The Unreliable Narrator

Most of the time, the reader can safely assume that the writer tells the truth.  That what appears on the page is an accurate version of events in a story.  This is not meant to suggest that characters do not tell lies to each other, or that the events themselves are plausible, merely that what is written on the page did in fact happen in the story. 

There are, however, exceptions to this rule.  The author can deliberately lie to the reader by relating events on the page, only to reveal that those events never actually happened in the story.  The narrator of the story becomes unreliable.

As an example, consider the movie, A Beautiful Mind, in which the principle character suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and has constant delusional episodes.  His delusions are presented to the viewer as if they are really happening.  It is not until much later in the movie that we discover that much of what we have witnessed on the screen never happened.  We are required to search our memories and decipher what was real and what was false.  What actually happened during those delusional moments is left to our imaginations.  The narrator of the story, in this case the director, has lied to us and is therefore unreliable.

This technique of storytelling dates back over a thousand years and is used for many different effects.  In A Beautiful Mind it is used to both explain the nature of paranoid schizophrenia and to make the central character more sympathetic than he would be without that understanding. In other works it is used to set up a surprise ending, or to make the reader/viewer think about something in a new or different way.

I make use of the unreliable narrator technique in my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men, as a means to:

  • Describe a major event
  • Build a mystery around that event
  • Lay out the social order
  • Explain the military structure
  • Establish the limits on the powers of normal wizards
  • Show how the protagonist, Damon Roth, exceeds those limits. 

In an earlier post, I wrote about how my late wife, Ellen inspired me to change three places where characters describe a major event and make those tales into flashbacks told from their point of view. 

Making this change was problematic  because the tale the characters were telling was not entirely true.  Their minds had been altered and parts of what they related were fictions placed in their consciousness.   They were unreliable witnesses to the event, which is not quite the same thing as being an unreliable narrator.   They believed what they said was true, and clues that their recollections were false were given to the reader even as they spoke.

Once I wrote those scenes as flashbacks, and turned their delusions into events that would appear to be true to the reader, I became the unreliable narrator.  I started lying to the reader by describing events that did not happen the way I wrote them on the page.

This opened up possibilities and gave me great advantages as a storyteller. The flashbacks became exciting, action filled scenes, each one building on the last.  In each telling I added details–private thoughts, worries, desires, and observations–that the character wouldn’t include when telling their version of events to others, but which gave important information and insights to the reader.  The downside was the reader was forced to think about what was real and what was imaginary.  To sort through the clues and decipher what really happened, and what were parts of a magically induced delusion.  These were problems I could live with.

Since then, I have thought much about the unreliable narrator technique.  Were I to use it too much, then the story would become unreadable.  If nothing can be believed then the essential suspension of disbelief  is forfeited and the reader loses interest. 

Therefore I decided upon a simple rule: I will only use the unreliable narrator in flashback scenes, and those scenes will only be told from one point of view.   In non-flashback scenes, what the reader sees on the page will be true and reliable.

For example, I have an extended flashback where Artemis Arrowsmith relates the events that led to the death of her lover Marcus.   This scene will be told solely from her point of view, albeit in third person fashion.  Her actions, thoughts, feelings, and memories will be told to the reader directly.  For other characters the reader will only be told what Artemis sees them do or hears them say or has related to her by another character.  Artemis might misremember certain details, or lie, or misinterpret events because of her own biases or preconceptions.  Thus she becomes an unreliable narrator of her own tale. 

But what she and others say and do both before her flashback starts and after it ends will be accurate and factual descriptions to the best of my abilities.  The reader can rely upon the scenes set in the present as containing only the truth.

The unreliable narrator is a powerful technique that allows authors to explore ideas, emotions, and experiences in ways that would be impossible otherwise.   In some cases, such as mine, it provides easy routes for including details that would otherwise be awkward or impossible to introduce.  It is an approach that puts unique demands upon the writer’s skill, and challenges the reader to think about what they read in new ways.  It is not the right choice for most works of fiction, but it is an option that should never be dismissed lightly.

