Monday, March 18, 2013

Unreliable Narrators

Apparently you're getting a live look at my creative process here. Friday, as I wrote my blog post, I got that initial stirring of a "this might be fun to write" idea -- a romantic caper/thriller with fantasy elements, a Charade with magic. That was about the way the initial idea for the Enchanted, Inc. series hit me: "It would be fun to have a fantasy story take place in a chick lit setting." It took me nearly two years to develop and write the book that came from that idea, so don't hold your breath on this one. It's just a lurking "it would be fun to write this kind of book" concept. At the moment, I think it's giving me some framework for the sequel to the book I'm currently finishing, only instead of the exotic locales being places like Paris and London, it's sites within the fairy realm.

One thing that's occurred to me in toying with this idea is that it would be a good place to use an unreliable narrator (something on my literary bucket list). Say, for instance, that Charade was a novel and the Audrey Hepburn character was the first-person narrator -- what if we found late in the book that she wasn't really the wife of the dead man but was some kind of agent or thief and let them assume she was the wife and she'd been playing them all along.

But pulling off an unreliable narrator is tricky. I don't normally feel like there has to be a reason or purpose behind first-person narration -- no need to spell out who the narrator is telling this story to. But when the narrator is lying to the reader, I think that becomes more necessary. There needs to be a reason why the narrator is lying, and that's usually a framing story in which the narrator is telling a particular person or group a story, and that can get clunky.

There's also a fine line to walk between the story of the lie and the story behind the lie, and both have to be equally compelling. There needs to be enough contrast between the truth and the lie for it to matter -- if the narrator has been a kick-ass, super-capable woman all along, it's no big shock to find out she's really a secret agent. But the false front has to be interesting in its own right -- if the narrator is a too-stupid-to-live airhead who keeps bumbling into trouble, readers may throw the book against the wall before they get to the part where they learn that she's doing that on purpose to avoid suspicion. I've seen books like this flip on the good vs. bad axis, but that's also tricky because some readers may not get far enough with a bad narrator to get to the part where they find he's secretly good, while they might feel betrayed to find out that the good person they've been rooting for is actually bad.

And there's the issue of where to put the big reveal. It seems to be most common as the last big turning point before the climax -- they're heading into the final "battle" situation, and then the character does something unexpected and says something to the effect of "Oh, didn't I tell you I was really a spy?" If it's a framing story, then it can reach the point where the character has finished telling the story up to that point, and when they let her go she walks away thinking, "Suckers!" and then the rest of the plot proceeds with the narrator being honest to the reader while still playing a role to the other characters. I've also seen it done as a final twist. Things have more or less ended and you think the narrator has lost, and then at the last moment reveals that this was what he planned all along, and that means he's really won. Then there's the Rashomon approach of having multiple viewpoints that conflict, and the reader discerns the truth by spotting the patterns among them. Or I've seen it with two viewpoints -- first we get the first-person tale within a framing story in which a character tells the story to someone else, and then we get a more objective story told in third-person through the viewpoint of another character who was there for much of the action, and we can see the lies unraveling.

But like I said, it generally takes me at least two years from this point to written book, and this time I already have this year's writing schedule set. I may get it out of my system by using this framework on a planned book. Katie and Owen may suddenly pop up and declare that they want to have globetrotting caper adventures (though I wouldn't be able to use an unreliable narrator there). Or something may come to me and it'll be my Next Big Thing.

In the more immediate future, I really must get back on my office reorganization program. I let things stall for too long and got used to the in-between state. I need to re-claim the floor of my loft. That will mostly require bringing a lot of books to the library to donate to the book sale. I also need to sort through all the stacks of spiral notebooks I use for writing down research, character development, story outlines, etc. I'll have to figure out which books that never went anywhere need to go and which things I need to keep for reference.

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