>Shell Games and the Talking Snake


When I was little, going through the local “festas” (think mobile fair and amusement park, usually set up for a saint’s day outside a church. In Summer there was one every weekend in the immediate vicinity) I remember seeing tables set up and men – it was always men – speaking fast to a group.

My mother taught me early not to trust these men, who played shell games “little red one” (vermelhinha in Portuguese) or sold patent medicines (for some reason the only bit of patter from the patent medicine seller was his holding up a suitcase and saying “Inside this suitcase, I have a snake that can even speak!”

In Portugal, in the early sixties, in my area – just outside the second largest city – con men usually came to the business the traditional way – they inherited it, having been trained by their fathers. Locals stayed away from them because they knew the family. Only the yokels arrived from the mountains would fall for their line.

So… what does this have to do with writing? Other than the fact that writers’ lie by definition? And get paid for their lies? And that we pass our craft, mutatis mutandi to our “children” though these are usually not blood children?

Believe it or not I wasn’t bringing this up to excoriate myself for getting paid for telling lies. Okay, so it bothered me the first time (me “Do they know every word in this is made up, and they’re paying me thousands of dollars?” My long-suffering husband: “They count on it. They hate plagiarism.”) but that kind of con is the sort where both parties consent. I tell you a story, you suspend disbelief. If at some point the disbelief starts choking, you send me – or my book – about my business.

However, the lie I had in mind here, was another kind. What happens when the narrator is totally, completely unreliable? Or worse, because more unpredictable, partially unreliable? They tell you the absolute truth… with reservations.

I don’t need to bring up The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for which many still curse Dame Christie’s memory. Practically every regency romance, for instance, was cursed with a heroine that was perfectly truthful, except about her own looks.

It’s not an easy thing to write – craft wise – because you need to give clues to the reader along the way. For instance, I once wrote a couple where the – voice – character thinks himself unattractive and had the joy of seeing everyone in my writer group think the girl was a gold-digger. This despite the fact that I thought I had signaled the character was nuts – and had no mirrors, or didn’t know how to use them – all along, by having people fall at his feet. Because it was first person, the reader interiorized the voice character’s self evaluation.

On a smaller scale, both Dave and I had unreliable narrators in our current/upcoming books. I was stuck with the lovely Athena in Darkship Thieves, a girl who is in such profound denial about everything that she couldn’t find her way if it were marked in neon. And Dave’s Dragon’s Ring characters are different kinds of unreliable. Weirdly, the rogue is the one who presents most honestly to the reader. The innocent… well… growth is required. I think both of us did creditable jobs of turning the corners, but perhaps I’m flattering myself. (As usual.) OTOH no one has written me an annoyed letter in response to the earcs, so perhaps I’m okay. 😉

So… Once you realize a narrator is unreliable – does he lose you? If not, why not? Is it because everyone loves a rogue? Or because the deception is understandable? Or even because the character him/herself was deluded? Do unreliable narrators add to the spice, or not?

20 thoughts on “>Shell Games and the Talking Snake

  1. >I'm with Wolfie with the exception that I make no bones about certain things bearing on my likes. 😉 I will say, Sarah, that you have a pentient for creating characters that are quite a lot of fun to analyze. I'm about halfway through DST now and I, like Athena, am practically clawing for her to get out of Eden, even though *I* know what would have happened if she had succeeding in doing that thing with the thing in the maintenance thing. :)Meb in Dragon's Ring is one of the best portrayals of a character who grows throughout the course of the story that I can think of.

  2. >Don't forget Christie's "Endless Night" probably one of her best ever book imo.You are right about needing hints about the how unreliable the narrator is and it is a fine line between popping up neon signs with "Unreliable" on them and hints so subtle that they can be easily missed. I have found myself a few times halfway through a book when I realise that things aren't as the narrator makes them seem. Half the time I stop reading and start poring through the book looking for other clues I may have missed.

  3. >The character has to be unreliable in a r/e/a/l/i/s/t/i/c/ believable and predictable fashion. Umm, taking for instance, Ivan Vorpatril. The reader automatically corrects for his general dirty-old-man-in-training attitude, and his reactions to older female authorities. We can then appreciate his uniquely Ivanesque reactions.Anyone, male or female who has people throwing themselves at their feet, and still thinks themselves unattractive, needs a serious explanation. Mental illness, a history of being the victim of abuse, a large fortune that people have been sucking up to him for since he was five years old. _Something_ needs to explain the disbelief in the Real World.Of course, I've argued with people who believe all sorts of weird things. UFOs, Crop Circles, Planet X . . .

