Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Vladimir Nabokov’

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.

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.

Earning/Maintaining a Reader’s Trust: Starting a Story with Cultural Touchstones, Narrative Voice, and Precision (part 1 of 3)


I mentioned last week about how I’ve been on a spy fiction kick recently, and all of the deceptions and double-crosses have left me thinking quite a bit about trust in fiction. Because really, every piece of fiction is a lie. And yet when we sit down to enjoy it, we’re willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt and offer some modicum of trust (on credit, of course). And this begs the question: why? How do writers earn that trust, and how can we manipulate it?

NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series of posts. This post is focused on initially gaining a reader’s trust with a story’s opening. On Saturday, I’ll post I posted the second installment focusing on how world-building, consequential plotting and story structure affect reader trust. And on Tuesday I’ll post I posted the final installment, focusing on character consistency and narrator/character reliability.

Reader Trust as the Foundation of Fiction

The act of reading is an act of profound trust: without ever articulating it, the reader tells us that they will approach our words as truth in order to derive some benefit (catharsis, enlightenment, etc.) at the end of the story. Coleridge called this a willing suspension of disbelief, and while I know many people have a problem with that phrase, I’ve always really liked it. When we read a story, we are giving the author the benefit of the doubt: we’re not scoring points and indicating every falsehood the author tells us. Instead, we’re accepting the author’s lies fiction at face value because we believe that at the story’s conclusion, the experience will have been worth it.

This trust is not automatic. Nor is it easy. Reading a story takes effort, and some (Italo Calvino, say) take more effort than others (Dan Brown). In speculative fiction, this trust is even more important because we ask more of our readers. When reading secondary world fantasy or far-future science fiction, the reader needs to internalize our world-building. To be immersed in our imagined environment takes more investment on the part of the reader (more new words to remember, more fictional context to internalize). When reading a locked-room mystery, the reader inherently trusts that everything will be explained at the story’s end. If the reader is to be emotionally invested in a character, they must trust that the character’s actions have meaning and consequence.

Trust is what gets the reader to read the next sentence, the next paragraph, to turn the page, and to read the next chapter. The reader needs to have confidence that the author will make their journey worthwhile: the moment they lose that confidence, the book gets put down and (at best) forgotten.

Reader Psychology, Reader Trust and Writer Control

Reader trust is only partially in the writer’s control. A reader’s willingness to trust an author is based partially in their own psychology, and partially in the writing itself. Obviously, a reader is likely to cut a much-loved author more slack than someone brand new to them. That’s because the author has built up a pre-existing level of trust, even if the text itself does not engender that trust. For example, I slogged through most of China Miéville’s Kraken despite the fact that I didn’t enjoy it because on past experience I trusted Miéville to make it worth the effort in the end. When the book didn’t satisfy, my level of trust in the author for subsequent books decreased (although so far Embassytown has been undoing the damage). Short of only writing books that don’t suck, there is nothing a writer can do about this: there will always be readers new to our books, so I figure it’s best not to stress over it.

The reader’s preconceived tastes are equally important. Many people know what they like and only read within that one particular genre or sub-genre. When reading outside of their comfort zone, their level of trust may be nonexistent. Someone who only ever reads police procedurals is likely to be a harder convert to Amish romance. As writers, we might deplore this kind of blinkered reading, but it remains a fact. And one that we can do very little about: there will always be readers who we can’t convert.

Equally important is the reader’s state of receptivity. While Frank Herbert’s Gurney Halleck might gripe that mood is a thing for cattle and love-play, the fact is that the reader’s state of mind affects how they read. Some days, I’m in the mood to be immersed. I want something fun, vivid, and escapist. Other days, I want the mental challenge of unreliable narrators and non-linear structure. And sometimes, I just want to read some dry non-fiction. If I try to force myself to read something I’m not in the mood for, my willingness to trust the author is decreased. However, the author does have some influence over the reader’s mood. Before the reader has even finished the first page, we have control over the book’s technical execution, its cultural touchstones, and the narrative voice. And all three affect the reader’s frame of mind.

Technical Execution: Sine qua non for Reader Trust

We’re always told not to judge a book by its cover, but the fact is that we do. When we see a book that is poorly designed, shoddily structured, or badly proof-read, the level of trust we’re willing to offer the author decreases. This, actually, is one of the issues I run into with self-published eBooks. When I see a traditionally published book, I know that a team of experienced people worked to make it the best book possible. That team worked for (typically) about a year after the book was finished to line-edit, copy-edit, proof-read, and design the final work. The fact that the editors actually acquired the book means that someone (actually a committee, more typically) thought the author worthy of their trust. Even if that book still has mistakes, even if it still has a lousy cover, the editorial team’s efforts contribute to increase my trust.

