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Posts tagged ‘Gene Wolfe’

Guest Post on A Dribble of Ink: Gene Wolfe


So while this blog has been quiet for some time (stupid offline life getting in the way of proper blogging), I did just have a guest post published over at the Hugo-nominated A Dribble of Ink.

Entitled Gene Wolfe: The Reliably Unreliable Author, the piece provides a fairly broad analysis of the novel-length work of Gene Wolfe, one of my favorite speculative fiction authors (despite some problematic issues).

If you’ve read or heard of Wolfe’s work, I suggest you check out the piece, and in general take a look at A Dribble of Ink. It’s one of the best genre blogs out there, and fully deserving of its Hugo nomination!

Voice as Narrative Lens and Reader Lubricant


While at Readercon a few weeks back, a friend and I had a fascinating discussion about narrative voice, the role it plays in multi-book series, and the effect it has on the reader within and across narrative arcs. I keep coming back to voice here because I think it is perhaps the most powerful tool in a writer’s toolkit. But recently, while reading and re-reading a great many books in other genres (romance and thrillers, in particular) I’ve realized that voice achieves its power and utility by simultaneously fulfilling two very different functions:

Narrative Lens Reader Lubricant
Voice is the lens through which we view the story’s other pieces (e.g. style, structure, plot, setting, theme, characters, etc.). Voice is the lubricant that determines how quickly we invest in what matters to us as readers of a particular story.

What Constitutes Narrative Voice?

To be clear, when I talk about “narrative voice” I actually mean something very technical, at perhaps the most granular level of storytelling: words, sentences, paragraphs. Narrative voice is a way of selecting words and putting them together into sentences, an approach to constructing paragraphs, a “way of speaking” that comes through in the prose.

Lots of writers talk about the “authorial voice” as some quasi-mystical emergent property, and I’m honestly quite uncomfortable with the very concept. At the end of the day, the most basic thing writers have control over is our words. Some authors may choose to write in a consistent narrative voice (it’s often a practical requirement if you’re writing a long-running series), but I believe that should be a choice.

A professional writer should be able to choose the narrative voice to suit a particular story’s creative needs.

For example, compare the narrative voices in Elizabeth Bear’s Dust and Blood and Iron. The same author, excellent storytelling, but two very different narrative voices. Or compare Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné to his Behold the Man. Despite both novels’ creative effectiveness, their narrative voices are completely different. And that is as it should be, considering their different priorities.

Focusing on Story Priorities

What’s a story really made of? At the most reduced level: those letters, words, and sentences. But for most stories, they aren’t the story’s point: They are merely the substrate through which its points get communicated. Those words and sentences combine to create narrative artifacts like character, plot, setting, theme, etc. and to produce reader reactions like tension, excitement, terror, cognitive dissonance, etc.

But here’s the catch:

The priority given to any narrative element is going to differ between individual stories, and differ even more across genres. When people say that science fiction focuses on “plot over character” or that literary fiction focuses on “character over plot”, they may be making sweeping generalizations as wrong as they are right. But at the same time, those sweeping generalizations give us insight into the narrative conventions which apply to a given genre. And the prioritization of narrative elements is one such convention.

Consider, for a moment, the thriller genre. When it comes to narrative elements, I would say that the thriller genre is downright defined by its focus on/prioritization of pacing and tension. In a similar fashion, the romance genre is defined by its focus on/prioritization of interpersonal relationships and inter-character power dynamics. In much of the literary fiction genre, the aesthetics of the voice itself are often the priority/focus.

And in each case, it is the narrative voice which focuses the reader’s unconscious attention, and sets the stage for the story (through its priorities) to affect the reader.

How does the Narrative Lens Focus?

Narrative voice focuses the reader’s attention through its word choice, sentence structure, and paragraph construction.