Show, Don’t Tell

Yesterday, September 3, 2009, was my anniversary, or would have been. I am never sure of the proper wording for such moments. Had Ellen lived we would have celebrated our ninth anniversary together, but I digress. The point I am striving to make is that I was thinking about Ellen, recalling one of the few good events I associate with this time of year, and remembered the first time I encountered the concept of Show, Don’t Tell.

Ellen and I hadn’t been married long—or perhaps it was before we married, I cannot recall for certain—when she read some of my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men. This was not the first time I had shared my writing with others, but it was the first time I received feedback that prompted a major restructuring of the story itself. The first time someone offered a criticism that forced me to adopt new techniques for writing my tale.

It is incredibly difficult to read your own work and spot your deepest problems. The knowledge of what was intended causes you to miss mistakes. I, like most writers, turn to others for insight into where I am going wrong.

Nowadays I have a writers group that regularly and routinely shreds my work. I am forever grateful for their blunt, sometimes even harsh, comments.

Before I had the writers group to turn to, however, there were many times when I begged, cajoled, guilted, and even bribed people to read over my work; then eagerly, anxiously, and with great trepidation waited for their opinion. Usually their probing analysis consisted of a shrug followed by, “It’s nice.”

Let me say, on behalf of all writers everywhere, It’s nice does not constitute useful feedback.

After such a tepid response, I always asked follow up questions. Those I so pestered often misinterpreted my queries as a request for my ego to be stroked, and so they continued to give polite praise that boiled down to a longer version of, “It’s nice.”

With sufficient prompting, a few admitted to not liking or understanding some element, portion of a scene, or character. My first reaction to a negative comment was to explain what I was trying to do, hoping my critic would offer a suggestion on how I might better achieve my intended goal. Inevitably this caused people to believe, perhaps with some justification, that I was defending what they disliked. Rather than run the risk of offending me and perhaps starting an argument, most people at this point looked for ways to change the subject. Realizing the futility of trying to continue, I would acquiesce.

Ellen, however, read what I had written and offered feedback that went beyond the norm. She realized I wasn’t looking for my ego to be stroked or attempting to defend turgid prose. She was not a great editor, but she was a voracious reader and had won at least one national award for something she wrote as a teenager. After reading my then second chapter, she struggled to find a way to explain what she didn’t like. After several different attempts, she said, “You’re telling me a story rather than showing me what is happening.”

I would like to claim that a light-bulb went on over my head at those words; if so it was a single, short-circuiting LED. My initial confused reaction was, “Isn’t telling a story what fiction writing is all about?” After further discussion, I realized she objected to three places where characters described something that had happened to them earlier. Insight kicked in and I asked, “You think it would be better if I rewrote those parts as flashbacks from their point of view?”

Ellen thought this was a great idea, and after considerable angst on my part I agreed. My reservations stemmed from the fact that these changes required throwing out a hundred pages of existing material and starting over from scratch. I am not a fast writer, which made the scope of the task all the more daunting. Plus, the proposed alterations would only work if I also took a hatchet to the intricate outline for my first book, an outline that took years of painstaking effort to create. Still, what is the point of good feedback if you don’t act on it?

And so, with gritted teeth, I snapped my existing structure apart and rewrote a major portion of Gods Among Men. Chapter two became chapters two, three, and four, each of which included an extended flashback sequence focusing upon a major event that sets in motion all that follows. The difficult changes were not as hard as I first feared, nor even the most challenging ones I have had to make. (The award for Editing Challenges that Most Resemble the Bataan Death March still goes to the plethora of changes I made to chapter three in the last year.)

The resulting chapters where significantly better than what had existed before, and by introducing flashbacks into my story I added a tool to my repertoire that resolved problems in other parts of the story.

Since that time, from countess authors, I have heard the line, “Show, don’t tell.” It is almost always the right choice for how to write a scene, but I still find it a struggle to follow this advice. It is easy to let telling slip into a sentence, paragraph, or scene. Sometimes it is hard to discover the phrase, sentence, or description that shows what is intended. Writing something like, he said angrily is easy. Describing the look on a character’s face, the sound of their voice, and their gestures so that the description conveys anger without explicitly using the word anger or any of its synonyms is quite challenging.