Many (and thankfully an increasing number of) self-published eBooks are well-edited, copy-edited, proof-read, and designed. But when compared to traditionally published novels, a greater share of self-pubbed eBooks are not. I have been burned so often by unprofessional self-pubbed eBooks that my level of trust for the entire category is (unfortunately) decreased by association. That may be unfair to those eBook publishers who work their butts off to execute well, but hey: that’s the capricious judgment of the consumer.

The quality of a book’s technical execution is the cost of entry to reader trust. A book can break all the rules of syntax (Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange comes to mind) and still be excellent. But there is an inherent difference between breaking rules by design and breaking them through inattention. That difference is precision, and the sense of the author’s ineluctable control over their words. If the reader cracks open the first page, and they see haphazardly misspelled words, broken clauses, and meaningless tense shifts, their level of trust will drop through the floor because we are asking them to work too hard to get to the story.

Language is the rail on which the story runs. Would you trust a train where the passengers needed to fix it while riding?

Cultural Touchstones, Clichés, and Psychological Baggage

Assuming the writing is technically well-executed, we still need to wrestle with the reader’s frame of mind. One of the tools for doing so is what I call cultural touchstones. Writers are told to avoid clichés like pestilential vermin, but I believe that clichés have a use in fiction. They are able to cast a concise and powerful spell on the reader, and used appropriately, they become a shortcut into the reader’s mental/emotional state. While they should not be relied upon to the exclusion of all else, they can be incredibly valuable for getting the reader into the desired frame of mind.

Imagine for a moment a preschool, where twenty toddlers (our readers) are running wild and screaming bloody murder. The teacher, a much put upon soul, claps and shouts “Story time!” All of the readers kids take their seats, and look up expectantly. In this idealized scenario, our brave teacher is able to shift her audience’s mental state just by giving them a practiced touchstone, a pair of words that establishes their expectations based on their past experiences. Clichés work the same way.

Consider the sonorous phrase “Once upon a time…” If we come from a western cultural background, this hackneyed cliché is steeped in history and associations. It brings to mind princesses, wicked queens, fairy godmothers, and wolves in the woods. It carries with it a host of psychological baggage associations, which we can use when we tell stories. If we start a story with that phrase, we set certain expectations in the reader’s mind. They can safely assume that we will be dealing with the tropes of fairy tale, that the story will follow certain conventions relevant to the subgenre. Unless the author subsequently shows us that they intend to subvert those conventions, we should not expect a cyberpunk dystopia to follow.

Famous clichés (“Once upon a time…”, “It was a dark and stormy night…”, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…”) only work effectively when put to use tactically and consciously. They are the literary equivalent of a cannon. If they sneak into our writing haphazardly, then our writing will quite simply suck. We will be pushing the reader’s emotional buttons not wisely, but too well. Used sparingly, they have the narrative effect of slamming the reader into the desired mental state. Their impact is fast and powerful, but lacks in subtlety and nuance. For more finely grained control of your reader’s mental state, consider using imagery as cultural touchstones and narrative voice as a modulator.

Cultural Touchstones and Narrative Voice without the Cliché

Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles are inherently concerned with the conventions of fairy tales, yet she has enormous discipline in avoiding the clichés of the sub-genre. Consider how she opens Dealing with Dragons, the first book in the series:

Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable. The climate was unremarkable. The knights kept their armor brightly polished mainly for show — it had been centuries since a dragon had come east. There were the usual periodic problems with royal children and uninvited fairy godmothers, but they were always the sort of thing that could be cleared up by finding the proper prince or princess to marry the unfortunate child a few years later. All in all, Linderwall was a very prosperous and pleasant place.

Cimorene hated it.

Patricia C. Wrede, Dealing with Dragons, 1990

Wrede does not use a single cliché, even though her subject matter is ostensibly fairy-tale related. Instead, she relies on imagery that is already associated with fairy tales (knights and dragons, royal children and uninvited fairy godmothers, etc.) to put the reader in a fairy tale frame of mind. But by avoiding a reliance on a hoary old cliché, Wrede also gains the space to employ the second tool for managing reader receptivity: narrative voice.

