Narrator’s point of view

‘The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.’ Proverbs 18 verse 17

Follow any court case – or even any debate, and if you’re undecided, it’s who puts the most convincing case, which is both logical and consistent. The facts, set out by either party, from their point of view, lead to some conclusion. It’s not what they tell you, it is what they show you. It helps if one of the two is someone you are disposed to trust. For instance, if you have to get a nurse or a paramedic (both right at very top end of every poll on trust) against say a lawyer or a politician or a used car salesman (usually at the bottom), the former will ALWAYS get public support, whereas instinctive distrust follows the others like a close encounter with a skunk. Now, there are crooked nurses, and possibly lawyers who are the soul of integrity, and whose work is purely for the benefit of mankind. But you have a hell a job on your hands to convince anyone they’re not the stereotype.

Still, in the end, in the court of public opinion the credibility of anyone can be undermined, and the audience decides – regardless of what the court decides (very different parameters, courts require certain legal standards, the public has its own standard. Some can skate – perhaps being really not guilty – in court. The public however may still condemn them, or vice versa.)

If you think about it, this really is at the core of the novelist’s work. We write to convince that court of public opinion. And we’re working to get them to like or even love our heroes and care about them and want them to triumph, and wish a miserable end on the villains. Now, of course, it is a piece of cake to ensure an awful end for the villain and final victory (even if the hero doesn’t end up alive, it can still be victory) as a writer. A piece of cake compared to real life, anyway, where, depressingly, the villains skate and the good guys get shafted – a situation that no-one in the court of public opinion is happy with.

But I have read a good few profoundly unsatisfying books where I either ended up not caring or actively loathing the supposed ‘heroes’. Or struggling to tell the difference between the heroes and the villains (GoT?) and not really caring if any of the a**holes win or lose. This tiny part of the court of public opinion anyway, doesn’t buy another book from that author — which as the guy constructing the ‘case’ for that public support says you’ve lost your case.

You do have construct a good case. This, however, if you’re not an idiot, is quite do-able. Some of us do it much better than others. The key of course is that you don’t TELL your audience ‘so-and-so is the villain, and such and such is the hero. You can, I suppose. But it is worthless to counterproductive. If you tell me ‘Joe is honest’ and then proceed to show Joe to be lying through his teeth by writing a story-fact that show this, or ‘Fred did not do that’ and then set out the facts showing that it is incredibly unlikely that Fred did not do it, you’ve made things much worse.

As the author, you are in charge of the ‘facts’ (you’re making up the situation – this is fiction). You cite the ‘facts’ you want cited. You’re also in charge of how (and what of) the character gets seen. If it was a real court case, you, as the first one to address the court, might set your nurse up to be viewed as a ministering angel, and your lawyer as the kind of scum who preys on the weak and poor, leaving them impoverished and homeless in his wake. Your questioner might then establish that the nurse had a drinking problem, and the lawyer did a large number of pro bono cases for the weak and poor. IN THE AUTHOR’S WORLD, IN THE BOOK, THERE IS ONLY THE FIRST POINT OF VIEW. If the author is clever, he does put in the ‘other’ point of view… and he puts it badly. He shows the character through the actions and situation, and even their own estimation of themselves. He lets them look bad, just as he lets the good guys look good. He does not tell you they are either. It’s a court of public opinion… only you, the author, are the bad guy’s lawyer too, and you want him to lose.

Imagine a real court case run the same way. I dunno – say the recent Depp/Hurd case. Imagine if you could put only the nice facts the side you want to win, to be the hero, and put in the worst of the other side’s facts. You can listen to their and other testimony and, before you put it up to public view, choose the sections that favor the one you want to win, and the converse, for the other side. Here’s the thing: which ever side you were on is very likely (like 99.9999%) to win that court of public opinion…

Or are they? Mostly the answer is yes. The exception — for an author — is the temptation to go too far. If you lean too far, too hard one way (or both ways) you run into the danger of the court of public opinion thinking ‘no one could be that much of an a**hole.’ or contrairiwise ‘No one could that decent, kind, generous etc.’ It is a judgement call we (me too) often fail at. Real life, is in a way less problematic in judging the degree. I’m dealing with some petty bureaucrats where I keep failing to believe their actions. I could not write a fictional character like that and expect to suspend disbelief. Yet… there they are. Fiction, however, needs to make sense.

