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  1. Holden
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    Holden Senior Member

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    Mentally Insane Protagonist in 1st Person

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Holden, Dec 2, 2010.

    I've fiddled with the idea of writing a story (not sure about the length) from the viewpoint of a mentally insane protagonist. However, because of the mental condition, I'm thinking it would be harder(er) to introduce background information. Unlike 3rd person, where I could drop in what he is feeling (memories, etc.) I don't have the experience with 1st person to know about special techniques for doing so.

    Any good ways to bring in relevent background information when the character is not a reliable narrator of events?
     
  2. cjs0216
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    cjs0216 Member

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    You could have him talking with a therapist who'll correct him when he's wrong or you could have him have multiple personalities that sort of sort out truth from fiction within himself. Like possibly he isn't all the way gone yet and the tiny, normal part of his brain left is correcting his mistakes. Heck, you could even make him unaware that it was happening.
     
  3. k.little90
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    k.little90 Active Member

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    You could give him a split personality :D Have one of the personalities correct the other; that way you can get a lot more information in than you normally would be able to in 1st person POV.

    Great idea, by the way. I think something narrated by a crazy person would be very interesting to read...
     
  4. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would actually try it with him being unreliable - like another suggested using his interaction with people to correct him or mundane events where it is obvious he is being unreliable scattered throught the book. The reader will then be able to understand.
     
  5. Trilby
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    Trilby Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is a difficult one. You say the character is not a reliable narrator - so how are you going to hold reader's interest in a story told by such an unreliable protagonist.

    Unless, due to severe speech impediment and nervous disabilities, the protagonist as been wrongly diagnosed as being insane so is therefore is of sound mind, I don't see how it will work.
    But, write away and prove me wrong.
     
  6. Donal
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    Donal Contributing Member

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    A book I read recently is The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is about a man who is recovering from depression. Its done in 1st person. The MC is a recent divorcee and has Daddy issues. Isn't happy with himself and starts believeing he is leading the life of an old famous sailor. Could be worth looking at. And its done in a humerous way.
     
  7. Celia.
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    Celia. Senior Member

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    Hmm. Wasn't the Metamorphosis done in first person? That is probably not the best example but that story was crazy.

    I am currently in the process of changing an entire novel into first person. It is easier for me since the main character is a female and I can write from my own perspective but to do a person who has a handicap and something you yourself have never experience, I say tread softly and do your research.

    good luck!
     
  8. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    btw, isn't 'mentally insane' a nonsensical redundancy?... could anyone be insane other than mentally? ;-)
     
  9. Holden
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    Holden Senior Member

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    I appreciate the ideas. I'm still thinking it over, although I may use k.little's idea of a split personality, but at times have the insane side prevailing. The reader would still understand he is unstable; some of the things he is saying would directly contradict reality.
     
  10. FrankABlissett
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    FrankABlissett Active Member

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    Reading "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" may give you some ideas.

    It's a first-person POV about an autistic teenager.

    -Frank
     
  11. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Have all the other characters react strangely to your character. If just one other character does this, we may think it's that person and not your MC, but if it's ALL the people your MC interacts, readers will catch on.
     
  12. Holden
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    Holden Senior Member

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    I remember reading that years ago (and loving it). Thanks for reminding me.
     
  13. Peerie Pict
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    Peerie Pict Contributing Member Contributor

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    Probably one of the most famous examples of 1st person POV with an insane protagonist is American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. I found a (very graphic, sorry!) excerpt online for you:

    "I start by skinning Torri alive, making incisions with a steak knife and ripping long strips of flesh from her legs and stomach while she screams in vain, begging for mercy in a thin, high voice. I stop doing this and move over to her head and start biting the top of it, hoping she realizes her punishment is ending up being comparatively light compared to what I plan to do with the other one."

    I haven't got my copy to hand but I think Ellis used a little 3rd person POV in the novel too. If you do little research with the examples provided here you should be on the right tracks. Good luck.
     
  14. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    It's not much different from writing from any character's perspective. Deliver the truth, and the reader will understand and empathize with the character. The only thing changing is the truth, not methods.

    Split personalities can come off as a cheap gimmick that screams 'this writer didn't know how to write an unreliable narrator, so cheesed out' and having the character on a therapists couch to deliver back story is cliche and usually boring.

    One thing I'll warn against is that a writer need be extra precise in their language if the main character is 'crazy' or drunk or high or anything that warps their perspective. Remember that confusing is never good, and if something different from 'reality' is being perceived by a character, the language must be absolutely perfect to create a clear lack of clarity. If that makes sense. If you're going to be vague, do so precisely (I think that's a rough Strunk and White paraphrase) otherwise it will just end up being confusing, and the old 'but the character is crazy' excuse is bad.

