead, my problem stems from the idea that someone so socially maladjusted can function at a high level in human society, and that a person unable to relate to a single living human could somehow write best-selling novels.

When the show opened, Bones was presented as being more Vulcan than Spock (a pop culture reference that she – purportedly a trained anthropologist – would not get). She was shown to have no ability to relate to other people, and only the most abrasive methods of communicating with them. The show took great pains to show us how outside-the-norm she was, and then offered us the hand-wavey justification that she gets away with it because she’s the best at what she does.

Sorry, I don’t buy it. There is no way that a person as socially maladjusted as the first season’s Bones could ever rise to a senior position in any field. Because doing so takes at least some modicum of people skills. Which we are clearly shown Bones lacks. Similarly, we are asked to believe that a character who is unable to frame her thoughts so that they are understood by other well educated characters can somehow write New York Times bestseller mysteries/thrillers. It is so completely implausible that — for me — it throws the rest of the show’s weaknesses into sharp relief.

Of course, the writers want to force character growth onto us by making the awakening of Bones’ empathy the show’s central theme (concretized through her relationship with her partner, Special Agent Seeley Booth). Quite frankly, Star Trek: The Original Series did it better, as did both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rex Stout. To make a character like Bones plausible is a delicate balancing act, requiring the writers to make sure that she skirts the very edge of acceptable behavior. Rather than toe that line carefully, the writers just cranked the idiosyncrasy dial to thirteen.

From the first episode, I failed to engage with the show’s primary character, and the show was consequently skating on thin ice. As a result, all of the other (much better written) characters had to do double-duty. By the fourth or fifth season, I was engaged with the show’s secondary characters enough to keep me marginally interested. But because I found the show’s principal hero so implausible, its plot conceits jumped out at me for their silliness, sloppiness, or utter implausibility.

A Study in Plausibility: Castle

We’ve recently started to watch Castle, which in some ways combines aspects of Bones with Lie to Me. We’re only through the first season at this point, but already I am sold on the characters’ plausibility. Richard Castle is supposed to be a best-selling mystery/thriller author (like Bones). He’s also a single dad (like Dr. Cal Lightman in Lie to Me) who also has to take care of/put up with his mother.

What makes Castle plausible as a character are two facts: first, he talks like a lot of writers I know. He focuses on story, on fun plot twists, and tries to frame every crime as a story. I think every writer does that. Second, he is multi-dimensional. His daughter, mother, and ex-wives are all totally independent from the crime he is engaged in solving. And because those relationships are written (and acted) well, we find ourselves engaging with a character ostensibly as implausible as Bones.

We accept Castle as a writer because of the way he speaks, because we see him typing away, because of his attitude towards book launches and reviews, and because he plays poker with James Patterson and Stephen J. Cannell. The show does exactly what film must: it shows us that Richard Castle is a writer by completely incorporating the fact into his behavior.

We accept Castle as a human being because of the way he interacts with both strangers and those closest to him. We like Castle, even though he can be a bit of a jerk, because his relationship with his daughter and mother show us what his priorities really are. And that characterization is made all the stronger through the differences between Castle and his daughter.

The plots of Castle are no less hackneyed or implausible than those of Bones. But because we believe in the character, we’re completely willing to suspend our disbelief and give the show a passing grade on plot.

Plausible Characterization in Prose and Film

Prose and film achieve characterization in very different ways. Although, to be fair, they need not be that different. In prose, especially in today’s writing, we are given characterization through a combination of demonstrable action and internal monologue. Because the narrator can get into the protagonist’s head or otherwise show us a close view of events as-if through their eyes, we are given a ringside seat for both the external (shown action) and internal (experienced action) expression of our protagonist’s character. It’s tempting to say we don’t need to “see” the character’s emotional state expressed in their actions, because we can take a shortcut right into their thoughts.

Visual media (film, comics, etc.) fight the same battle with one hand tied behind their backs. On film, we can’t possible get into our hero’s head or heart. Even with voice-over, we are never able to experience the inner life of the character directly. Books can transport us into the character’s head, but film cannot. Visual media rely entirely on what is shown to communicate character. This is a many-person job: the screenwriter needs to give the words, the director needs to frame the shot, and the actor needs to communicate the emotion. All we know of a character is through what we see/hear them explicitly do/say.