The words we use establish a tone, carry emotional connotations, or set off unconscious associations. Whatever the narrative voice mentions imbues the mentioned with authority in a very direct sense: if the narrative voice doesn’t mention something, then when reading we will consider it unimportant (except for where it is important, when over time the voice focuses our attention on what hasn’t been mentioned – see Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or Wolfe’s Peace).

When we put our words together into clauses and sentences, we give those associations, connotations, and unspoken perceptions direction. We give them a pace, a rhythm, a progression. The consistency of that direction, the timing of its application relative to the story’s events, shapes our perception of the story’s pacing, its tension, its themes, and even its characters.

I’ve written before about the use of simile in noir and hard-boiled crime fiction, and that is precisely the type of vocal focusing which I mean. When used carefully, narrative voice becomes a magnifying glass that intensifies the reader’s focus. However, it doesn’t always intensify that gaze: at times, the narrative voice can become transparent…which itself prioritizes certain facets of the story.

The Use of the Transparent Voice

What do writers like Dan Brown, John Sanford, Daniel Silva, James Paterson (et al), etc. have in common? For one, they all tend to top the bestseller charts writing in the thriller genre. But aesthetically, none of them are known for the quality of their prose. Quite the contrary, in fact: Each has had their prose roundly criticized at one point or another.

And yet, I contend that that their prose is just fine for their purpose and for their story’s priorities: Their narrative voice is transparent because – in their genre and for their stories – the narrative voice should be transparent. If the narrative voice employed Kazuo Ishiguro-esque metaphorical flourishes or John Le Carré-ish neologism, it would occlude both the pacing and events of the plot…which seem to me to be the focus of their stories. For such stories, a transparent narrative is a feature – not a bug.

However, when we look at ostensibly comparable work by Jeff Lindsay (Darkly Dreaming Dexter) or Michael Connelly (The Black Echo), we find a very different narrative strategy. Such authors use a distinctive narrative voice, applying particular vocal techniques to focus our attention on character at the expense of plot. Their narrative voices are more noticeable, but that is because they use their narrative voice to reveal character.

And still other authors – like J.R.R. Tolkien – use voice to focus the reader’s attention on the world and setting.

Our Love Affair with Narrative Voice

And yet, despite the infinite variety of narrative voices we fall in love with voices. In fact, I would argue that we fall in love with narrative voices long before we fall in love with a particular story, or a particular author’s work. And the relationship there is – to a large degree – causal: The story’s narrative voice is what first grabs us, and aligns our mental state with the story’s priorities.

When well handled, the narrative voice primes us to be affected by the story. In this sense, narrative voice lubricates our experience of story.

Reader Lubricant Going In and Coming Out

When we turn to the first page and begin reading, the narrative voice is our first experience of the story. It is through the narrative voice that we begin to understand the characters, the plot, the setting, the themes, and – by an unspoken and unconscious implication – the priorities of the story. It simultaneously sets our expectations and delivers (in the literal sense) the payoff.

Controlling the speed with which this happens is – I think – one of the hardest tricks to learn. In some genres – notably YA, thrillers, romance – the market prefers for the reader’s engagement in the story to be immediate: First sentence, and go! But in other genres – notably literary fiction – there is more room for a gradual build. The vocal techniques that accomplish each are quite different.

But while voice controls the speed with which we engage with the story, it also affects our propensity for engagement with subsequent stories. In series fiction (particularly in episodic fiction) narrative voice becomes a shorthand for the reader’s mental state.

At the conclusion of Jim Butcher’s Storm Front or Harry Connolly’s Child of Fire, we have associated those respective narrative voices with a set of narrative priorities, an emotional way of feeling. That association then becomes almost Pavlovian in nature: When we pick up Fool Moon or Game of Cages, we recognize the narrative voice and it immediately puts us in a frame-of-mind reminiscent of the previous books.