Ellen’s feedback showed me a way to become a better writer, and that was much more valuable than others telling me, “It’s nice.” I wish she was still around so I could show her how much I appreciate all she did for me.

Writing About Loss

Three years ago, on August 3rd, 2006, one month to the day before our 6th wedding anniversary, my wife Ellen died. It was the end of her ten month battle with cancer, and the beginning of my battle with loss. This is not the right forum to relate what she went through, nor what I experienced after her death. This is a blog about writing, so I will contain myself to that subject.

My writing touches on many subjects, some I hardly understand and others I know well. When I write scenes about fighting, armor, weapons, horses, heraldry, or any of a myriad of other subjects I must do research. Hours, days, sometimes weeks or even months, searching for tidbits of information that are accurate and which make a scene feel real to me.

In my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men, there is a scene I planned out years before Ellen and I married. In it, the character of Artemis Arrowsmith does something because of her sense of loss over the long ago death of her lover, Marcus. This action results in Artemis expressing her feelings over the death of Marcus. It is an important moment not just because of what it reveals about her, but because of what it later implies about another major character. Her action and what she says because of it are crucial elements to the overall plot of Gods Among Men.

As I said, I planned this scene long before Ellen and I married, over a decade before she would be diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t actually write the scene, however, until after Ellen died.

When I did finally write this scene I did not need any research to know in a personal way what Artemis was feeling. Artemis is not me, and often I have trouble with her scenes, but in this case I knew exactly what she would say and do. I wrote the first draft very quickly, and have edited it only a little since then.
Without, further explanation, I present below an extended excerpt from that scene. I don’t know if it is any good or not, but it certainly feels real to me.

*********************

Looking at the satchel, Artemis thought, I always assumed The Satchel of Eternity was just a legend. One of Demiurge’s greatest creations. A simple looking bag that can store or draw forth anything wanted or needed. Anything that can be imagined.

“I’m ready to begin,” Damon announced as he opened his eyes. “Keep the flap open. I’ll need to dispose of the staff once I’m done with it.”

Anything wanted.

“Whatever you do, don’t let go of the satchel. Not for an instant.”

Anything that can be imagined.

“Did you hear me, Artemis?”

Nodding, she opened the satchel’s flap and reached toward the opening.

“No,” Damon shouted and started towards her, reaching for her hand, but he was too late.

Reaching into the Satchel of Eternity, Artemis poured all the love she had ever felt for Marcus into a single wish that he was alive and with her. An imagined life with him swam in her head; dreams of growing old together, visions of children, and idyllic images of the family she had never known but always wanted. She remembered Marcus holding her tight, kissing her, touching her face, gazing into her eyes. The longing she’d felt for him every day since he died was replaced with the hope that he could be returned to her, that they could still have a lifetime together.

Inside the satchel she felt something small, hard, oddly shaped, and cool to the touch. She closed her fingers on the item and pulled it forth. It was a small, heart-shaped, decorative box made of porcelain and trimmed with gold; its feet and hinges also gold. The lid had a gentle curve and was inlaid with tinted mother of pearl shaped to resemble a red rose. Artemis’s fingers brushed against something cold and metallic sticking out from the bottom of the box. She flipped it over to discover a windup key.

It’s a music box. Why would I pull out a music box? Glancing up, she saw Damon standing a few feet from her, frozen, his arm still outstretched from his attempt to stop her. His face was ashen, and his mouth hung open. In a hoarse whisper he cried, “Sweet Lady! What have you done?”

“I don’t understand.”

“What did you think you were doing?” Damon shouted. “Why in the name of all that’s holy did you do that?”

It was clear to Artemis that she had done something terrible, but what escaped her understanding. Embarrassed by her impulsive act, at allowing her long buried emotions to overwhelm her, she said in a low whisper, “I remembered the legends. About how you can pull anything you want or can imagine from the satchel.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” Damon roared.