In prose, there are a myriad of devices that we can use to facilitate that characterization. On one end of the spectrum, we can take a page out of Dashiell Hammett’s playbook. Hammett’s descriptions are a masterclass in conveying characterization solely through demonstrated action. We don’t go into his characters heads, we don’t know what they’re thinking. Like the other characters in his stories, all we know is what we see them do. And yet, Sam Spade and the Charles’ are perfectly plausible. We know real people like them, even if we don’t like them very much. It is not a coincidence that Hammett was a mystery writer, by the by.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Vladimir Nabokov, who keeps us locked tight in his characters’ mind and emotions. We experience the story of Lolita through the mind and emotions of the vile Humbert Humbert. But Nabokov manages this deft trick of characterization almost exclusively through his mastery of voice. Yes, we see Humbert’s actions. But we also see his values and thoughts and emotions as he undertakes them. He is plausible not because we know people like him (I would hope not!) but because Nabokov frames the narrative in perfectly unified way, making the character and his actions inevitable. It is interesting to note that Lolita is almost the opposite of a mystery or police procedural: the crime is past, the guilty man caught, and we are shown the story through his eyes.

I suspect that in prose, every story is a balancing act between these two methods of characterization. Likely no two stories will ever or should ever strike the same balance. But as I go forward in my current WIP (and revise the characterization that I’ve been phoning in for the last couple of chapters) I’m definitely going to be thinking about how plausible the characters are. And while I’m at it, I think I’ll start watching the second season of Castle.

Earning/Maintaining a Reader’s Trust: Character/Narrator Consistency and Reliability (part 3 of 3)


NOTE: This is the third and final installment in a three-part series on earning and maintaining a reader’s trust. The first part focuses on earning initial trust just at the start of a story, while the second part focuses on how world-building, consequential plotting, and story structure/pacing affect the reader’s trust. This part deals with character consistency/reliability, and I know it’s long. I do apologize for that, but there’s really a lot to talk about here.

Consistent Characterization and Reader Trust

When we write, we create a wide variety of characters, each of whom has different degrees of complexity. Like real people, our characters’ choices, attitudes, personalities, and decisions are shaped by their experiences. The most memorable characters are those that are shown to be complex, to have foibles and flaws as everyone else. Readers appreciate flawed characters, but what matters is that their flaws and behavior are consistent with the events of the story. Some people claim that they like to be surprised by characters, but there is a big difference between letting the plot surprise us, and letting a character do so. Character actions should be an inevitable consequence of their natures, and their experiences before and during the story.

Every decision a character makes must logically follow from the experiences our reader has observed through the story. In Les Misérables, Hugo shows us the moral quandary that Marius Pontmercy finds himself in on the eve of revolution: should he join his friends on the barricades or escape with the love of his life, Cosette? Hugo establishes this as a real choice for Marius, one that forces him to choose between two equally “right” values (according to his own value system). As the reader, we understand that he can believably go either way on the choice. Which makes his final decision and the reveal both a surprise (either of the two options would have been) and satisfying.

The seeds of every major (and most minor) choice should be planted well in advance. The hard part, is to plant seeds that allow for branches of equal probability. If the character only has one plausible recourse, then where does tension derive from? This is one of my most frequent complaints about portal/quest fantasies, in particular those of the “prophesied monarch” sub-type. As I’ve grown older (and more curmudgeonly) I have found it very difficult to get any emotional tension out of this kind of story. They become predictable and dull, because I know a priori that every complication the hero runs into will at some point be resolved, and that every mistake he makes will be fixed by the end. The prophecy (which is all too rarely actually ambiguous) will take care of matters in the end.

By setting up characters who have real choices to make internally, and who have real conflicts amongst themselves, we maintain the reader’s interest in the underlying story – which is a prerequisite for maintaining their trust. If the character does something that was not adequately prepared for, something so surprising that it comes out of left field, then the reader may be shocked into losing all trust in the story.

Consider for a moment Star Wars. Would the story have worked if in Return of the Jedi Princess Leia betrayed the rebels to the Empire? No. It might have worked (though yielded a very different story) if Han Solo had done so (for money), or if Luke turned to the Dark Side. But Leia? There was nothing in her character to make such a choice remotely plausible. It would have been a bridge too far, a leap of faith that the audience would have been unwilling to follow.

