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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 30: Unreliable Narrators

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode 30: Unreliable Narrators


Key Points: Unreliable narrator, third person limited, depends on how wrong the character's perceptions are. Unreliable narrator, first-person, often just lies to the reader. Unreliable narrator can add a subtext, another layer of meaning that the reader deduces. Another use of unreliable narrator is to let us see the character's viewpoint more clearly, since we experience their flawed view of the world. Yet another use is as a plot device to hide a twist. Epistolary stories, told through letters and journals, often are unreliable because people hide things in their writing. You can also have epigraphs that are clearly mistaken. Using third person limited unreliable narrators who are competing can introduce tension and characterize because the reader sees both sides, even though the characters don't individually know enough. Some books have a character who misleads by paying attention to red herrings and discarding real clues as meaningless. Seeing the uncertainty -- experiencing the confusion of the unreliable narrator -- also builds sympathy. Just don't withhold too much, have good reasons for what you withhold and why.

[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] I might be Howard.
[Dan] I demand that I am [Bruce Vondel] [Note: I am not sure...]

[Brandon] Let's define unreliable narrator before we go completely off-topic here. Unreliable narrator... we're talking about a couple of things. It works differently in third person than in first person. But generally what we're having is either in a third person narrative... the viewpoint when you're writing... how unreliable that viewpoint is... meaning are you inside their heads so much that you are seeing things as they perceive the world. Therefore the narrative is wrong as often as that character is wrong. First person narrator... you can have an unreliable narrator who flat out lies to the readers. We're going to talk about tools for using unreliable narrator and that sort of thing. Dan, you use it a lot in the Serial Killer books. You're writing first-person narratives. How are you using an unreliable narrator?
[Dan] I am using an unreliable narrator the same way that it was initially introduced to me. One of my favorite poems ever is My Last Duchess by Robert Browning which is kind of the classic example of unreliable narrator. It's a first-person account of a Duke walking someone through his house and describing to him all of his artwork. One of them of course is a portrait of his last Duchess was unfortunately unfaithful and died of some tragic accident. The unspoken subtext that the poet just makes ingeniously clear as you read it is that the Duke was insanely jealous of his beautiful wife, thought she was unfaithful, and had her killed. He tells that story without actually telling it. So there's two stories going on at the same time. It blew my mind. I thought, "This is why I want to be a writer." It was like a logic puzzle hidden inside this wonderful story. That's what I tried to do with Serial Killer is... I have this character, John, who... the way he perceives the world is not the way the world actually is. You get a lot of things where people will read through and he'll be talking about something and then the reader will go, "Wait, I know that's not right. I know that he is seeing that wrong." That adds this extra dimension to the whole story.

[My Last Duchess can be read at ]

[Brandon] There are a lot of ways to do this. I'm not sure if we can cover unreliable narrator in the scope of a 15 minute podcast because there are so many different directions to take it. But there a couple of different generally used concepts. One of the concepts is to add a subtext like My Last Duchess. You're adding another layer of what's going on by having the narrator... the way that they talk indicating to the reader... in that case, one of your goals is going to be to get across to the reader that the narrator is unreliable. If they don't know...
[Howard] Yeah, you have to drop cues that say, "We're not getting the whole story here."

[Brandon] Exactly. One of the other ways we use unreliable narrator is simply to make our viewpoints more connected to the reader, to make them more real. Robert Jordan does this very well. It's one of the things I've always been impressed by his writing about. When you're reading his third person narratives, no one is lying, no one is intentionally misleading you. It's not that...
[Howard] But as a reader, you can tell, "You're wrong."
[Brandon] You can tell that this world is colored by the way that Nineve sees it in these viewpoints. When you're in Matt's head, he thinks, "Oh, Rand and Perrin are so good with women." When you're in Perrin's head, he thinks Rand and Matt are good with women. These sorts of things where you see... and sometimes that's just stated as a narrative. Robert Jordan indicates very early on at you are seeing things directly as these characters see them, so therefore he can obscure things. It gives him... the narrator is no longer this omnipotent voice that explains things to you, the reader. Instead the narrator becomes the flawed manifestation of the character's own soul. Which makes you very, very close to them. It's why I like those books and it's why I don't like omniscient narrator quite as well.

[Howard] Stephen... no, Iain Banks, Player of Games. It's a story about a guy who is the best strategy gamer in the culture... universe... and as a result sent as an ambassador someplace else to play their game in order to get close to their king and close a deal. The whole story is told, if I remember this correctly, is told from what sounds like kind of a third person omniscient narrator. You get to the end and realize the story is being told to you by somebody who was actually there the whole time and has been keeping secrets from you about who he was and how he was able to be there the whole time.
[Brandon] That is actually the next thing I wanted to say, because you can use unreliable narrator as a plot device to embed something and have a pow twist ending with your unreliable narrator. It works very well that way, if you do it right.
[Howard] Iain Banks is deep, deep writing for sci-fi. It's... when I'm reading sci-fi, I think that's probably... he's probably the hardest guy I read. Just in terms of the prose and the layers of meaning and... Player of Games was great fun.

