Category Archives: Subtle Confict

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.

There’s Room for Both: Risk-Taking Young Women and Risk-Assessing Young Women in Young Adult Literature

Generally, I think authors write young, female characters very well. I know what you’re thinking. But Kristin, this month is all about how authors get things wrong! You’re supposed to point out instances where a writer wrote a young woman incorrectly!

Instead of throwing some other poor soul under the bus, I’ll use my own writing as an example.

Recently, I received feedback from an older, knowledgable man about my young, female protagonist. He said that she didn’t take enough risks and needed to be more impulsive, and even make some mistakes. That piece of advice has stuck with me for months, and I recently figured out why: because it’s a misconception of what makes a female protagonist compelling.

Initially, the advice seemed fair enough. Action needs to happen in order to make a story happen. The protagonist has to (although it doesn’t always have to be the protagonist) make a move and get the plot rolling. Sometimes, that protagonist is hasty and makes a decision that comes back to bite him/her in the ass. Sometimes, the protagonist needs to take a risk. And in Young Adult Literature, we are accustomed to seeing a young, impulsive protagonist head out on a collision course like a bull in a china shop.

The rub comes when I think about traditional young male protagonists. They take risks, they act impulsively. They sometimes even make stupid decisions that are also hilarious to get the story moving along. And as a trope, that absolutely works.

I don’t mind if a young, female character is also written in this way. Weren’t we all young once and made a slew of terrible decisions? Yes. Yes we were. However, because I was a young female once, I think that female characters can be just as successfully compelling being risk-assessors instead of risk-takers.

Let’s unpack this.

The research in the article states that 83% of young women aged 16-19 in the United States have kept a journal. That, to me, is huge. I hypothesize that’s why we see so much first-person past tense in YA lit (read more about that here), and I’m digging deeper into that to also examine what kind of female characters readers can identify with.That means most women that buy books have journaled at one point in their lifetime.

Journalling is unique in that the writer will write specifically to her own experiences, but there are usually a wide range of similarities in the process of journaling. People use journals to recount the day or week, write down memories, note things of importance, and/or to work through feelings or ideas. When a person recounts their day or works through emotions or ideas, they are assessing certain actions, situations, or feelings that occurred.

Generally, we enjoy reading about protagonists we find interesting and/or can relate to. So when I received the feedback that my protagonist should take more risks, almost to the point of recklessness, it didn’t jive with me. I kept thinking that not all young women impulsively act — lots of us evaluate things first. Sometimes, we don’t even act, we take it all in, assess the situation, then make the best choice available to us. And while it can be empowering to read about a young woman taking risks and yes, even making mistakes, it can be equally empowering to read about a young protagonist that is strong in risk-assessment, and then makes her decision. And that’s what I realized: I had written a character that weighed her options, then made the best decision she could at the time, even if that didn’t turn out so well for her after all.

I absolutely do think we can empower young women to take risks, as it’s stated so beautifully in this article. But it’s also important to show a young female that many people can identify with: one who is thoughtful, weighs her options, assesses them as many young women do in their journals, and then make a decision. A young female character can be just as compelling by making smart, thoughtful decisions, and the real twist can come when the outcomes do not turn out as she expected them to, and how she deals with the fallout.

There are many young women who are impulsive and would like to read a protagonist that is as well. But there are just as many young women who are thoughtful, think of the options, and then choose. Indeed, having your protagonist make a hasty, reckless decision can no doubt move the plot. But can you still move the plot along and still make your protagonist’s virtues shine? Yes. Absolutely. And there’s room for both kinds of female protagonists, and even more so, all kinds of female protagonists.

Jackie Brown: Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece

JackieBrown

Quentin Tarantino’s Subtle Masterpiece

We’ve all seen Quentin Tarantino’s movies and the episodes of television he has guest-directed (I’m partial to his epic episode of ER), and there are so many things we love or maybe hate about them. I have my favorites and my not-so favorites like everyone else. Yet, his almost unique approach to storytelling makes him one of the examples I use when I discuss movies that are even better than their screenplays read. Does he tend to have too-long periods of conversation? Sure. Is there a lot of gratuitous violence? Yes. But it hasn’t always been that way. Along the way, he mastered subtle story-telling.

My favorite of Tarantino’s movies is Jackie Brown. The movie is based on crime fiction master Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch. With a stellar cast including Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Robert Forster, Chris Tucker, Bridget Fonda, and Robert De Niro, this film is not a hyper-violent revenge saga (Kill Bill) or a riff on alternate history (Inglorious Basterds), this is a very subtle character study and as such it is a masterpiece.

Jackie Brown (Grier) is a middle-aged flight attendant who smuggles money from Mexico into the United States for arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Jackson). When she’s caught by Federal agents, they propose a deal for her to help them arrest Ordell in exchange for her freedom. Ordell bails out Jackie with the intention of eliminating her, but Jackie is thinking ahead and plots a way to steal $500,000 from Ordell with the help of her bail bondsman Max Cherry (Forster). Things seldom are so simple.

From the beginning of the movie, the characters are so subtly handled that it almost makes you wonder if you’re watching a Tarantino film. We immediately like and empathize with Jackie in a dead-end job because we see her hurrying through the airport and putting on a smile all the while. When she’s caught, we can see she was stuck in the middle of a bad situation because it helped financially. Ordell (a masterful performance by Jackson) is creepy, distrustful, and loathsome from the moment we meet him – and he gets worse throughout the film. But these audience reactions are genuine and not ham-fisted by any means. Just by watching the movie and letting the character’s depth play out visually, you pick these things up. Tarantino mastered “show, don’t tell” and he doesn’t need product placement, direct conversation, or tedious imagery to get the point across.

The heart of the movie is the relationship between Jackie and Max. We see two middle-aged people in dead-end jobs that they do not enjoy being drawn together. How Tarantino handles their relationship is simply beautiful. The gradual development of their unspoken feelings for each other reaches a crescendo when Max puts his life on the line for her. I won’t spoil the ending, but the first time I watched it I remember wishing like hell it had been different only to realize that it was perfectly crafted for the characters because of who they were and what we as the audience had learned about them throughout the film.

And one more example. Robert De Niro’s character is such a departure for the actor that you’re almost dumbfounded he’s playing that role. To me, this is brilliant casting because you’re waiting for De Niro to be De Niro, you know? And when it happens, it’s brutal and perfect. I’ll leave it at that and not spoil much more. Brilliant casting.

One final thought. I always write with music playing and I pay very close attention to movie soundtracks for what works and what does not. Music is important to mood and when done well it’s a subtle attention grabber. The soundtrack for this movie is simply amazing. Every song fits its scene perfectly.

Tarantino’s strength in bringing memorable characters to life with the subtle aspects of their personalities, likes, dislikes, and they way there simply “are” is something all of us should strive for in our writing. Beating the reader over the head with what you want them to know takes away from the level of care they should develop for your characters. Be subtle. Be brilliant.