Posts Tagged ‘unreliable narrator’

Hey, Followers of Fear! Long time no see! I’ve been busy trying to get a short story done before November 1st. And tonight, I managed to do it. Car Chasers is a short story that centers around a Fast & Furious-esque race held in a forest where ghosts chase the racers. Yeah, it’s a pretty out there concept, isn’t it? And I think it might make a great movie, even without Vin Diesel in a starring role.

I liked writing this story for a number of reasons. Along with a fun concept, it focused on a particular incident with these races, told through the point of view of an unreliable narrator. Normally, the unreliable narrators I encounter in fiction are jackasses (the main characters of Gone Girl and Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, for example), but the narrator in this story is actually telling it trying to put a good spin on a friend of his, which is different from my normal experience. I also put a few people I know in the story in varying capacities (you’re welcome, Pat Bertram and Melissa Mendel), and named the bad guy of this story after a certain person I dislike a lot right now. Yeah, I’m sadistic that way. It’s fun.

So when can you read this story? Well, it’s a first draft, and it’s going to need a lot of work. For one thing, there are some places in the story that could be fixed or trimmed down. As the story is a bit over ten-thousand words, and therefore technically a novelette, I might want to really trim it down if I want to get it into a magazine. If that doesn’t happen, I can see this in my upcoming collection of short stories, Teenage Wasteland. The characters are at the right age, so it’s a good choice for the collection.

In the meantime though, November is just around the corner. And for novelists, that means one thing: National Novel Writing Month. I’ve got the final Reborn City novel to write, and after that, I’m devoting all my time to getting that novel and Teenage Wasteland out as soon as possible.

Well, that’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I’ll see you guys with a couple of posts on November 1st, when I’ll be doing another “First Day, First Paragraph” Tag, and talking about Reborn City and the final novel, Full Circle. Have a happy Halloween, guys. See you soon!

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Recently I read an article about eleven recent novels that Stephen King apparently found scary. Being the fan of His Royal Scariness that I am, I checked out the article and found this book at the top of the list. The premise sounded interesting, so the next time I had a credit for an Audible audio book, I got A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay, which is about a young woman who tells us her memories of when her elder sister started showing symptoms of schizophrenia, but when treatment after treatment seems to fail, the family comes to the conclusion that the sister is possessed, and somehow a reality show documenting the family’s attempts to exorcise their daughter evolves.

Like I said, it sounded interesting, and it was, though I wouldn’t call it scary. I mean, there are a few moments that can be terrifying, but even imagining them as a horror movie in my head, I didn’t really feel that it was as scary as King hyped it up to be.

Still, A Head Full of Ghosts is definitely not a dull read. In fact, it’s quite entertaining. The main character and narrator, Meredith “Merry” Barrett, is one of the most enjoyable types of narrators, the unreliable kind (see my post on unreliable narrators). Eight years old at the time of the events of the novel, she tells them anew to a writer for a new book in the year 2030 (which apparently still values paperbacks and blogs. I find that reassuring). As she tells us early in the novel, she misremembers a lot of what happened, due to the passage of time and of course what everyone has told her has happened.

To a certain extent, most of the characters in this novel is unreliable to a degree. We can’t tell what’s up with the older sister: is she possessed, is she schizophrenic, is she something we don’t have a word for? The things she says and does, you get a lot of conflicting signals. I have my guesses, but you really don’t know at all, right up to the end. The father is struggling because of unemployment (I sympathize) and has recently rediscovered God and begins to see everything through a religious lens with disastrous results. The mother seems to be perpetually grumpy and wavering between trying to be in control and trying to be responsible as her life unravels. The priest from the Catholic Church seems priestly, but underneath that you get a sense that he’s milking this situation for his own reasons. It’s amazing how little you can actually trust these characters.

My favorite parts of the novel involve segues into a blog by a horror fan (a woman after my own heart) where she gives us an idea of what watching the reality show was like, as well some good ol’ scholarly examination of some of the show’s deeper meanings. And all with a snarky voice too. These segments are hilarious and fun, but they also help us as readers put the story and characters into context and prepare us for future events in the novel.

Another part I enjoyed about the novel is just seeing Merry and her family experience her sister’s illness/possession/whatever and then the craziness that is being the subject of a reality show, how fame has its downsides, how the show and the ordeal brings out the worst in her family, how her relationship with her sister becomes strained by all these events. It’s a very engrossing evolution.