[Brandon] You can do an unreliable narrator with omniscient. The Lemony Snicket books are another great example. If you want to contrast this, read The Hobbit sometime, which has an omniscient narrator who is not unreliable. When the narrator is speaking, whatever the narrator says is a fact. The narrator will say this is what, Bilbo was feeling at this time. This is what was going on. You can accept that as a true statement and build your story upon it.
[Dan] He will never lie to you. The big modern example of the surprise twist unreliable narrator is the movie Unusual Suspects. Which the entire movie is about the writer and director playing with the idea that you believe what you see on the screen.
[Brandon] If we want to use a book example, The Prestige. Which if you saw the movie, it loses the unreliable narrator. It has to, in order to translate. It's a great film, but one of the concepts of the book is the concept of the unreliable narrator, because it's an epistolary story, a lot of it. It's told through letters and journal entries, and in these journal entries, the various magicians, the two guys are representing themselves in a certain way through their writing, specifically in order to sometimes mislead you or sometimes reveal how they are misleading themselves. That's a wonderful way to approach it.

[Howard] What do you call the little chapter headings that you see so often in fantasy and sci-fi? The little blocks?
[Dan] Epigraphs.
[Brandon] Well, I've started calling them epigraphs, but an epigraph is really actually the beginning of a book. I don't know what they're called. I sometimes call them chapter bumps. Those things.
[Dan] The Dune things.
[Howard] I have seen unreliable narrator type things done with those where you are... the Encyclopedia Galactica or whatever example that is we all like to use... has information in it about the events you are about to read and the Encyclopedia is wrong. Those are fun.
[Brandon] If you want to find some fun unreliable narrator told through epigraphs epistolarily, read Mistborn. With that, let's stop for an advertisement. Let's have Dan do the one this week.

[Dan] This is once again an audio book. The one I'm going to recommend is a tragedy, so get ready for next week's tragedy episode. It's No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. Which is also antihero, so it's very thematic for our recent string of podcasts. It is a fantastic book. It kind of has three characters, none of whom are especially heroic, all of whom are kind of tragic. It's just beautifully written. If you've never read a Cormac McCarthy book, he is in my mind the best word for word writer working today. It is not genre fiction, but he's absolutely fabulous. No Country for Old Men, audible If you sign up through our deal, you can get it for free.
[Brandon] Yep. And you support Writing Excuses by doing, every time you click through. We thank you very much, listeners.

[Brandon] Let's get back to unreliable narrator. [Garbled] second half... yeah, go ahead.
[Dan] I wanted to say something when we were talking about ways to use unreliable narrator writing. One thing that I've seen a lot... the example that comes to mind is Bernard Cornwell in the Sharpe's Rifle series. He's got Richard Sharpe, who is his main character, but a lot of the books will deal with Obadiah Hickswell who is his nemesis. They narrate the book from this third person limited point of view entirely based on their own knowledge which is inevitably flawed. You will see them maneuvering against each other, trying to do things. One of them will start moving toward a certain city with his troop of guys and the other one wants to cut him off but doesn't know where he is. It seeds a lot of tension into the story because you know what they're trying to do and you can see both stories but they can't see each other, and so there's a lot of unreliability there.
[Brandon] Let's put you on the spot then. Second half of the podcast I want to talk about how our readers can use this. How can they use that? What is that story gaining from? How is it doing it, these sorts of things. Directly to our listeners.
[Dan] How are they doing it? First of all, this is a great way of using multiple viewpoints. If you have multiple and especially opposing viewpoints... if you have... you see that hero and then you see a different hero or a villain that they're working against each other, you can use this unreliability to show how little they know about each other and then to build a lot of tension. I think that's the biggest thing you gain.
[Brandon] So you're building tension and you're characterizing.
[Dan] Yes.