However, this does not mean that characters need to always be reliable. In fact, one of my favorite methods of playing with reader trust is the use of an unreliable narrator/character.

Structures that Enable Trusting in Unreliable Storytelling

Whether it’s in film (Rashomon, The Usual Suspects, or Citizen Kane) or in prose (Akutagawa’s In a Grove, Nabokov’s Lolita, or Larbalestier’s Liar), I love unreliable narration/characterization. It’s a lever on which my entire understanding of a story can hinge. Executed skillfully, it offers an exponentially broader story experience. But how does the reader trust in a story when the storyteller is shown to be a liar? That’s a question that has been on my mind quite a lot recently, as one of my current WIPs deals extensively with the concept of deception.

In thinking it through, I think I’ve managed to identify five different modes of unreliable storytelling, each of which plays with reader trust in different ways. This list is by no means exhaustive, and I’d love to know other examples:

1 Implicit Unreliability
The narrative voice is strongly imbued with the characteristics of the story’s narrator, thus adopting the inherent biases, idiosyncrasies, or fallacies held by the narrator. These may include a childlike naivete, a desire to rationalize/justify morally reprehensible actions, or strongly held opinions that color the narrator’s perspective. What matters in such stories is that the narrative voice must go beyond the merely functional, and present a particularly close “lived-in” feel.

The book’s character/narrator will likely be the most memorable aspect of the book, and this stems entirely from a reliance on the narrator’s voice. The source of the narrator’s underlying unreliability affects our emotional position vis á vis the character: we love Huck Finn or Evie Spooner for their childlike innocence, even as that innocence is shattered by their experiences. We love to recoil from Humbert Humbert, and his beguiling rationalization of his monstrous deeds. We judge Chaucer’s Merchant, and the Wife of Bath for the positions and opinions they hold. At no point in the story itself do we as the author insert ourselves and tell the reader about the veracity of our narrator’s statements. Our job is to present the story as if it were the narrator’s, with whatever inaccuracies or ugliness that entails.

The success or failure of these stories rests on their ability to draw us into the character/narrator’s viewpoint. To aid in this process, such stories are often told in first-person to accelerate us into the reader’s head, though that is by no means a requirement. Typically, the reader’s enjoyment derives from a multi-layered interpretation of the text. On the one hand, we can enjoy the events unfold as we share in the narrator’s experiences. On the other hand, we have an intellectual and emotional response to our own interpretation of those experiences based upon our own value systems. We take the facts of the story as given, and generally we do not dispute them. However the moral and emotional implications will be drawn from the reader’s own values and opinions.

So long as the narrator is consistent in terms of voice and characterization, the reader will trust that the narrator is supplying the basic facts of the events accurately. However, if the voice is distinct enough, the reader gains that degree of separation that enables that multi-layered interpretation. This makes apparent the fact that the reader is expected to have value judgments that are independent of the narrators’. As a result, the reader will supply their own emotional/moral “truth” , based upon the facts filtered by the narrator. In essence, the reader is expected to trust the facts of the story, but to question the narrator’s interpretation of those facts. The reader’s “trust” in this type of unreliable narrator rests entirely on that narrator’s voice, and its distinctiveness and attractiveness (even if the character is reprehensible).

2 Conflicting POVs
When we combine multiple implicitly unreliable POVs, the result is often an interesting structure which throws into doubt the facts of the story. Here, it is not only the moral/emotional implications which need to be supplied by the user, but the facts of the story as well. Most frequently this story relies on presenting a series of narrators, each of whom recounts the same or closely-related events from their own highly subjective perspective. This structure creates a more complex intellectual puzzle than most implicitly unreliable stories, as it requires the reader to parse and analyze what characters want, what they say, and what they do not say. By analyzing the gaps between what different narrators tell us, the reader can infer the “true” facts of the story.