Figuring Voice Out

I’m still working on figuring narrative voice out. I suspect that I’ll be figuring it out my entire life. It’s somewhat galling for me – as a writer – to have such difficulty finding the words to articulate what I’ve learned about. It’s simultaneously an abstract concept and a very concrete object, and somewhere between those two poles lies the nebulous reality of narrative voice. But with all of the cross-genre reading I’ve been doing over the past couple of years, I have – however – learned one incontrovertible fact:

The best way to understand narrative voice is to read widely, read analytically, across as many different genres as possible. Because narrative voice – and the priorities it focuses our attention on, and the speed with which it engages us – is itself a genre convention.

The Limits of Wonder and Defining Speculative Fiction


Much as I love genre theory, I typically steer clear of taxonomic debates. I find that genre classification tends to put the cart before the horse, to be the critical equivalent of describing an engine in terms of its color. Most such debate reduces to a collection of observations that do little to advance our understanding of how narrative mechanisms actually function. Yet over the weekend, Ian Sales posted a thought-provoking essay which diverges from this general rule. Unlike most attempts at genre taxonomy, Sales’ definition of speculative fiction tries to be systematic and comprehensive, built from a set of first principles articulated in previous essays on wonder and the source of agency in SF/F. On balance, Sales’ focus and clarity of thought make his proposed definition that rare critical beast: a critically helpful taxonomic construct.

Unfortunately, Sales’ definition of speculative fiction is also flawed.

Where Do Definitions Come From?

There is much in Sales’ essay that I agree with, and I think the most important point he makes is this:

A useful definition has to describe something intrinsic to the text, not something extra-textual.

If a taxonomy is to be valid, true, and useful then it must emerge from the texts being analyzed. While I know some in the arts who look askance at the scientific method, basic logic suggests that a viable theory must be supported by repeatable observation.

If we wish to define a genre, we must point to the identifiable and unique features of that genre. Romance, for example, benefits from a beautifully succinct definition: “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending.” One could likely come up with something just as elegant for mystery/crime or westerns.

But it is the broad, all-encompassing categories like speculative fiction and mainstream literature whose defining characteristics become harder to pin down, and that is because the reasons we enjoy them often occlude their underlying structures.

Dragons, aliens, magic, faster-than-light travel, etc. are extremely rare in mainstream literary fiction. When we read speculative fiction, they can offer us that pernicious “sense of wonder” which so often muddles critical analysis of the genre. On a superficial level, identifying speculative fiction by its devices has the simultaneous benefit of being easy and rarely incorrect. But it is a superficial and facile approach that fails to tell us anything about either how the narrative is constructed or how that construction contributes to its effects.

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

Sales is right to point to the weakness of identifying genre based on the devices that appear in the text. Just because a book features dragons or elves does not mean it is fantasy (or rather, does not mean it isn’t science fiction).

Consider the science fictional treatment of dragons in both Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent (which I discussed at greater length here) and Michael Swanwick’s The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, or Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance’s fantastical treatments of hard science in The Book of the New Sun and Tales of the Dying Earth, respectively. As these works make clear, genre taxonomy cannot be reduced to a checklist of tropes. How such devices are used in the text and their relationships with the narrative’s characters, plots, themes, and settings have a greater significance than the mere fact of their mention.

While Sales’ stated goal (to define speculative fiction using characteristics intrinsic to the text) is one with which I am in complete agreement, I fear that his definition falls wide of the mark. Of his two defining criteria (wonder and [the source of narrative] agency), fully one half is external to the text and based entirely on a reader’s subjective, individual experience of the narrative.

Critically Pernicious Wonder

“Sense of wonder” is a critically contentious term that seems to come in and out of vogue every generation. I personally subscribe to the belief that it does have critical value, but only insofar as one of several diagnostic tools. Its utility as a criterion for definition is limited by the fact that our mileage may vary.

Sales argues – in line with reasoning by Romanian SF critic Cornel Robu – that “wonder” is centrally concerned with scale, and that science fiction fosters a sense of wonder through the actualization of scale in the reader’s perception. To be clear, this is not a bad way of thinking about wonder. But it is a very specific, highly individual, and rather limited one.

