Category Archives: Narrative Voice

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.

Amnesia

Why are books better than their movie counterparts? There are several reasons, but I believe the strongest has to do with insight into the mind. We are given a telepathic link to the point of view character’s mind. But that link streams data in bits instead of a massive info dump (in good writing anyway).

This can be problematic if not done right. We all love a good twist ending. That mental whiplash, once everything seems to be resolved, can be an exhilarating experience. I remember watching the Sixth Sense when the child psychologist discovers he’s dead.

I immediately wanted to watch the movie again. When I did, it was a totally different experience. But the twist wouldn’t have worked if he knew he was dead all along. Consider that for a moment. In twists where the characters know what is going on, but not the reader, a twist comes across more like fraud than hand-clapping thrill.

That’s because there is an unspoken agreement between the reader and writer. The writer promises a good story, an exciting tale, an emotional journey. The reader promises to go along with the ride and believe the words and trust the characters as they are presented. When the reader discovers that the characters were withholding critical information, even though there had been an apparent telepathic link, then that trust is broken and the reader feels deceived, not entertained.

There are many ways to help the reader discover along with the POV characters so that discovery becomes a journey. The one gimmick I’d like to discuss is amnesia.

The Maze Runner did it well, forbidding the reader much of the world where juveniles run mazes. Because of Thomas’s amnesia, the reader is sucked into the story, waiting with baited breath every bit of information they can glean together from the world before them.

I recently read a book where amnesia was used well. Sleeper Protocol by Kevin Ikenberry was a fantastic sci-fi novel where the main character discovers his identity and memories through a series of scientific supported phases under the supposition that rediscovery (integration) can be detrimental to the mind if it happens too quickly.

The sixth sense was essentially an amnesia story, disguised. That’s why it worked so well.

Others, like Dan Brown’s Inferno, use amnesia as a tool to propose a purpose and deciding event for the character in order to up the stakes, or increase the drama and embellish the character arc.

Arguably one of the best amnesia tales is Jason Borne whose head wound left him with no prior memory although he had exceptional skills, spoke foreign languages, knew martial arts and spy craft and so on. Also it allowed the reader to empathize with someone who killed people for a living.

Fifty First Dates used amnesia to tell an incredible, funny, and yet heart-wrenching love story.

I myself have an amnesia novel in the works. It’s temporary and as it wears off, the reader discovers the apocalyptic world, as fascinating as it appears, isn’t at all what it seams and instead turns into an exciting thriller.

To write the piece, I did extensive research on the brain and memory loss. In my world, it has to be, believable. Basically there are different parts of the brain where memory is stored. Episodic memory involving experiences and events are different than Semantic Memory involving facts and concepts. These two types are stored in separate parts of the brain. This is why Jason Borne doesn’t remember any specific event but he knows at this altitude he can flat out run for thirty minutes and not break a sweat.

This is also why is would not make sense for Thomas of Maze Runner to recall his name but nothing else. Unless of course there was some medical, scientific, magical reasoning for it that James Dashner covers well.

What are some of your favorite amnesia stories?

Jace KillanI live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I hold an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.

I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.

You can read some of my works by visiting my Wattpad page and learn more at www.jacekillan.com.

It All Started with a Typo

Anyone who spends enough time talking to me about books knows that the books that really blow me away are those that show me something I’ve never seen before. They tend to be a little (or a lot) weird and while they often enjoy a cult following, their oddness keeps them away from mainstream success.

I can’t remember what convinced me to pick up The Grin of Dark, by Ramsey Campbell, but it quickly wormed its way into my consciousness. The book centers on Simon, a disgraced film critic determined to win back his pride–and, he hopes, the approval of his girlfriend’s parents–by writing a critically successful biography of Tubby Thackeray, the world’s greatest comedian during the silent film era, now relegated to barely a footnote.

It doesn’t sound like much, right? But though it may not sound like it from the description above, this book is a deeply unsettling work of horror. In his quest to uncover Tubby Thackeray’s history (did I mention Tubby was a clown?), he discovers fragmented accounts of people literally laughing themselves to death at his live performances. Bits of film Simon watches leave him deeply disturbed. It becomes apparent to the reader, if not to Simon, that Tubby’s history has been erased for a reason.

In his research online, Simon runs afoul of a troll whose typo-ridden posts challenge every point he tries to make (about ten years old now, the book’s use of the internet is dated in some ways but still perfectly relevant in others). As he pours himself deeper into his research, Simon begins experiencing strange sounds and sensations. He begins misspeaking words, sometimes the same words that his troll-nemesis does in his antagonistic posts online. He garbles sentences in ways that will maximally offend those he is speaking to, even his closest loved ones. It’s as if some force or entity is gaslighting him, scrambling his perceptions while convincing him that things he was previously sure of never happened. It’s all deeply creepy, and that’s before the typos begin appearing in the narration of the book themselves.

It happens slowly at first, so slowly that I assumed the first few were honest mistakes that slipped through editing. Regrettable, but it happens. Yet as Simon’s paranoia mounts and his behavior grows more erratic, mistakes trickle into the narration with greater frequency. Every face Simon glimpses in the street is suddenly hostile, every comment pregnant with hidden animosity. He is persecuted from every side, the whole world out to get him. Simon is being driven insane by a darkly comedic force of great malice–or maybe by his own crippling sense of inadequacy–and the book makes the reader feel that shattering of reality with disquieting power.

