Category Archives: Reader Investment & Empathy

Lies, Damn Lies, and Story Telling

Writing fiction is, at root, an exercise in attempting to expose some deeper truth about life through a filter of things that never happened, people who never lived, and, sometimes, non-existent places. It is a common joke for fiction authors to say they “lie for a living.” (Well, in my case it would be a lie to say I make a living at it, at least so far, but that’s another story…)

But it is important, especially for new authors, to understand that even within the web of “lies” that an author is spinning into a story, it is generally critically important for the author to never lie to their reader.

Wait, how can I “not lie” if my entire story is a “lie” in the first place?

There is an unspoken contract between the person who is telling the story, and the person who is reading the story. That contract goes something like this: “I know this story is all made up out of whole cloth, but I am still willing to read it, with the expectation that the story will be internally consistent, and that within the context of the story itself, the author will not rely on duplicity to deceive me into believing one thing, only to learn that something else is the case.”

While the story itself is a “lie,” if the author breaks that trust in order to create what they consider to be a “twist,” then the reader will view that not as a mere “lie,” instead that will be seen as a “damn lie” and once a reader encounters a “damn lie” in a story, they may never trust that author again.

Today, aspiring authors are frequently told that their story must have a “twist,” or something unexpected and potentially shocking to the reader. Of course, the easiest way to do that, is to spend the entire story making you believe one thing, only to contradict that thing at the end just to create a “gotcha” moment for the author.

I won’t lie, I hate books that do that.

“But wait!” you might be saying. “Isn’t deceiving the reader the entire point for certain stories?”

In a sense that’s true. But usually those stories aren’t about lying to the reader, they are about creating an impression by allowing readers to make certain assumptions, and then (sometimes, gently, sometimes abruptly) guiding the reader to realize, at some point, that their assumptions were wrong.

But, at that point the reader must be able to smack themselves in the head and say: “Oh, yeah! I get it now, the clues were there all along, and I just didn’t put them together.” Because if they don’t, their reaction will be more like “What the frack!? What the heck is this?”

The clues being there all along, and the reader finally putting them together, is the heart of story telling. That’s why story telling is not a one-way activity. For a good book to really reach and speak to a reader, that reader must put some effort into reading it, figuring out what the author is doing, and putting it all together at the end. And no reader wants to put that effort into something, only to discover that the author just broke the unspoken covenant, just for a quick “gotcha.”

Authors Lie to Tell the Big Truths

When we pick up a work of fiction, we are seeking to lose ourselves in a beautiful lie. While some readers are driven by the need to escape their reality, most use fiction as an emotional exercise, a way to live vicariously through the adventures of another and stretch the limits of what is possible in our own lives. This latter sort of reader won’t be satisfied by fantastic worlds and flashy plots. While they may be entertained by these elements, they want to sink their teeth into some deeper meaning, a truth that resonates not only with the story, but with their own experiences.

The first step in delivering this deeper human truth is establishing a sense of empathy between the readers and the characters. No matter the culture, or even the species, of the protagonists and points of view, their motivations and choices must ring true. Would we be willing to accept a teratogenic dwarf that cons his way into the admiralcy of a space mercenary fleet? Sure, no problem. However, if Miles VorKosigan were to suddenly give up his military dreams and decide to become a farmer? We’d call shenanigans. Readers invest in characters, not stories. We must see them struggle against impossible odds and make choices that lead them to victory. No matter how fantastic the persona, it is only when our characters are true to their natures and goals that we as readers can invest in their struggles.
Once our readers invest in character, they will begin to look for a link between the protagonists’ fictional journey and the questions and struggles they face in their own lives. Sometimes these truths are topical and current. As an example, I can write countless blog posts about racism, discrimination, prejudice, and fear, but for the most part will have a hard time convincing those who disagree with me. Rather than arguing with my audience, I could make my characters argue for us. Furthermore, by couching my argument in the terms of a fantastic lie, I remove ego and defensiveness from the equation. After all, I am talking about my characters, not about them, right? I could make my protagonist an anthropomorphic bunny who is trying to break a species barrier and fulfill her childhood dream of being a police officer. I pair her with a fox conman and force her to question her own views of predators and foxes in particular, with whom she has had bad experiences in the past. As she questions her prejudice and preconceptions, so will the audience. In so doing, I use my fantastic lie to proxy larger, current social struggles and make an argument for diversity and inclusiveness that is more likely to achieve meaningful success than a thousand angry blog posts.