  4. >I think there's unreliable, and there unreliable. Characters like Athena and Meb and… Okay, most of the good ones – are realistically unreliable. They make sense. We can see what they can't see, like Athena being so far in De Nile she can't see what's in front of her face, or Meb starting the book being very naive and utterly inexperienced in life in general.Then there's the ones who'll tell you one thing and be another, or worse, the author will tell you one thing and the character will be another. That is a defenestration offense involving the highest window available, lots of broken glass, and preferably the author in person.

  5. >True, Kate. If the author doesn't plant clues to the nature of the narrator, then the revelations become annoying because the ground work wasn't laid.For instance, in the movie, the Sixth Sense, the clues that the narrator is a ghost are all there, but you find them on the second watching.

  6. >Brendan,That's one of my favorites, too. My older son has just discovered Christie and can usually be found with one of her books glued to his finger-ends these days. It's funny so far his favorites are mine. Must be genetic as Christie is the only thing my brother and I agree on, just about.On the clues — I discovered Heyer as an adult, and she has several, truly unreliable narrators, and the funny thing is on first reading the books, I'd come to the end and go "She should have signaled that better." Almost everytime, on second reading, I've found she did, and I missed it the first time, such teh smooth run of narrative and the fact her character lies very convincingly.

  7. >Chris, no, no, the worst part of having Athena in your head that long, is not just that she narrates constantly, no…It's that she has this sweet, soft "well behaved little girl" voice. I am honestly going to try to do it for a reading, because the contrast between how she sounded and what she was doing was roll on the floor funny.

  8. >Matapam,In the case of my character, I think "yes" is the answer to your question — emotional abuse and so much money that people have been trying to gloam onto him all his life. Also, (deserved and undeserved) personal guilt orders of magnitude past crushing.And, hey, leave planet X alone! No, no, just joking. I ran into this five? years ago. We'd gone to the Smithsonian in DC and I'd found out about continents and tectonic movements beyond what I previously knew. So I came back to the hotel and goggled and found this WONDERFUL natural history site. Very grounded and scientific… Till they got to the spaceship with all the dinosaurs, which was going to come back any day and…There are things writers CAN'T do. They're too unbelievable. Madness of that order is one of them.

  9. >Kate,Oh, heavens. You mean like constantly telling you the character is evil, mean and nasty, or even dangerous while he behaves in a completely nice and even heroic way? Part of the reason most romances I pick up go out the window.

  10. >Rowena,weirdly — because she's not one of my favorites, sorry — Ursula LeGuinn does that very well in The Left Hand of Darkness. What she's pulling off is that the alien character appears totally unsympathetic, but things develop slowly, till by the middle of the book you're totally on his side. This too is a form of unreliable narrator. I ruined more books trying to pull that sort of thing off than I care to mention.I sort of managed it with Tom in Draw One In The Dark, but only because it's fairly obvious Kyrie is attracted to him from the beginning, so the sane writer suspects there MUST be something else there. My early attempts, though… eeeeurk.And I don't think I could pull off detail work of the magnitude of sixth sense.

  11. >Sarah,I was actually thinking of the character who's supposed to be wonderful and everyone throws themselves at his feet but he acts like a total prat. Or the one who's supposed to be so smart but does dumber than rock stuff, thereby proving that the author is in fact dumber than rocks.

  12. >I think part of the unreliable narrator might be part of writing in the first person or very near third person with few other perspectives shown out of dialog. Jim Butcher's Dresden Files comes to mind- they are written in first person. Harry Dresden tries to be honest, there have been many cases where he does not have complete information, so later revelations are vastly different from his previously conceived perception of reality, but are handled in a way as not to seem world breaking.I have a feeling that Athena (from what I've read of the snippets and sample chapters) is another first person narrator who is acting from very incomplete information and as has been said before, in denial, as well. In summation, I guess, reliable within her limits but no further."Lady" DawnP.S. does blogspot often give log in words that resemble actual words rather than the usual gibberish? I've got a word today and have had one before, odd.

  13. >I don't have a problem with the main character thinking the wrong things. It's when the writer hides things from the reader, that the MC knows that is really irritating.Yes, Blogspot does seem to use word-like scrambles, that occasionally are real words. I tend to make up definitions. Today I've got rewel, what happens after you have a relapse.

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