When I started my professional writing career, it began with a lot of hours of learning my craft. It also involved many hours of reading, in my genre, outside my genre, non-fiction, you name it. I wanted to learn how to identify those things that made writing stand out, have an impact, make a lasting impression.
And, way back then, more than 20 years ago, I was learning the romance genre for fiction writing. Heroes and heroines were stand up guys and gals who had their demons, but always made the powerful choices, had integrity, courage (which is NOT a lack of fear by the way, which is stupid) and earned their happy ending by persevering against insurmountable odds.
Then I began to study, learn and write my roots, which were in mystery. Heroes and heroines in this genre were a little different. Their tarnish was deeper, less easily removed; their scars and moral conflicts a big grittier. (Like mine, I guess.) And, what a great variety of personality types to choose from! We have amateur sleuths (cozy mysteries,) hard-boiled crime fiction, suspense, and PI or private investigators. Some of those protagonists were pretty sleazy in their own way (not in cozies, of course), but somehow, they always told the truth. Could be darned hard truth, but they told it.
Then, enter in the advent of the acceptable anti-hero. He’s that broken-down ex-cop who saves a battered woman from a murderous ex-husband, then ends up alone because he doesn’t feel worthy of love or relationships. He’s the king of the bad-boys, but he’ll always makes things right, even if he has to do unethical things to get that result. (Think Jack Reacher, or Jack Bauer, or Captain Jack Sparrow – does anyone else see a pattern here?) And who doesn’t love the guy (or gal) who has the guts to torture someone to death in order to save the innocent? Are we in favor of torture? Of course not. But we are in favor of good winning out over evil and sometimes that gets messy. We’re all glad WE don’t have to do it.
And now, there’s a NEW protagonist-type. I can’t force myself to call them heroes or heroines. They are protagonists, the lead roles in a story. And, they’re called narrators. Unreliable Narrators to be exact. They lie to us, mislead us, get us hooked into thinking one way when the truth is something totally different. I don’t like that. I want to follow the protagonist through thick and thin and know that I’ve been given a chance to follow the clues, uncover the truth, understand what’s happened, even if I might not know why. I’m a MYSTERY reader – and the puzzles are part of why I read this genre. I feel cheated when the protagonist solves the crime with some out-of-the-blue clue that no one else saw. Or because the facts I was following were all lies. Makes me downright cranky to discover I’ve been mislead by the author in this way.
I was ready to write off the Unreliable Narrator as a fad of writers too lazy to write a good story and keep the integrity in it. The very reason I hated Shutter Island was because the ending revealed the entire damned nightmarish journey to be a lie. And yes, I watched it MORE THAN ONCE to be sure I hadn’t missed an important clue. Nope. It wasn’t there. Scorsese just decided that this noir thriller would work well with an Unreliable Narrator. And, it did. I just didn’t like it. I’m sure Scorsese doesn’t care.
Then I got to thinking, in mystery though, there’s a way to use an unreliable narrator. And, I already am. Not as my protagonist mind you, but as a notable secondary character. No, my heroines will remain hard-boiled but honest. Fits my writing style and my reading preference. But, how about in a Barney Fife role? Well-meaning, inept on the surface, yet despite appearances, you could count on him to do the right thing, right? And he was fun, charming and disarming all at the same time. Or, our Captain Jack Sparrow who is an unreliable narrator indeed. He’d have us think he’s a waste of time, selfish and boorish and conceited and without any redeeming qualities (save the smile, perhaps) but that is largely not true of him.
I read an article by Deb Caletti, an award-winning author of YA and adult novels. In it, she made a great point: “Every human being is, to some degree, an unreliable narrator.” She goes on to point out that we recall things through our own emotional and memory filters. Truth? Not necessarily. Lies? Not necessarily. Just how we remember things based on how things were at the time. I didn’t look at this that way and she made me rethink this archetype.
It’s not our intention to deceive, but we only see a memory or event through our viewpoint. (No, I’m not referring to “mis-speaking” which is an attempt to sidestep a lie.) Our characters are the same. Even mine. They have struggles, they have fears, they have lapses in judgment and they’ll retell an event through THEIR filters. Maybe they’re struggling with some truth or reality that they can’t even admit to themselves. They are unreliable narrators, but not unlikeable or bad characters. The more I thought about this perspective, the more I liked it. Another layer.
So, maybe the bottom line on this is that we just need to remember who our readers are and make sure we deliver on the promises we make to them. Learn and understand our genres. Show them the respect they deserve and they’ll stick with us. We want to generate enough doubt to keep the reader hooked on following along; we want to withhold enough information to keep the reader interested. But, we need to build enough trust for the reader to stay connected.
Unreliable Narrators will probably show up in my novels as secondary characters. They are already playing the villain roles, of course. But I’m not sure I’m willing to face the truths necessary to make the unreliable narrator my protagonist. I need my heroines to be strong, dented and tarnished, but not lying and conniving. Struggles with personal relationships? Fine by me. Can’t tell the truth if her life depended on it? Not my idea of a heroine.
Unrealistic? You betcha. But then after all, I write fiction. And my readers don’t mind a little shine on the tarnish as long as there are SOME dents, too.
It’s all subjective. But don’t write off the Unreliable Narrator like I did. Could be just the character-type that will work perfectly for your work!
Keep reading and writing! See you next week. Nancy Q.