However, as writers we aren’t limited to current social questions. There are some truths so profound to the human experience that variations on their stories are repeated across generations and cultural barriers. We want to believe in a world where a hobbit from the Shire can face and destroy the greatest evil of his world because sometimes we feel small and powerless. We want to see Aragon and Arwen marry because if they can find a way for their love to survive war, distance, and hardship, then our own romantic futures aren’t hopeless. We want to return to the Shire with Sam because we need to believe that all the chaos and pain of living is for a greater purpose – home and family. Though we might not have the perspective to see the arc of our own lives, we can spend hours, days, or weeks with a story to gain the catharsis we need to push through our own struggles.

As writers, we rely on our readers to willingly suspend their disbelief in order to work our storytelling magic. However, no matter how fantastic and entertaining we may be, our stories must ring true on a deeper level for our readers to commit to the tale. It is only when our characters are believable, empathetic, and when their decisions and struggles resonate with our own experiences that we can truly connect with a story. Readers want to believe the lie, not only because they seek to escape reality for a time, but also because in so doing we seek to understand the truth of our own world.

Gillian Flynn and the Case of the Unreliable Narrator

There are few things I like more than unreliable narrators, reluctant heroes, dark protagonists, dogs, and Taco Bell. Some of my favorite characters on television shows, in books, and in comic books are the anti-heroes and villains that have deep, spanning character arcs. I just hate to love Gul Dukat from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the perpetual heel no matter how hard I root for him to turn into a good guy. Who can say no to The Hound in Game of Thrones? All beefy, reluctant, melty-cheese-face goodness right there. And who isn’t charmed/terrified by Negan in The Walking Dead comics and his filthy, filthy mouth? Kim Coates’ portrayal of Tig on Sons of Anarchy? C’MON, man. The best! And the king of anti-heroes, from which my love of anti-heroes began: Conan the Barbarian.

What most of these anti-heroes and villains have in common is this: their behavior is somewhat predictable from early on. Gul Dukat gonna be Gul Dukat, even if he does some good things on occasion. The Hound looks out for himself until paid to do otherwise, with only a few exceptions. Negan tells his enemies exactly what he’s going to do before he does it. He also loves Lucille, and he’s gonna bring her out to play and he’ll talk some poor character’s ear off while doing it. Tig’s always going to be weird on a supreme level, but he has his soft spots. Conan the mercenary, the pirate, the thief, the treasure hunter, the nomad, still lives his life according to a code.

As a good rule of thumb, the reader has to trust a character to do just one thing: act like him/her/themselves. 

Gillian Flynn either didn’t get the memo, or doesn’t care about your fragile expectations of her characters. And boy is that ballsy. But if you know anything about her success, it’s turning out pretty well for her.

In the first half of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller Gone Girl, I was amazed. Flynn’s ability to communicate small issues in a marriage, how they can appear and fester just under the surface, was revelatory to me. I sure didn’t pick up Gone Girl expecting such an accurate and subtle commentary on American marriage and the differences between blue-collar and white-collar partner philosophies.

But I also didn’t pick up Gone Girl expecting the twist, either. Soft spoiler ahead, so cover your eyes for this and the next paragraph if you plan on reading the book or seeing the movie. As it turns out, BOTH of our narrators, married couple Nick and Amy Dunne, are unreliable to an extreme. Just when we start feeling sorry for Nick, and think he’s getting played by a master, we find that he’s been living a secret life all on his own.

What Gillian Flynn accomplishes in Gone Girl is to take the concept of an unreliable narrator and anti-heroes to another level. When we understand that Nick and Amy can’t be trusted (the first unreliable narrator twist), Flynn twists the narrative knife even further, taking their story to depths most people couldn’t dream up in a million years.