    For instance, I had a character in a story who suffered from dementia, and every single thing he saw that made no sense had to make perfect sense and be perfectly clear for it to not just get confusing. When the floor turned to sand and he was standing on a beach, it had to be hyper-reality to ensure the reader actually felt the beach, since there really was no beach so the reader wasn't just going to take my word for it. A good general rule in fiction is that a reader won't just take your word for stuff, and you'll need to really prove it, but even more so if the reader has an active reason to disregard the authority of the writer, like the character is 'crazy'.
     
  15. Pythonforger
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    Pythonforger Carrier of Insanity

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    What about NOT having the readers discover the back story so easily? His multiple personalities argue with each other and the reader gets confused until in the end, they sort each other out and the real back story is revealed. You could even have it as a major plot twist/element.
     
  16. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    A character at any given time IS their backstory. They're living with the shadow of their own history. The important thing is never, ever how to deliver backstory, but how to deliver the truth of the character each and every moment.

    If something is relevant to the character in any given moment, it's not backstory anymore, it's something relevant to that character in that moment, and can come through in that moment.

    A writer must know a character's history, of course, so they can write a character with the full weight of that history active in that character. Just like us, we are all living with the momentum of our past, but we rarely stop someone from speaking to us so we can recount some moment of our history point by point.

    You can even be direct, while still being clever, by (again) staying true to the moment.

    Say your character is a war vet and it's important to the story. Clumsy would be to do the "In 19XX two waring factions..." sort of distancing, expository writing that will interrupt the story with information. Even worse would be to include some kind of prologue or flashback, even if it is more from the character point of view.

    Imo the job of the writer is to put their characters into situations where things important to the story are relevant to the moment. So, if the war vet stuff is important, put him in a place and time where he'll be thinking about these things. This can be done a million ways, watching the news, his son enlists, he gets a notice about a reunion of old army buddies, etc. The point is for us to put our characters in the position to explain themselves through their actions, instead of us, the writers, having to ask the character to hold on a minute while we explain things on their behalf.

    Some gimmick to have a crazy character talk to a therapist or themselves is just a gimmick to get the character to explain themselves, because the writer at least knows enough that it would be clumsy to explain the character out of that character's context. It's equally gimmicky, though.

    If your character is mentally ill, and that can't be demonstrated and explained enough through their actions and reactions, both externally and internally, then your character isn't believable. You don't want a character reflecting about their diagnosis, perhaps, as that isn't always believable or even necessary to know in most cases. But, having dated a lot of crazy women, I can assure you that diagnoses aside, it's pretty easy to see what kind of problems people have and know enough to make assumptions on their issues. And that's just from dating them. Get inside a characters head and it shouldn't be some great mystery what afflicts them, and more importantly HOW it afflicts them, that requires any exposition or backstory to come from the writer. Granted, such exposition would have come in handy in my ex girlfriends situation, but they were still terribly believable characters, and just like reading a believable character, I got to understand the problems in depth, over time, unfortunately. :p
     
  17. Zombie_Chinchilla
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    Zombie_Chinchilla Member

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    That's exactly how One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest was written- it was in 1st person of one of the patients at the asylum. It could definitely be done, but it would be risky. If you want to roll with it, go ahead. It sounds interesting. :]
     
  18. Donal
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    Donal Contributing Member

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    You mean One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. To Kill a Mockingbird is about racial issues in Alabama.
     
  19. Zombie_Chinchilla
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    Zombie_Chinchilla Member

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    Right, right. Wrong bird. Thanks. xD
     
  20. OvershadowedGuy
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    OvershadowedGuy Member

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    Another good idea is to read Dan Wells's "I Am Not A Serial Killer", and discover your characters voice, that is a huge key to succeeding in first-person writing, find your voice.
     
  21. Jonalexher
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    Jonalexher Contributing Member

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    Read The Madman's tale by John Katzenbach (author of The Analyst)
    You will get some really nice ideas, and it's a good book :]
     
  22. Midnight Pete
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    Midnight Pete Member

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    If the narrator is crazy and thus unreliable, how is the reader supposed to know what is actually happening in the story? And if the narator is essentially two people in one body, maybe only the crazy one should narrate in the first person. Maybe the rest of the time it should be 3rd person omniscient to provide some contrast to the narrtor's insane personality.
     

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