One problem I do have with this novel (besides the fact that I never really found it scary) is that we never really see Merry outside of the context of her family or the show. Not even when we see her as an adult, because it’s fairly obvious that her family and the show has affected the adult she’s become. I would’ve liked to see Mary outside of the context of the family or the show, maybe in the company of friends or her soccer program. Those aspects of her life are mentioned, but they’re not really delved into, and I think she would’ve been a fuller character if we saw that her family and what’s going on around it isn’t entirely what defines her.

Oh, that and I didn’t particularly care for the audio book’s narrator. I mean she was good, especially when she was voicing the older sister, but when she does male voices, especially the father character’s voice, it sounds like every daughter’s impression of her embarrassing father or teacher. Just not convincing at all, more comical than anything.

All in all, I give A Head Full of Ghosts a 3.9 out of 5. It’s not as scary as I’d hoped it would be (or maybe I just listened to it wrong), but it’s psychological, it’s entertaining, and you want to see it through to the end. If you’re looking for a book that’s like The Exorcist with a modern twist, this might not be for you. But if you want to read something with dark subjects but you’d like to sleep at night, I think you’ll find this book fits the bill.

Every now and then I look to do a post musing on the mechanics or subtleties of writing fiction, and today is one of those days. And as you can tell from the title of this post, I want to talk about unreliable narrators, those strange voices in the books we read (and occasionally in the films and TV shows we watch) whom we can’t always trust.

According to that awesome source of usually-factual info that is Wikipedia, an unreliable narrator is a narrator, usually in some medium of fiction or another, whose veracity has been called into question. Usually this happens very early in the story, where the narrator may make a plainly false or delusional claim, or it may happen elsewhere in the story, perhaps near the end where a twist in the story turns everything we thought we knew upside down or slowly through hints that are given to us in the narration. Stories with unreliable narrators can feature a single narrator, or multiple narrators giving their own versions of events, or even a supporting or side character who tells a story in such a way that we question whether or not they’]re being entirely truthful about what happened.

A great example of an unreliable narrator is Patrick Bateman from the novel American Psycho. As a man suffering from psychoses and the occasional hallucinations, Bateman makes a great unreliable narrator. Other examples include Nell from Wuthering Heights, most of the characters from the Japanese movie Rashomon, and Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother (according to show creator Craig Thomas, anyway). Oh, and any story that has children narrating it could possibly have unreliable narrators, because kids sometimes remember things incorrectly.

(If you want to think about it though, every one is an unreliable narrator, because no matter how they see events, they are biased, they may mis-remember details, and they may cover things up in order to make themselves look good or to hide their own guilt. But let’s not get too philosophical about this. Otherwise we’ll be here all evening)

One of the characters in my thesis project, the antagonist, is an unreliable narrator. Because of his mental problems and his infatuation with protagonist Rose, he sees things through a very certain light, so when he tells a story it is often through that lens, which probably won’t reflect reality too well. As I’ve never written a story from the point of view of an unreliable narrator, so exploring the device through this character should be interesting. (Or have I used unreliable narrators before? Technically, any time I tell a story from the protagonist’s first-person point of view, it could be construed as unreliable, but i’m not sure if it counts. Oh darn it! Now I’m an unreliable narrator of my own writing career!)

But why are unreliable narrators used so much? And why do they appeal to readers and writers alike? It’s a very difficult question, and I’m not sure I have an answer. Perhaps for writers, it’s the chance to tell a warped version of events. When we tell a story, especially through the lens of an omniscient or almost-omniscient third-person narrator, it’s almost expected that the story being told is what actually happens, one-hundred-and-ten percent factual. Even when the story is limited to the viewpoint of a single character, that third-person narrator’s portrayal of events is assumed to be accurate. Heck, even when we read a novel told in the first-person, we tend to see the depiction of what happens as true. Especially if we like the character.

An unreliable narrator allows the writer to break from that, to tell a story that might not be accurate, and that the reader and maybe even the writer will have to guess how true the story is or how much we can trust the narrator to tell the truth. In fact, maybe that’s what the reader gets from these sort of storytellers: they have to figure out how trustworthy the storyteller is, or where the line between truth and the storyteller’s own delusions or beliefs is laid down. It’s like solving a mystery or a puzzle, in a way, and the only way to really solve it is to read on until you finish the story. And even then, you might not be able to tell how reliable the narrator is (which is why there are e-forums to discuss these issues).

In any case, I’m going to enjoy exploring the antagonist’s own unreliable stories and seeing how much we can or should believe him. It’ll make for an interesting discussion point when talking about my thesis with my adviser during the next semester.

What do you think of unreliable narrators?

Have you ever used them in your own writing? How did it go?