In my own reading, I find that many concepts, images, devices, and even phrases can foster a sense of wonder. For me, it isn’t all about scale: It may also relate to emotional intimacy (e.g. John Crowley’s Little, Big), or spirituality (e.g. James Blish’s A Case of Conscience), or mathematical or rhetorical elegance (Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket and Elizabeth Bear’s Dust, respectively). Many have written about “wonder” as touching on the sublime, verging on the transcendent, or as enabling a reader’s conceptual breakthrough. As a concept, it has descriptive value. But its own definition is imprecise, and that very imprecision stems from the term’s innate subjectivity.

Wonder is a quality intrinsic to the reader’s experience, and not to the text.

As a result, an epistemological definition of speculative fiction that uses wonder as one of its two legs cannot stand. “Sense of wonder” is neither a quantifiable nor an independently repeatable observation that can be made for a given text. This weakness is further supported by Sales’ own (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) equation for quantifying wonder, which itself relies on four inputs which are personal to the reader and have nothing to do with the text in question.

An Alternative Definition of Speculative Fiction

However, Sales’ definition does have value. I particularly appreciate his insight into the source of narrative agency. I’ve been thinking about his breakdown for the last couple of days, and I think he makes an excellent point:

Science fiction and fantasy can be differentiated by the narrative text’s implied prime mover. Fantasy’s implicit prime mover is the author, while science fiction’s implicit prime mover is deterministic natural law (which is, admittedly, often conceived and communicated by the author).

Of course, the author in all cases has control over both the narrative and their fictional world. However, what Sales really highlights isn’t the question of how the story is imbued with narrative agency. Rather, it is the implied author’s relationship/attitude towards their fictional reality.

If the text communicates the implied author’s attitude as explicitly deterministic or naturalistic, then the work is likely to be science fictional. If the text communicates that attitude as either unexamined, theological (even given a fictional religion), or metaphysical, then the work is likely to be fantasy.

Such a characterization seems to be broadly consistent with Sales’ use of “agency”, yet such a distinction is useful inasmuch as it helps us to differentiate science fiction from fantasy. However, it does little to differentiate speculative fiction from other more mainstream genres.

A Definition of Speculative Fiction

Rather than utilize “wonder” as the definition’s second axis, I would instead suggest the centrality of the speculative/impossible to the plot. The more speculative the plot, the more likely a given work can be deemed speculative fiction. That seems somewhat tautological, but it allows us to neatly place any work of fiction along a spectrum of “speculation”.

This alternative definition seems to be less susceptible to edge cases than Sales’ original: By taking into account the totality of the implied author’s relationship to their fictional reality, works like Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination can still be comfortably classified as science fiction despite their central speculative conceit going relatively unexamined. At the same time, by exploring the speculative elements’ relationship to the plot (as opposed, for example, to the theme) we can differentiate works of magic realism like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude from secondary world fantasies like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

This lets us construct several precise definitions actually based on characteristics that are observable within the text:

  1. Speculative fiction is fiction where speculative elements (i.e. devices of the fantastic, scientific extrapolation, impossible conceits, etc.) are central to the narrative’s plot specifically, irrespective of their relationship to either theme or character.
  2. Fantasy is speculative fiction where the implied author’s relationship to the fictional reality is unexamined, theological, or metaphysical in nature. A fantasy’s implied author accepts the fictional reality without necessarily trying to explain it.
  3. Science fiction is speculative fiction where the implied author’s relationship to the fictional reality is deterministic or naturalistic. A science fiction’s implied author assumes and communicates an explicable fictional reality.

By focusing on the relationship of a narrative’s speculative elements to its plot and the implied author’s attitude towards their fictional reality, we gain the ability to discuss the use of the fantastic and the speculative as metaphors and conceits, and to apply that discussion against narrative structure, techniques of characterization, and narrative subtext.

In other words, these definitions provide us with increased analytical clarity and precision – which is what definitions are meant to provide.

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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