The facts of the story are themselves in flux in such stories, and will never be explicitly stated by any of the narrators. And because the underlying facts are ambiguous, so too are the emotional and moral implications of the story as well. This mode relies more heavily on a careful analysis of the details included in particular narrators’ versions of the story. Who includes what details, who mentions what, who justifies what actions, who lies, and when they do so are all vital factors that we need to have carefully mapped out as we write the story. The reader’s trust relies on the non-obvious nature of the “truth”. Because this type of story is a puzzle-box, readers who figure out or intuit the puzzle within the first couple of chapters may lose interest: their intellectual investment will have been wasted. To maintain the reader’s trust, balance must be maintained between all of the perspective characters, in terms of level of detail offered and the reader’s expected emotional investment.

3 Explicit Unreliability
In many stories, we are explicitly told that we should not trust the narrator: that their words cannot necessarily be taken at face value. This may be because the character is a self-avowed liar, or is insane, or because a framing device tells us a priori that the story is untrue. In each case, this model puts the reader on alert that they are dealing with an unreliable narrator and forces the reader into a “problem solving” mode of story consumption.

This model seems to be especially popular in speculative fiction, where a number of authors (Gene Wolfe in particular) execute admirably. When we read stories like There Are Doors or Soldier of the Mist, we question every statement (however banal) that the narrator makes. In essence, we’re playing a perennial game of gotcha with a chimerical narrator: it is only through the narrator that we can glean insight into the author’s intent, and by catching the narrator out we hope to deepen our understanding of the story’s thematic implications.

This is my personal favorite type of unreliable narrator, as when done well, it leaves almost infinite room for conjecture. Books like Soldier of the Mist or Justine Larbalestier’s Liar leave us room for hours and hours of discussion and examination. These stories rely on a combination of factors to maintain reader trust:

First, we must balance the narrator’s stated unreliability against the need to ground our reader in the story. This balancing act rests on the idea of uncertainty. In Soldier of the Mist, Latro’s interactions with gods and monsters may be a result of the head wound that gave him his anterograde amnesia. The character acts as though they are real, because he is unaware of this uncertainty. We as the reader need to choose which interpretation we believe: the explicitly stated, skeptical viewpoint? Or the character’s credulous one? We face the same choice, though further complicated, in Justine Larbalestier’s Liar where on the first page our narrator tells us that she is a pathological liar:

I was born with a light covering of fur.

After three days it had all fallen off, but the damage was done. My mother stopped trusting my father because it was a family condition he had not told her about. One of many omissions and lies.

My father is a liar and so am I.

But I’m going to stop. I have to stop.

I will tell you my story and I will tell it straight. No lies, no omissions.

That’s my promise.

This time I truly mean it.

We are at first told that the narrator is a liar, explicitly letting us know that she is not to be trusted. But a moment later we are told that from here on in, everything she says is the truth (“No lies, no omissions.”). At first blush, we might be tempted to believe this. But then two paragraphs further we find two short words which again make us doubt: “This time I truly mean it” (emphasis mine). This push-me/pull-you dynamic is characteristic of these kinds of stories, even when the narrator’s unreliability is more of a background condition (as in Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).

In the stories where this explicit unreliability is effective and maintains the reader’s trust, there exists a thematic consistency that encourages dueling interpretations of the text. We can almost look at it has having two separate ways of reading the stories: one where we accept the narrator’s word, and one where we disbelieve most of it. If each interpretation wrestles with similar themes, and if each remains plausible based on the text, the reader’s trust will be maintained. By making the narrator explicitly unreliable, we are entering into a contract with the reader, promising that we will consciously play with “truth” in the story.

This is one reason why I was disappointed by James Clemens’ The Banned and the Banished series: in the first novel, Wit’ch Fire, Clemens uses an interesting framing device to establish that the story we are about to read is (ostensibly) false, with hints that this stems from political revisionism. However, as we get into the meat of the story this frame becomes practically forgotten: the story devolves into a fairly standard portal/quest fantasy, with marginal attempts at exploring the ambiguity introduced by the book’s forward. For those of us who like unreliable narrators, ambiguity is like an awesome toy. If the author puts it on the table, we want to play with it. If it’s there, but we aren’t allowed to play, then we feel cheated.

However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Much as I admire Larbalestier’s Liar, I found the constant retractions and restatements tiring. When we craft an explicitly unreliable narrator, we’re asking our reader to pay constant attention to the various plausible interpretations we offer them. The more variants the reader must store in their head, the more tiring the experience will become. In most successful cases, the author introduces the narrator’s unreliability and then leaves us with just two ways of interpreting the story: either based on the narrator’s prima facie interpretation, or taking the narrator’s statements with a grain of salt.