12 comments

  1. I think First Person stories (where the Main Character is telling the story) can be interesting in that way.

    Not only can the Main Character be wrong about “why other characters do something”, the Main Character might be an unreliable narrator (both by lying to the reader and by lying to himself/herself).

  2. :nod of general agreement:

    Another way to break it is to violate the “rules” you’ve set down.

    For example, this weekend my kids were watching Pokemon; they’re in a mine, and the power is out, so Pikachu zapped it and they had light.

    …. I spent a good five minutes saying all the ways that did not work, and how you could make it work with something like instead of calling it a generator, call it a “battery-capacitor” and mention how it must be old, because usually you charge them and they last forever, but it takes a lot of electricity.

    And THEN you bring out the lightning gerbil being clever.

    You can make the world whatever you want– but you still have to sell it to the reader!

  3. Unreliable Narrators are not easy. I remember the first time I read David Drake’s “The Warrior” I genuinely did not know enough to understand what the narrator was doing wrong so the whole story didn’t quite make sense to me the first time I read it.

    Reading it years later, and after reading a lot more of the Slammers it makes more sense, but I known I’m still missing things.

    1. Personally, I don’t like reading them. That much reading between the lines is no fun.

      1. Yeah, I don’t like the unreliable narrators either. I get enough of that from real life.

  4. I will say that the fastest way to get me to hate a character is by telling me how wonderful he is. You want me to believe that this guy is all that and a bag of chips, show me him zooming across the city on a zip line, doing a back flip down into the bay while welding together a collapsing bridge, then saving a bag of drowning kittens on his way back to shore. Then let those actions speak for themselves. If you try and force me to feel a particular way about a character, I’ll go out of my way to feel the opposite on general principle.

  5. Case in point: An Appointment with Death which I tried to reread recently. Maybe I would have tolerated the Noble Wonderful Psychiatrist Determined to Free Pathological Nice Guy from his Evil Mother a bit better in a world that hadn’t proved that white-coat fetish wrong so many times over. Maybe I would have tolerated it a bit better if I hadn’t just read Hide My Eyes (1950s vaguely Hitchcockian thriller from Margery Alligham, only a supporting role for Campion), where the police are constantly referring to the shrinks as “trick-cyclists” with great derision. Whatever the reason Appointment With Death got my standard treatment for less-good Agatha Christie novels: read up til the murder reasonably carefully, then skim to the end to see who did it.

  6. Props to Gene Wolfe: he was a master of crafting unreliable narrators, many of whom don’t realize – or are actively trying to hide – what utterly loathsome creatures they are.

    I also think an unlikeable narrator can work – provided someone else is the actual “hero” – then you get the added suspense of hoping the hero wins out while being privy to all the narrator’s evil plans to take out the hero, and the shock at seeing those plans foiled.

    And I love seeing arrogant windbags who think they’re so much smarter than they really are, expounding on their plans while being blind to their obvious faults, and getting their comeuppance. It’s also why I don’t like the more modern stuff: we’re expected to like the windbags, and the story distorts all logic to prove them right.

  7. One of the “rules” that keeps showing up in writer’s forums is that a protagonist has to undergo some kind of personal growth arc during the course of a story and as a consequence a lot of writers think that it’s creating a compelling character to introduce their protagonist being an unpleasant schmuck so that they can change into a good person by the end of the book. Unfortunately, if I encounter an unlikable main character in the first chapter I’m not going to read the rest of the book and so will miss the whole redemption bit.

    1. Interesting. I just finished a series in which the hero starts and remains the hero, but still really changes. He starts as “I just want to have fun” and ends as “I want to do this right.” I’m starting to enjoy RPGLit – but I still skim (at best) all the RPG stats that the genre is so fond of.

  8. I gave up on both Game of Thrones (TV) and Breaking Bad because I couldn’t find a character to cheer for. Some started out OK, but became unbearable.

    In terms of books, the first book in the Gap Cycle by Stephen R. Donaldson, The Gap Into Conflict: The Real Story, has the main character do some very unheroic things. But it was a good story, and I did feel something for the characters, even though I didn’t particularly like them.

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