As Simon’s life unravels around him, the world makes less and less sense. He can’t believe anything he sees or hears. This is a book that will stick with you long after you read it. And now I’ll recount a little anecdote to you. I pulled the book down off my shelf to reference in writing this post. I went to look up some of the typos I wrote about above, hoping to quote a few to show you what I meant.

I couldn’t find any for the longest time. Despite having read the book twice, I was genuinely starting to wonder if I’d imagined them, so much so that it was a huge relief when I finally did find one. I’m… going to put the book back on the shelf now.

About the Author: Gregory D. LittleheadshotRocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His first novel, Unwilling Souls, is available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, and Dragon Writers: An Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

 

Stab Them in the Back

 

For all of you “Agents of Shield” fans, I think you’ll remember that wrench in your gut when you realized, but didn’t want to admit, that Grant Ward was Hydra. Not only was he Hydra, but he was also quite psycho. Everyone’s favorite character started betraying and killing all of his friends. Except for the recently acquired girlfriend, whom he creepily stalked.

One of the most painful and effective ways to keep our readers enthralled is through the backstabbing friend. What’s the best way to set that up and make it work for you? Let’s look at a few examples from those who draw blood well.

1) Neither the protagonist nor the reader sees it coming. In my opinion, this is the best way to have friend stab friend. It does take finesse, however. For one, you can’t have the stabbing friend act in contradiction to his final evil goal. That doesn’t mean he can’t help your protagonist, seem to empathize, and even help the protagonist further their own goals. It does mean you have to watch out for temporal contradictions. If something nasty happens to the protagonist and the stabbing friend is hiding in the shadows on the dark side, he can’t also be helping his “friend” at the same time. It also means that anything the stabber does for your protagonist has to either not effect his own goals or must further them in some way. He can save his friend’s life, it can seem that it’s because he legitimately cares, and we can find out later that it was only because the backstabber needed information. Besides Grant Ward in Agents of Shield, another great example is in Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker. (spoiler alert) Throughout the entire novel, Siri finds in Bluefingers a confidante she can trust, until the very end when he and the Pahn Kahl people turn against her and the kingdom. He was the one person she thought she could trust and with that paradigm shift is a plot twist that changes everything.

2nd) The character doesn’t see it coming, but the reader does. This sets up a time-bomb scenario for the reader where they can see the betrayal coming, don’t know exactly when it will happen, but as the suspense builds and the stakes grow higher, so does the interest of the reader. Who can forget the disappointment we feel as Edmund gradually becomes more and more entwined with the evil queen in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? We see his betrayal coming, but his poor siblings have no idea until he’s gone. We can unfold the tragedy with carefully placed clues that the reader puts together piece by piece, gradually discerning the awful news that they hate to admit may be true, like in the famed Narnia series. We can also slam the reader with the betrayal for greater impact, putting them suddenly on the edge of their seats as they wait for the protagonist to find out. Either way works and I think the best choice is whichever one fits with the flavor of your book. Is it wrought with mystery so the betrayal is one of many factors or is it a book of many twists, turns, and tragedies where this can be one more layer on the cake?

3rd) We see the possibility, but nobody knows what will happen, including the friend who betrays. I thought this was done rather well in Dr. Strange. Yes, I admit it, I’m a Marvel movie fan. Stephen Strange is championed by Baron Mordo from the moment Strange arrives at Kathmandu trying to find healing. Mordo mentors him, worries for him, and cares for him. Mordo’s negative reaction when he discovers their leader has been using forbidden magic all along is a sign that not all is well. Mordo seems to come around, helping Doctor Strange save the world, and it’s not certain what Mordo will do until the moment comes. Even Mordo doesn’t seem certain what he’ll do. And then he turns his back on his friends and becomes the next super-villain. If we hadn’t already known that Anakin becomes Darth Vader, we might have been on the edge of our seats wondering if he’d really turn to the dark side or come to his senses. Because we do know, it becomes an example for the scenario above. We know it will happen, but how and when is the question. I think the unsure betrayer is one of the most compelling and heart-wrenching scenarios in fiction. It gives our protagonist’s friend a great sense of depth as they struggle with the decision. This one is also hard to pull off well, because we must show those forces of good and evil push and pull in a side character while still keeping the protagonist as the focus. Done well, it’s quite powerful.

I could probably name a dozen more types of backstabs, but I’m not willing to make this post any longer. What are some great backstabbing moments you’ve seen? What are some movies/books that you feel have done it well or some styles other than what I’ve listed above? We’d love to hear from you.

Colette Black Bio:
Author PicColette Black lives in the far outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona with her family, 2 dogs, a mischievous cat and the occasional unwanted scorpion. Author of the Mankind’s Redemption Series, The Number Prophecy series, and the upcoming Legends of Power series, Colette writes New Adult and Young Adult sci-fi and fantasy novels with kick-butt characters, lots of action, and always a touch of romance. Find her at www.coletteblack.net