Monday, March 2, 2015

The Unreliable Narrator: Should We Let Characters Have Their Way?

by Sophie Perinot

I have learned to cherish the unreliable narrator. I don’t use that term in the usual sense—the narrator who, often at his writer’s behest, leads readers astray and makes them think hard about what is true and what is not in his recounting of a book’s action. No, I mean the character you as an author researched, outlined, storyboarded, breathed life into, who decides she is NOT who you think she is.

When I first started writing I did not know what to make of these episodic occurrences. I’d be writing dialogue and suddenly some character—usually the main one, the one whose head I lived in, the one I thought I knew as well as I know myself—would say something I totally did not expect. The effect was sort of like being hit from behind while driving. My head would jerk back and I would be swept by a feeling of “what was that?” The further I got into my inaugural novel, the more frequently my characters grabbed the reins of power and the more firmly they held them. No longer was it just a matter of a few sentences that surprised me, they were making life-changing decisions or rather story-changing ones.  I am not alone in this experience. Nearly every writer I know has had it. For example, a good friend of mine who is a successful multi-published author recently reported that the character she created specifically to be the love interest in her wip decided this week that he may be gay.  Yeah that’s a game changer.

For a novel to be successful what our characters do and say must to ring true, must be compatible with their natures.  So who decides upon that nature? Of course ultimately we can force our characters to do what we want.  But should we?

As my characters in my debut novel became more and more strong-willed I began to perceive a pattern.  When they stood up for themselves, my writing came alive.  Instead of reaching for word-count goals I had a hard time stopping for the day.  I was late to carpool.  I wrote in carpool.  By the time I set to work on my second novel, I viewed my early writing as merely preparation—sort of like prayer.  Sure I’d done my research and filled my subconscious with both historical facts and plot ideas, but I was merely setting a stage. I was waiting for a spark, for what I have come to call “the genesis moment” when my characters would come to life, and reveal to me who they really were.

Now, as a veteran writer hard at work on another first-draft, I view myself less an omnipotent God (and don’t all novelists sort of feel like they are all-powerful creators manipulating characters and readers alike when they begin their author journey?) and more like Abraham Heschel’s “most moved mover.”  Yes, warning, I am going to quote philosophy.  Heschel said that, “while God is often frustrated by our actions, he endures, patiently waiting for us to turn our attention to the sacred task of universal redemption.”  Alright, alright, I do not expect my characters to get busy with universal redemption (I don’t’ write literary fiction, remember), but the point is I’ve come to trust my characters.  Sure they still frustrate me when they go off on what I perceive to be a tangent, but instead of fighting them, I try to wait patiently, taking it all down with the knowledge that they are trying to find their way—to find my way for me—to where my story needs to be in order to be my best work.  This is not recalcitrance, this is inspiration, and I can discipline them a bit in editing if I need to.

The very unreliability that used to give me whiplash now invigorates me.  It is the crack-cocaine that brings me back to my laptop every day, the high-inducing interruption that gets me out of my morning shower and sends me scrambling for a yellow legal pad.  My narrators are truly the most reliably themselves when they become three-dimensional animate actors with free will, not just stick figures I move around the page in keeping with an outline.

So I say all hail the unreliable narrator!  What say you?

Sophie P’s The Sister Queens, (March 2012/NAL), is set in 13th century France and England and weaves the captivating story of sisters, Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence, who both became queens. She collaborated in the Roman-era A Day of Fire, a ground-breaking “novel in six parts” exploring the last days of Pompeii (November 2014/Knight Media).  Her next novel, Médicis Daughter, (December 2015/Thomas Dunne) is set at the intrigue-riven, 16th century French Valois court, and spins the tale of beautiful princess Marguerite who walks the knife edge between the demands of her serpentine mother, Catherine de Medicis, and those of her own conscience.  Visit Sophie at her website, or on FB, follow her on Twitter as @Lit_gal

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