Similarly, in Flynn’s novella The Grownup, the reader is presented with an anti-hero that, at first blush, seems honest and straight forward about who she is: a fake psychic. I’ll not mention her former job so you’re surprised when you read the short story yourself (I’ll just say this: the first two lines of the story are some of the best opening lines I’ve ever read. Talk about a hook! Winky wink). Now, as we, the readers, follow this opportunistic woman, we fall into a haunted house/evil stepson-type scenario. Nothing too surprising here – they are common horror movie tropes. And our protagonist, although a con artist of sorts, still has some admirable attributes, and it’s easy to slip into the story from her perspective. We’re even on her side. (Big spoiler here, so skip to the next paragraph if you want to read this story.) We’re on her side, that is, until we realize too late that she’s not an anti-hero – she’s the villain, and became so under our very noses. And this is Flynn’s trademark. Unreliable narrators to an extreme. Characters that seem like unreliable narrators and anti-heroes who become the villains before the reader can put two and two together.

As much as I drool over and admire Gillian Flynn’s storytelling, I must admit I don’t come away from her books feeling particularly… good. I feel uncomfortable, ill at ease. I certainly don’t need every book to be a happy ending, but I’m used to anti-hero stories ending in a different way (Conan always accomplishes the quest and gets the girl, after all).

What I take away from Gillian Flynn’s expert storytelling and success is this: do what you do, and do it well. If you’re good at pulling the wool over your readers’ eyes, do it. But always do it well. Flynn creates characters we can empathize with, she can humanize extreme situations, and then she slowly crumbles the foundation of what we thought we knew about those characters and their situation. Flynn uses our very fundamental trust of character (that the character will act like himself/herself/themselves) against us. And it is masterful.

Readers don’t always like to be deceived. In fact, a writer pulling a fast one often makes a reader feel betrayed. But looking at Gone Girl‘s success, it doesn’t appear the readers minded the deception because of how artfully Flynn pulled it off. Don’t be afraid to deceive your reader, but only if you can pull it off, too.

Don’t Split the Party!

Yes, the title of this post is one of the most revered and honored tropes of role-playing games. I can’t even begin to count the number of stories I could tell about the consequences of an adventuring party going their separate ways and being systematically wiped out by frustrated Dungeon Masters whose carefully constructed campaign is being turned into a shambles by players who think it’s a grand idea to have everyone wander off on their own.

But this post isn’t about gaming. It’s about writing. Of course, like all “rules”, this one is frequently violated to great effect in numerous stories from “Lord of the Rings” to “The Avengers.” So as Barbossa would say, this isn’t a “rule” so much as a “guideline.”

But it’s a solid guideline if you want to create a story where readers can experience the rich interplay of characters that is really only possible when the reader has become not only acquainted with individual characters, but has also developed an understanding of the complex dynamics of interpersonal relationships between groups of people.

It is rare for any story to rely on a total focus on one main character. It is incredibly difficult for a writer to keep readers interested in a story like that anyway. So the vast majority of the world’s favorite stories usually have one main focus, but that main focus is surrounded by other characters whose stories weave their own threads around and through the main character’s thread.

In that group of orbiting characters, at least one should be a friend of the main character, not just a flunky, or a tool the main character uses to advance their agenda. Friendships allow the reader to see the main character as a living, breathing person. The more a writer can create a sense of true mutual love and respect between the main character and another character, the more likely readers will be to empathize and sympathize with the protagonist. In most cases we want to root for characters we like, and observing how the protagonist interacts with close friends is the best way for a reader to learn the normally hidden vulnerabilities that make them human and relatable. Sometimes these “friends” are also siblings, but usually not.

Creating close friendships does more than make a protagonist more human. It also gives the author opportunities to use that relationship to bring elements of the story to more compelling climaxes, and to explore emotions to sublime depths. What would the story of Frodo be without Sam? Would we really care as much about Lizzy and Mr. Darcy without Charlotte and Bingley? And Harry Potter would have been far less interesting without Ron and Hermione.

Building relationships like that takes time. It can’t be “told” it has to be “shown” in dozens of little details sprinkled through scene after scene. And that’s not easy to do if you can’t keep the party together long enough to build them.