[Howard] Simple trick, if you're looking to put a really cool plot twist in your book and you have figured out the exact sequence of clues that need to be put in place for you to figure things out. You've also obviously put some red herrings out there. The unreliability is the character who is following the red herrings and pointing those out while looking at the real clues and discarding them as meaningless. I feel like it's kind of a cheap trick if not done well, but it's really effective.
[Brandon] You can use unreliable narrator to do that... to mislead. We've talked before that writing a good story is often times you're playing the part of a stage magician. You are distracting people with the big flashy thing in one hand while you're slipping something with the other hand into an unexpected place so that you can pop it out and say, "Look what I just did." An unreliable narrator is an excellent tool for this because if a character becomes fixated on something and believes something very strong, the reader is going to believe it as well. Now if you come on too strong, they're going to see it's an obvious red herring, probably, unless you handle it delicately. I would say that on this one, more than anything else, I would say practice.
[Howard] A soft touch and practice.
[Brandon] Yeah, and use a soft touch. Because these sorts of things can be wonderful if you use them right. If you use them wrong, it's going to be like pounding someone in the face. It's just not going to work.
[Dan] That same trick can work very well for satire... can work brilliantly for satire. Because you are able to use questions of ethics or morality or whatever you are trying to satirize, just with that kind of dramatic irony, that the audience knows something is true that the characters don't believe or specifically disagree with. You are setting up that to be paid off later on.

[Brandon] Yeah. So, what else? Why do we do this? Why not just use a narrator who's omniscient who gets everything cleared up and so that there aren't these confusions? Sometimes it is confusing. If you can't trust the characters, then who can you trust?
[Dan] One of the reasons that I chose to use it with the Serial Killer books was that it built a lot of sympathy with John. Because if it's just about a serial killer and we're seeing everything from this omniscient viewpoint -- black and white and cut and dried -- then we know who is good and who is evil. But we introduce that element of uncertainty, where the main character himself is not entirely certain what is going on, what he believes, and what other people are doing, then we're able to see his point of view much more easily.
[Howard] That whole theme of uncertainty is established in the title of the first book, "I Am Not a Serial Killer."
[Brandon] It raises the question, doesn't it?
[Dan] That's suspiciously specific.
[Howard] Why did you even need to tell me that?
[Brandon] Right. I think we downplay... downplay is the wrong word... we sometimes don't acknowledge the importance of uncertainty in writing. It's one of the reasons that omniscient fell out of favor is because if you can't hide things and if you can't obscure things, then often times the story doesn't have that compelling drive, you've got to find the answer.

[Howard] I actually think... this is... we haven't popped can-of-worms in a while. That's probably worth popping can-of-worms on. I think that as readers, as consumers of entertainment, in the last 40 years we've become a lot more sophisticated. We want not to be told what is happening, and not even so much want to be shown what is happening, we want to experience it. If there is uncertainty, we want to experience being uncertain.
[Brandon] Right. What the characters are feeling...
[Howard] We don't want to be told that the character's not sure...
[Brandon] We want to be unsure.
[Howard] We want to be unsure. And...
[Dan] That's like The Last Duchess that I mentioned earlier. That kind of... the joy of figuring out the story behind the story was what made that poem so good for me. I think a lot of people today want that because they are more sophisticated. They have read this story, and if you want to tell them that same story, then there needs to be more, there needs to be that second layer or the kind of uncertainty so that they get to feel really excited and really good about themselves when they figure it all out.

[Brandon] Let's end with me throwing out a warning. One thing you can do wrong and this is very tricky, is withholding too much from the reader.
[Dan] Absolutely.
[Brandon] Dan called me on this in our writing group last week. You've got to be very careful what you're withholding and how you're withholding it and giving good reasons for the characters being unreliable. If they simply don't know it, then that's great, you've got a good excuse. But if they know something and they are deliberately withholding information from the reader, you're going to have a frustrated reader unless there's a legitimate excuse or a legitimate explanation...
[Dan] Or unless you're Dan Brown who does it all the time.
[Howard] John saw a clue on the floor and picked it up and put it in his pocket...
[Brandon] Just tell us what the clue was.
[Howard] And the author is not telling you what the clue was... that's... hiding too much.
[Dan] That's hard to not do. That's very hard to not do.
[Brandon] Right. It is. There are tricks to get around it. Maybe we should can-of-worms that. How to deal with these sorts of concepts. It is very difficult. You can't reveal everything because it would make for a boring story, yet you can't withhold too much, otherwise the reader is going to think you're just doing it to make them annoyed.
[Dan] You are just jerking them around.

[Brandon] I'm going to go ahead and give our writing prompt this time. I would like you to do... to have one event occur, and then have five different perspectives of that event which are... none of which are completely true. Just people's own views of what happened. They did this once in the X-Files, it was a wonderful episode. [Note: probably X-Files Jose Chung's "From Outer Space"] The movie Hero accomplished this, different narratives explaining the same event.
[Howard] There's an episode of CSI that did the same thing.
[Dan] Rashomon by Kurosawa.
[Brandon] Give this a try yourself. This has been Writing Excuses, you're out of excuses, now go write.
[Howard] Five times.
[Dan] You're out of five excuses.
Tags: confusion, red herrings, subtext, sympathy, uncertainty, unreliable narrators, writing excuses
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