In her first paragraph, she describes a stereotypical fairy tale kingdom. But through the application of careful phrases she establishes a sense of whimsy (“…the number five was fashionable”, “knights kept their armor brightly polished mainly for show”). These images and concepts are not cultural touchstones the way dragons or fairy godmothers are. Instead, they are included to show the reader that the narrator has a sense of humor and acknowledges the inherent silliness of all fairy tales. This contributes to reader trust in two key fashions: juxtaposed against the fairy tale imagery, it establishes that the author is familiar with the conventions of the subgenre, which in turn establishes Wrede’s authority and instills confidence. Second, it undermines (though does not yet subvert) fairy tale conventions, telegraphing to the reader that the author intends to play with expectations. This second contribution sets the stage for Wrede’s masterful one-sentence second paragraph (“Cimorene hated it.”), where she packs characterization, theme, and pacing acceleration into three short words.

This use of voice draws the reader in through unity of character, purpose, and precise execution. Examining the text closely, every word serves a purpose. Even the design contributes to its effectiveness: we have three editions of this book in our house (and an eBook edition on my phone) and every single edition has the first and second paragraphs on the book’s first page. It is the totality of those two paragraphs that Wrede uses as a hook. If she dropped the first paragraph altogether, the second paragraph (the classically “interesting” paragraph with character and emotional engagement) would be meaningless and emotionally dull. It is that slow first paragraph that gives her second paragraph context, like a steep hill on a roller-coaster.

Timing and Reader Trust: When Should the Reader Be Hooked?

Just about every piece of writing advice tells us to hook the reader ASAP, preferably in the first sentence. Like all generalities, it is generally good advice. But there are alternatives available, which may potentially make more sense for our story. Wrede’s first sentence, while interesting, is not a classically interesting hook. It fails to introduce a character, conflict, dramatic action, or thematic factors. Yet the precision of its prose and the sense of whimsy communicated through the voice is likely to get us to the second sentence, which in turn brings us to the third, and so on. Until we get to the second paragraph, have finished the first page, and find ourselves thinking “Okay, Wrede, you’ve earned our trust (for now). Let’s see where this goes.”

When I write, I like to think of it as getting the reader to the next sentence, then the next paragraph, then the next page, then the next chapter. Every sentence and every paragraph is a chance for me to degrade, lose, or (worst of all) betray the reader’s trust. The more of their trust I’ve built up, and the sooner I do so, the better. If I can earn a page’s worth of trust in my first sentence, great. Sometimes, that is possible. But if not? Well, that’s not the end of the world. So long as I can identify the point by which I need their trust, and so long as the writing to earn and maintain that trust is precise, I’m ahead of the game.

I’ve read many stories that never really earned my trust and just meandered into the action. If you’ve read a lot of fantasy, you know what I’m talking about: front-loaded prologues offering backstory that only interests the author, epigraphs that I suspect most folks don’t even read, etc. Sometimes, slow beginnings are the best way to start a story. But the greatest tool an author has to get the reader through that slow start is the precision of their words. Nabokov pulls this off superlatively in Lolita, where even with a distancing framing device and an unreliable (and unsympathetic) narrator, every word follows inevitably and beautifully from its antecedent.

I generally don’t notice that precision consciously on my first reading of a text. When executed well, it should be invisible (if we can count the rivets on the engine, the train isn’t moving fast enough). But even if it’s not consciously noticed, it still affects how I perceive the story and the author. Precise control of language establishes confidence that the author’s expert hand is on the tiller, and thus builds reader trust. That trust isn’t limitless, and eventually the story must hook me. But precision will typically get me past the first paragraph, which in turn might earn the author the second paragraph, then the first page, and so on until I find myself immersed in the story. It’s a chain of chances, and precision connects the links.

Beyond the story’s opening, trust must be cultivated and maintained. In speculative fiction especially, that often hinges on how world-building is managed, or on the book’s plot structure, and the reliability/consistency of characterization and narration.

NEXT: Come back on Saturday Check out the second installment on world-building, story structure, and consequential plotting.

A Theory of the Hero: Agency, Voice, and Sincerity (part 1 of 3)


For a while now I’ve been chewing on the concept of heroes/heroines, which at first glance looks simple. Say the word “hero” and everyone knows what we mean: we’re (stereotypically) talking about square-jawed men and kick-ass women who stab bad guys in the eyes with icicles, rescue intergalactic princesses, and Do The Right Thing. Heroes are “The Good Guys” that we root for in a story. But fiction – as life – tends to be more complex than that. For every Frodo Baggins we have an Elric of Melniboné. For every Peter Pevensie we have Steerpike. What then constitutes a hero? What makes one character or one story heroic and another not?

NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series of posts. This post is focused on what makes a given character heroic. On Saturday, I’ll post the next chapter, focusing on story archetypes for heroic characters, and the final post on Tuesday will focus on the difference between tragic and anti-tragic heroes.

Why do we need a Theory of the Hero?

If we want some sort of all-encompassing theory of the hero, we need to go beyond Campbell’s monomyth and Propp’s functional formalism. Regardless of how much I love both, a complete theory should be able to encompass both the classically-modeled Frodo Baggins and the monstrous Humbert Humbert.

In reading Ivan Morris’ excellent The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan over the weekend, something in my brain clicked. I think I might have figured out a secret ingredient that goes into the make-up of any hero, regardless of where they fall on a moral spectrum. Per Morris, heroes are defined at their core by the Japanese concept of makoto, which Morris translates as “sincerity” with connotations of self-contained philosophical sufficiency. In other words, a hero is a hero – regardless of their moral or immoral actions – if they act relative to a consistent moral code.

Hero vs Protagonist: Six of One, Half-Dozen of the Other

If you will forgive a brief moment of semantic pedantry, I think it is important to explain that I have never particularly liked the term “protagonist”. Since originating in Greek drama, I think the term has become incredibly muddled and imprecise. Etymologically, it means “chief actor” but a literal definition is too limiting to be functional. There are too many sweeping, epic novels like Hugo’s Les Miserables where identifying a particular chief actor becomes difficult (if not impossible).

Terms like protagonist and antagonist really describe the relationships between characters. The protagonist is opposed by the antagonist. This tells us nothing whatsoever about the characters in question, their value systems, moral codes, or courage. However, describing characters as either heroic or non-heroic does offer insights into their natures. Generally, for good drama in storytelling a hero needs to have an opposition: but a good hero can just as easily be opposed (antagonized) by another hero (the relationship between Hugo’s Jean Val Jean and Javert is a prime example of this type of opposition).

The Hero’s Function: Building Engagement through Agency and Voice

So what does a hero actually do in fiction? Besides saving the day, that is? As I see it, the hero/heroine is there to engage us on an emotional level. The hero draws us in and makes us care, and does so using the agency of their choices and the author’s narrative voice (which may be different from the character‘s voice).

The Hero’s Choices Make Us Respond

Can you imagine a hero with no agency? Would a character who just let stuff happen to them and passively reacted be at all engaging? Probably not. The hero/heroine’s choices determine how they change over the course of the story, giving us insight into their natures. Some heroes (Ayn Rand, I’m looking at you) are little more than two-dimensional symbols, a personification of some philosophical outlook with which we can either agree or disagree. Others are more complex, rounded (in Forster’s sense) characters for whom the nature of their choices actually matters. In each case, the hero’s choices cause some sort of a reaction in us. We may to some extent agree, sympathize, or understand the character’s dilemma and the outcome. Or we may view that choice as antithetical: we may disagree with it so violently that the strength of our dispute resonates just as strongly. Whether the hero strums our heartstrings up or down, the note still sounds. What matters is that the hero’s choices have an impact within the story, on the hero, and on us as readers.

It is this kind of approach that produces some of the most memorable heroes in fiction. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is replete with heroes who have to make choices: first, who will take the burden of the Ring? Then, who will escort the Ring to Mount Doom? Will Frodo actually destroy the ring? Will Aragorn take the throne of Gondor?

These are difficult choices that Tolkien’s heroes must make. Every member of Tolkien’s Fellowship is a hero, and every one of these choices resonates with us to a greater or a lesser extent. For some (Samwise Gamgee in particular) their choices are shown in a generally positive light: they are the classic “good guys” who make the difficult choices that the author (and presumably most readers) view as morally right. Other heroes – in particular Boromir, Gollum, and even Frodo himself – all make at least one morally reprehensible choice, transgressing against their value systems. But it is the uncertainty of their choices and their struggle to make them – for better or worse – that make us engage with the book. Whose breath didn’t catch when Frodo’s simple nobility fails him at the last second? Who doesn’t feel a pang of Bilbo’s pity as the villainous Gollum’s ugly history is slowly exposed? And who isn’t relieved when Aragon finally accepts his responsibility for Gondor?

But just like Gollum, not all heroes need to be good guys. Remember that old saw about every villain being the hero of their own story? Consider Milton’s Paradise Lost, Nabokov’s Lolita or Jesse Bullington’s more-recent The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart. These books’ heroes are morally reprehensible villains.

