Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Chasing The Sweet Spot With An Unreliable Narrator

I love unreliable narrators, love not knowing when they're lying or faking an emotion, just love the whole gotcha thing going on. The problem with so many novels centered on the unreliable narrator is that not only is the narrator not to be trusted he or she is also extremely unlikeable, and, to me at least, that is an unsurmountable problem. An antagonist needs to be either likable, vulnerable, or just plain compelling enough for readers to want him or her to succeed no matter how nefarious their deed. (Don't you love the word nefarious?) And, as Shakespeare would say, therein lies the tub. (Yes, I realize others probably have used the term, but come on do you know anyone that used it like this:
To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. 
 No, didn't think you did.) 

You want to hear someone good recite those lines, don't you? Well here you go. 
Hamlet is one of my favorite unreliable narrators, he's confused and vulnerable and extremely appealing as he shares his growing madness with us. As usual, Shakespeare got it right. There are many other's not so successful, a recent one that many of you will disagree with me about is Gone Girl. I just finished reading the mega hit starring the unreliable narrator and have to confess to being disappointed, in fact, I had to force myself to slog through to the bitter end in the hopes the ending was worthwhile and I have to admit that it was in a strangely unsettling way. 

The problem I had with the novel was that the two main characters were totally unlikeable, with nary a redeeming quality between them so at the end I simply did not care what happened to either of them. I didn't care if she never reappeared and he went to prison or if she returned or if she was really dead. The writing is okay and in some parts, lovely, and the story would have been a four star if either of the characters had something about them that made me want to cheer for them. It didn't. 
Poe, another master of the unreliable narrator

Obviously I am in the minority and don't begrudge the author's success, I say good for her. I'm happy when any book does well, a sort of rising tide lifts all boats kind of thing. However, despite her selling zillions of books, I still think it's best to create an unreliable narrator that is, if not like-able, at least vulnerable, a character readers care about. Of course, I still don't understand why people enjoy watching movies that slice and dice humans for fun, so maybe I'm just out of touch with what audiences want. Despite that, I continue to encourage my creative writings students and strive in my own writing to create compelling, vulnerable, flawed characters that are also unreliable and therein lies the rub for all writers. Finding that sweet spot that combines some good with some bad and creating something wonderful. 
Check out my blogs at Gabriella Austen and my Alter Ego


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

You put that well. I hated the ending of Gone Girl. I did like the guy until he messed up and became too human. That was distracting

My illustrious mentor, Robert Walker, who writes mysteries and horror, said "No matter what else one must play fair with the audience/readers.

She didn't.

Olga Godim said...

I think to a degree, every narrator is unreliable, not 100% anyway. Any story presents inevitably one point of view - that of the protagonist. What he considers good, right, advisable... It's the readers' job to sift right from wrong.
And I agree with you about the likable protagonists. I can't even read a book to the end if I dislike the main characters(s).

Keith Willis said...

Well said! Even if you don't find the protagonist likeable, you at least need to be able to empathize with them to some degree, and want to see them through their journey, whatever it may be. If I'm completely turned off by the main character--or worse, just don't care in the least what happens to them-- then it doesn't matter if the plot is exciting or moving, I just can't get into the story. And that's the whole point of what we do, to engage people with our characters and thus with the story. Fail in that, and you've failed all the way 'round.

Jude Johnson said...

I agree with you completely, Gabrielle--I didn't care what happened to either of them in "Gone Girl." Blech.