“Well you never explained how it worked,” she snapped back.

“You told me you weren’t interested!”

“So now it’s my fault?”

“Yes,” Damon snarled through clenched teeth. “It is your fault. What were you trying to pull out of the satchel?”

“I’d rather not say,” Artemis replied in a tight murmur. Looking away, she took a sharp breath in through her nose then snorted it back out again.

“Artemis,” Damon held his hands together like he was praying and touched his fingertips to his chin. After taking a deep breath he said in a calmer voice. “You need to understand how important this is. There is very little you could have pulled from the satchel that would be a problem. Of that very short list, there is nothing that poses a greater risk for disaster than the one item you managed to retrieve. It shouldn’t have been possible for you to find that music box. Now that you have found it we have to put it back into the satchel in a precise way. There is no room for error. I must know what you were trying to do.”

For several seconds Artemis said nothing. Gazing down and away from Damon, she closed her eyes and considered not answering, or even lying. Instead she mumbled, “I was trying to get Marcus back.”

“What?”

“I thought if the satchel could produce anything I wanted,” she admitted in a firmer voice. “Anything I could imagine, it might be able to return Marcus to me.” She opened her eyes, but still refused to look at Damon.

Rubbing his forehead, Damon paced back and forth in a small area. “Well, that at least makes some sense,” he muttered and tapped his thumb against his forefinger over and over.

“I know it was foolish.”

“Yes it was.” He stopped pacing and glared at her. “What you wanted, what you tried to do, is impossible.”

“I know.” Artemis uttered in a husky voice. “I knew it when I reached into the satchel. But I couldn’t help but try.” The muscles in Damon’s jaw quivered as he shook his head back and forth. Stepping toward him, Artemis looked up and explained with rapid words, “When Marcus died it was like half my soul was ripped from me. Parts of who I use to be was gone, just…gone.” Damon held her gaze and said nothing as she continued. “Since then, when I’m busy or distracted I can avoid thinking about him, about what happened and all I lost when he died. But as soon as I’m quiet, the moment I have time to think, the first thought that crosses my mind is ‘I wish Marcus was here.’ And then the pain returns.”

The muscles in Damon’s jaw no longer quivered, and his gaze softened. Before he could speak Artemis held a fist against her chest and said through gritted teeth, “For months after he died I felt like there was a dagger stuck in my heart. Now it’s just an ache. Sometimes sharp, sometimes dull, but always there.” She opened her hand, but left it against her chest. “When you hurt like that you find hope in the irrational, you pray for a miracle. I’ve prayed to the Lady countless times and thrown more coins into wishing wells than I can remember. Once a child told me that if you make a wish at midnight it will be fulfilled. Everyday for months I counted the minutes until that hour just so I could whisper ‘I wish Marcus was here’ on the preposterous chance it might work.”

Something was in Damon’s eyes Artemis had never seen there before: sympathy, and kindness. Dropping her hand to her side, she looked away and in a low voice added, “I stopped doing things like that a long time ago. Then you handed me the Satchel of Eternity and I realized there was a ridiculous, impossible, absurd chance that this time my wish might come true. That I might have found a way to reclaim the missing half of my soul. How could I not try?”

“I’m sorry, Artemis,” Damon said in a subdued voice. “I wish there was something I could do or say to take all that away from you, to lift that burden from your shoulders.”

Something about his simple statement of emotional support touched Artemis. It did not ease her pain nor remove her desire for Marcus, but it did stir primordial emotions she had kept buried so long she had forgotten they existed. For the first time since Marcus had died she did not feel divorced from the rest of humanity. Someone somewhere cared that she was hurting; cared about what she had endured, and wanted to help her without expecting anything in return. She was surprised that such a simple statement could so move her. Then she realized, No one has said that to me before. Not after her parents died, nor after Marcus died. Others had expressed their affection for her; Kern, Beatrice, their children. But none had said they would take her suffering away if it was in their power. Its just words, Artemis thought. But sometimes words of sympathy are all you want or need.