Milton’s Satan is…well, Satan. He’s The Devil. The embodiment of all evil, at least according to the sensibilities of Milton and his contemporaries. Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert is a pedophile, a monster as vile as could possibly be imagined. Yet he still has agency, and his choices – reprehensible as they may be – never fail to provoke a reaction on our parts. Bullington’s grave-robbing Grossbarts, though less compelling than the other two mentioned, generally pull off the same trick. And all three of these monstrous heroes do so using the second tool of hero-construction: the author’s narrative voice.

Narrative Voice as the Sneaky Tool of Understanding

What could make us care about such monsters? We may disagree, sometimes vehemently, with their choices. So why do we continue to follow the story? We care because the author’s narrative voice is beguilingly engaging. Milton’s primary (initial) character – Satan – needs no introduction. We know that he is a monster: The Devil. But Milton’s narrative style makes Satan’s charisma a palpable force, not unlike the serpent’s beguiling silver tongue in the Garden of Eden.

Both Nabokov and Bullington utilize framing devices that unequivocally establish that the heroes in question are evil. But we get drawn into their heads, drawn into their twisted worldviews, by the authors’ compelling rhetorical structure. By the time the monsters perpetrate their evil deeds, it is too late for us. However much their choices may disgust us, at some level the narrator’s slippery words have given us a window into their souls. Through that window, we can catch a glimmer of the monster/hero’s intrinsic nature.

The Hero’s Nature, Moving Targets, and Sincerity

And here we come back to the concept of makoto: if the hero (whether morally laudable or not) fails to evidence sincerity, if they are not true to their underlying nature, then no amount of agency or rhetorical trickery will resonate. At the heart of a hero’s underlying nature lies his moral value system. Whether we agree with this system or not, or to what degree their value system aligns with our culturally-acceptable moral codes, is unimportant. What matters is that the hero’s value system remains immutable throughout the story.

If the hero’s value system changes within a story, then suddenly the hero’s choices lose their meaning. Whether they articulate their system explicitly or not, their values represent an aspirational target for their behavior. Han Solo, Humbert Humbert, or John McClain always know what the “right” action is, according to their own moral codes. And while they may not always live up to their moral codes, those codes do not change. If they did, if the hero’s moral target moves, if their definition of “right” and “wrong” shifts, then suddenly all of their prior choices become meaningless within the confines of the story. It would be like retconning Uncle Ben out of Spider-Man’s origin story.

Neither Humbert Humbert’s or Frodo Baggins’ values change throughout their respective stories. At no point do their concepts of “right” and “wrong” shift. Instead, their actions either eventually align with those (stated or implied) values or transgress against them. The hero’s choices must be mobile – not the yardstick by which they are measured. Whether we agree with them or not, heroic characters maintain a firm and unchanging set of values: they must be “sincere” in their worldview. It is the choices they make relative to that philosophy that affects the drama and resonance of a story, and which makes them heroic.

NEXT: Come back on Saturday for the second installment on plot structures and story archetypes for heroic characters!

An Argument for Writing Characters You Don’t Like


I’ve written before about some of the differences between novels and short stories, but for the past several days one of those differences has been sitting in the forefront of my mind: character. With only several thousand words to work with in a short story, there just isn’t space to really develop more than one character. But a novel needs at least a handful of well-defined characters, and the more complex the story’s plot, the more complex and varied the characters need to be.

My current WIP is more complex than any of the other (even novel-length) stories I’ve written before. With a Byzantine plot swirling with clockwork diplomacy, revolutionary intrigue, assassination, and Great Powers espionage, I’m juggling a more varied cast of characters than I’ve managed before. It’s hard work keeping their motivations straight, their voices distinct, and their reactions true. And while I would love to have coffee or play a game of chess with some of these people, others I’d want to throttle. And that brings me to the crux of the issue that I’ve been thinking about for the past week or two: how to tell a story from the perspective of a character that I don’t like?

Unsympathetic perspective characters are nothing new. They span a spectrum from the truly vile who we come to like despite our best instincts, like Vladimir Nabokov’s amazing Humbert Humbert (Lolita). Then there’s Charles Dickens’ amoral but ultimately redeemable Sidney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities). More true to life, the real Emma Goldman’s autobiography Living My Life comes across as unsettling today. And Gregory Maguire spends pretty much all of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West humanizing an erstwhile villain. And finally, Nnedi Okorafor’s powerful Onyesonwu (Who Fears Death), whose heart is in the right place, but whose personality often made me gnash my teeth in frustration.