In Larbalestier’s case, her story rested upon a narrator who explicitly contradicted her story some twelve times (by my count). This created a swirling cloud of possible interpretations, with many fractal branches to consider. Of course, this was Larbalestier’s thematic goal. However, neither the voice nor the story’s underlying conflict were strong enough to justify the significant investment of effort demanded of me. This may simply be a question of taste, and my own ability to identify with Larbalestier’s character. Regardless of how much I might admire the book’s structural ambitions (which – unquestionably – Larbalestier delivers on excellently), the narrator’s voice was not quite strong enough to maintain my trust.

Bottom line: for explicitly unreliable narrators, make sure that their unreliability relates directly to the story’s thematic concerns, be careful of asking the reader to keep too many plausible interpretations in their heads, and try to offset the inherent complexity through an engaging voice and conflicts.

4 Revealed Unreliability
Revealed unreliability relies on a moment of anagnorisis or discovery regarding the narrator. While more commonly an element in film than in novels, this probably owes its origins to Agatha Christie’s classic mystery The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Stories with revealed unreliability rely on a twist ending where some fact is revealed about the narrator (e.g. their identity, mental state, etc.) which forces the audience to re-evaluate the entirety of the preceding story.

Twist endings of this kind are very controversial, and difficult to pull off. Badly rendered twists (text: “It was all a dream!” author: Bahahaha!) are considered a trite cliché. Debate still abounds in the mystery community around whether Christie’s classic is good or bad. That book relies on a narrator who purposefully leaves out vital clues and inserts many red herrings to obscure the killer’s identify – up until the very end of the book, when the killer is revealed. As an early form of this kind of mystery, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is ostentatious by most measures. Even astute and experienced readers of the genre have difficulty figuring out the mystery before the killer is revealed, which is no doubt one source of readers’ frustration.

Revealed unreliability has become much more accepted – particularly in the literary community. Nevertheless, it is a difficult feat to pull off effectively. To function properly, the author must take great care to lay the seeds of inevitability such that the “answer” becomes apparent on subsequent readings of the same story. Palahniuk’s Fight Club does this particularly well by establishing the tonal uncertainty of the narrator’s own mind: at no point before the reveal is the narrator explicitly shown to be unreliable, but the narrator’s own doubts as to his reliability create the possibility of the reveal near the end.

From what I can see, a revealed unreliability is easier to pull off in film, where the use of visual images can rapidly communicate the revelation to to the audience. Because the train moves very fast, the audience doesn’t have time to feel cheated. Prime examples of this include The Usual Suspects, A Beautiful Mind, and Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige.

In revealed unreliability, it is very easy for the audience to lose trust at the moment of revelation. The reader’s trust relies on a sense of not being cheated. This relies on the author salting the preceding events with enough hints that before the revelation are innocuous enough, but after the revelation make it seem inevitable. Furthermore, the revelation must fit smoothly and plausibly into the preceding events. If it does not (“It was all a dream!”) then the reader will feel like the author pulled a fast one, and cheated them of a satisfying experience.

Everything Relies on Everything Else

In conclusion, everything about reader trust relies on consistently and smoothly introducing the story’s building blocks such that the reader does not notice. I think the train metaphor is a good one for that trust: If the reader can count the rivets on the train, then the train isn’t moving fast enough. The speed at which it moves is only partially a question of pacing. The train’s engine is stoked by the cultural touchstones it relies upon, the narrative voice it is told in, and the author’s precise use of language. It runs on rails of world-building, and story structure, and consistent plotting. And it’s driven by characters who are internally consistent, whether they are reliable or not. If they’re not reliable, then at the very least they need to be functionally unreliable, to have that reliability carefully mapped out by the author so that the reader’s trust is maintained.

Speeding Train is Reader Trust

This is Reader Trust

Many good stories fall short on one or more of these components. And that’s okay. Honestly, I can’t think of any “perfect” stories that nail every aspect of this. It might be impossible (at least by us mere mortals). But even if they’re not all equally solid, the components do need to balance and work together to earn the reader’s initial investment, to earn their trust, and to keep them turning pages. Which is ultimately the goal: readers show us their trust by turning to the next page.

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