Each of these authors uses a different technique. Nabokov fills the book with Humbert Humbert: the monster in a very real sense transcends the role of narrator or memoirist. Every single word, every punctuation point, and every pause between sentences is filtered through the all-too-human mind of Humbert Humbert. By drawing us in through such a unique and compelling voice, Nabokov slides in Humbert’s vile nature almost surreptitiously. It is subtle, and oily, and all too awe-inspiringly impressive. Thankfully my current WIP lacks an unrepentant, irredeemable Humbert-esque villain, and so I won’t have to try pulling this off (Yet! I’ve got another book I want to write someday where I’ll hopefully give it a shot…just because it’ll be a lot of fun to try!).

But the unsympathetic Sidney Carton, the zealous Emma Goldman, the tragic Elphaba, and the quick-to-anger Onyesonwu all have at least one central trait fundamentally tied up in their very nature that shines pure and noble. The traits might vary across the characters, and the authors may choose to present them using different techniques, but for all of their pettiness, their villainy, their zealotry, and their fury there remains something inherently noble about them.

Dickens paints Carton as a professionally-stunted, self-indulgent alcoholic. We can see his nobility in his reaction to Lucie Manette, and in his self-deprecating gallows humor. He is drawn in stark opposition to his double: Charles Darnay, whose inner nobility is readily apparent and who fails to evidence the slightest doubt in himself. By showing us Carton’s struggle, by showing us his doubts, Dickens makes us identify with Carton and look past the superficially unsympathetic traits: his biting humor, his self-pity, his self-indulgence. He is the underdog, and we want to give him a firm kick because we know that Carton is worth more, even if he does not realize it himself until the very end.

Emma Goldman – an actual historical personage – was as complicated as any real individual could be, and I believe her positive and negative traits stem from the very same root. Her autobiography paints a picture of an unsettling and strangely compelling zealot. Throughout her amazing life, she was an unrepentant revolutionary: mere facts and science would not get in the way of her convictions! She practiced what she preached, both politically and in her personal life. She forced herself to live true to her mission, even when it caused her much heartache. This unwavering belief in her revolution – however misguided, misattributed, or wasted – offers her a nobility that her (more hypocritical) contemporaries lacked. Goldman remains an unsettling person, and while I cannot agree with her views, I can respect the lifelong commitment that speaks so clearly through her words.

Maguire shows us the Wicked Witch’s perspective in Wicked. He takes pains to show the development of a conflicted character, with noble intentions that just work out unfortunately. Elphaba’s primary flaw is that she has human failings, of which her quickness to anger and her father-issues are just two examples. In many ways, I always found the book to be almost a revisionist apologia for the Wicked Witch, but Maguire makes Elphaba’s tragic rise and fall compelling precisely by showing us her internal rationalizations and the noble intentions that went so wrong.

And Okorafor introduces us to Onyesonwu, whose intentions are noble, whose heart is pure, but whose failing is simply that of being too quick to anger. Alone of the characters I’ve mentioned in this post, I do not believe we are ever for a moment meant to believe her unsympathetic. Okorafor makes us feel deeply for Onyesonwu. We meet her as a young girl, and we are shown painfully the development of her defensiveness character. We understand how she came to have that defensiveness. We understand that her anger is a part of her, and that in fact it helps her with her magic. I consider her “unsympathetic” simply because of how infuriating I found her. I wanted to tell her to get a grip: that her anger would hurt more than it helped. But the root of my frustration with the character was my understanding of what had made her: through an understanding how she developed into the strong, angry young woman she became, Okorafor grounded Onyesonwu’s “unsympathetic” traits in sympathy: she made the character so sympathetic that I recognize her flaws and want to help her learn to deal with her flaws.

This is a technique frequently used in YA (I suspect it may come naturally to Okorafor, considering her earlier experiences in YA). Maybe it means I’m getting old, that the little foibles of human emotion that are so frustrating to me come so naturally to teenagers. Harumph. Those kids should get off my lawn. Nonetheless, I can appreciate it when an author pulls it off the way Okorafor has, and I can also see how introducing that flaw was natural to the character, given her history. The net result makes me more invested in the character, thus raising my engagement with the whole story.

And that – I think – is what unsympathetic perspective characters ultimately do. They make us invest more in the story, either because we root for the underdog (Carton), respect misguided nobility (Goldman), lament tragic failure (Elphaba), or sympathize with the source of the characters’ flaws (Onyesonwu).

What are some of your favorite unsympathetic characters? And how did their authors make them appeal to you?

%d bloggers like this: