1. zoupskim
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    zoupskim Contributing Member Contributor

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    Unreliable POVs from characters

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by zoupskim, Jan 11, 2016.

    My story is told from three primary character's points of view. None of them are perfect, they all have their own agendas, and one has a completely backwards view of the world. Through these points of view the readers learn about the world.

    My question is do I need to set a baseline? To what extent do I need to explain reality of the world? At somepoint in the story do I need to have some secondary character say "No, dummies, that house was brown." Or can I let it stay ambiguous?
     
  2. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well it probably depends on whether you're in the first or third person, and what your world looks like.

    The first thing that springs to mind when you're talking unreliable first-person narration is that it's been a trend recently in upmarket women's fiction - namely domestic thrillers. Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train both make use of the device. So if you're looking for resources on that, those could be a starting point. I started Girl on the Train recently just to dip my toe into that genre - and honestly I ended up putting it down, not because it's not good but because it's too good at making you feel emotionally traumatized by existing inside the protagonist's head...she's an alcoholic divorcee who hates life, drunk-dials her ex-husband all the time, has a lot of blackouts she can't remember. Definitely worth looking at.
     
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  3. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    When you say completely backwards, do you mean things that readers might expect someone to be "wrong" about, like things that we acknowledge as being subjective? Or is it actual facts the character has wrong (eg. house colour!)

    I'm fine with stories where a character from group A thinks a character from group B is an ass because group A is prejudiced toward group B. I'm fine with a story where a character is self-aggrandizing to the point that he believes himself heroic when other characters don't.

    But if there are characters who are actually wrong about straight-out facts, I think the story would be really hard to follow.

    Unreliable narrators are great if they twist the picture I get, but not if they obscure it completely.
     
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  4. zoupskim
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    zoupskim Contributing Member Contributor

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    The story is told through third person narration.

    The 'wrong' character has objectively deranged values. He believes in murder for its own sake.

    I never say that the murderer is wrong. We see him murder. That is what makes him wrong.

    When Murderer starts planning ways to kill, the narration extolls the virtues of different killing methods. His actions are abhorant to us, but in his head, he is a hero.

    Is this confusing? When murderer thinks about murder there is no dissenting voice. All narration is from a certain characters POV. This happens with all characters. Will this fly? Or do I need some sort of framing element? Make no mistake: Murderer gets brought to justice, but it is through his eyes and thoughts that we see it happen.
     
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  5. Lifeline
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    Lifeline The Dark - not in Wonderland Supporter Contributor

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    I think you need to start writing this and get a Beta to comment in the early stages. They can certainly point out if they are confused and then you can adjust pretty quick. Of course that is not an assurance that you have to keep all POVs, or that you may need to add another down the line when something is missing :D
    Happened to me right in the middle of it all, when I realised that a specific POV was missing and the novel is so much better with him. So stay flexible and start writing, or getting Beta's opinions, depending ;)
     
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  6. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    No, I don't think it's confusing - see American Psycho, Lolita, etc.

    I guess those are both first person, but as long as you're really close into your narrator's POV, I don't think there's a difference. If you want to be able to zoom out from the close third, there might be an issue, though.

    I think The Blade Itself is third person, and Glotka is certainly presented as a character who thinks torture is justified, even if readers disagree. And, really, the other two POVs are from characters with equally twisted values.

    Shouldn't be a problem, as long as you do it well.
     
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  7. zoupskim
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    zoupskim Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm about half done with a 1st draft, with the outline completed. Do you mean adding a whole new character or just existing characters points of view?
     
  8. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yeah - as @BayView said, you're on solid ground in terms of telling a story from the perspective of a psychopathic killer - there's precedent for that.

    You might be a little careful with the authorial voice glorifying violence in third person, but there are ways of doing that to indicate that the third person narration is functioning as the character's inner monologue. You might give some thought to ways that you can insert some moral judgement as a wink to the idea that even though the POV character likes violence, the overall narrative is aware that violence is wrong. Maybe you could use another character's dialogue for this - or you could choose jugemental adjectives when describing his nonverbal feelings - like "perverse," or "murderous", or "demonic" (I'm grasping at examples because I don't write this sort of thing, so those are a bit campy, but you get where I'm going.)
     
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  9. Lifeline
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    Lifeline The Dark - not in Wonderland Supporter Contributor

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    Depends on your Beta's pov and what you want to achieve. If they say it is fine, it should be. But if they say something like 'I didn't know this character really well' or 'I didn't understand why he/she would do something like that' than I would recommend going back and looking at why they thought they didn't understand this character that well.
    Could be that it would be easy to fix, just enlarging/editing existing scenes. But if that does not work (either because of close POV or simply because your MC were not privy to exchanges and/or conflicting viewpoints), you would need to take a closer look.
    Sorry I can't give you a more definite answer, but it is more a kind of looking at the whole and noticing if there is something missing :(
     
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  10. Lifeline
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    Lifeline The Dark - not in Wonderland Supporter Contributor

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    Adding to that, it depends on what kind of novel you write. I am writing dark fantasy, so readers would kind of expect a slide into darkness. I would be cheating them if I would not adjust the voice of my characters, the kind of descriptions I insert, the kind of action that takes place.
    So as soon as my Beta pointed out that she was not really concerned with me killing off one of my supporting characters, it was a warning sign to me. Likewise, when she pointed out that she expected killing. It meant that I had not managed to achieve surprise, that there was some element missing.
     
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  11. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I've seen this done. One of the best books I've read that does this is Russell Greenan's It Happened in Boston. It was one of those books I could not put down, but left me feeling brain-scrambled myself, because he made the reasons for murder so plausible, via the mentally unstable narrator. It was a grand tour of how a mind can become so warped by circumstance that it ceases to see murder for what it is, but rather as a means to a reasonable (by the narrator's standards) end. This was all told via first-person narration, though, which made it much more immediate. I'm not sure that third person narration works quite the same way.

    While the narrator here was definitely 'unreliable' in the sense that his perception of the world was incredibly skewed, he did not at any stage withhold information from the reader. It's less tricky to write this kind of narrator, than the kind whom we identify with and learn to trust ...and then it turns out they've not been telling us the whole truth.
     
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  12. LostThePlot
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    I think you need to tread carefully around your character in how you characterise his villainous side. Is he literally a psychopath who will kill at the slightest provocation without guilt? Or is he someone who'll tell the reader 'well I had to kill him'?

    To me he needs to be someone who can justify what he's doing in his own terms. Even just stabbing someone who looks at him funny will work if he's really paranoid. But if he's just in a murdery mood I think the reader won't even try to sympathise. A twisted perspective is ok, as long as we can see he has a reason then we'll ask why.
     
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  13. Commandante Lemming
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    Commandante Lemming Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well the other question is the characters psychological profile - is he someone who's overemotional, or is he an actual sociopath? Sociopathy (which is probably a little better than "psychopath" in terms of defining actual pathology), is usually defined as a total absence of ability to empathize with others. It literally isn't there. When combined with an enjoyment of violence, this leads to sociopathic killers - because you have someone who literally can't process emotion properly - his/her pleasure centers work but their empathy censors are non-functional - which is what allows them to kill without remorse.

    One of the books on my list of things to read is Dan Well's "I Am Not a Serial Killer" precisely because it's written in first person from the point of view of a sociopath - in that case a sociopathic teenager who recognizes that he has all the predictive signs that identify future serial killers and is trying very hard to not allow himself to give in to his violent urges. So that can be done.

    If your killer isn't a sociopath, the you're going to have to figure out how and when he feels empathy and how that messes with him. If he IS a sociopath, you're going to have to examine how a brain works when empathy is entirely absent and how that changes the way someone thinks.
     
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  14. zoupskim
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    zoupskim Contributing Member Contributor

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    Murderer is a soldier. He protects friendly soldiers and civilians. He is proud of this. Then, he comes across some civilians who want to join the enemy. They believe that the war is more complicated than their government lets on, and that they might have rushed into it. They believe in opening a dialog with the enemy. Some of them are noble, and they are clearly very brave to fight so valiantly. This war is taking a toll on everyone. Maybe they can find common ground. There is more than one side to every war.

    "Oh, I see. You're not civilians. You're the enemy."

    Soldier murders them. He is proud of this.
     
  15. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    I think @BayView has already stated it best. So long as we (the readers) understand that the things being thought/done/spoken/regarded/engaged belong to the paradigm of the character, we're fine. Having other characters go out of their way to tell us, the reader, through their dialogue or action in the story, that this is in fact that would be a kind of narrative intrusion of the bad sort.

    For example, you mention that murder is one of the things in play. I don't need to have someone tell me that murder is wrong or heinous. It's a basic fact. If your other characters behave in a way that is either natural to encountering a murder, or natural to the way you have already delineated that that character engages things, then I'm fine.

    The only way I would be not fine is if there is no reason, or no good reason for the way a thing is engaged by others in the story. At that point then I start to feel like a different sort of narrative intrusion is in play - also of the bad sort - where I feel like you the writer are telling me what you think about the thing.

    Example (and I've used this one a few times recently, so appy-poly-loggies in advance):

    In Lord Foul's Bane, the MC crosses over into a fantasy world (portal fantasy) and arrives in a land of beauty and wonder after having a brief throw-down with a baddie. He gets found by a young woman, who, by description and action, is the very soul of loveliness and kindness. After she takes him to meet her parents who feed him and shelter him, he has a small breakdown and throws the young maiden into the wet sand of a riverbank and rapes her. There is no doubt about the event. It is crystal clear. He - rapes - her. Later, the mother of the injured party serves as his guide through The Land (for so it is called) as they set out on the requisite Fantasy Journey. The rape gets glossed over. We get a meager, flaccid explanation for the mother's lack of reaction (she eventually finds out) by having her have self-confidence issues. That's it. That's all we get. Only one person in the whole book reacts in a way that would seem real and natural to this event and this character is told to chill out and leave by, of all people, the mother of the injured party. Thus, that one real reaction is painted as extreme in comparison to everyone else.

    See where I'm going?

    The way the rape is handled (or not handled, as would be the case) is so broad-spectrum and through so many avenues that we cannot rightfully believe anymore that this is just one person's take on the matter in the story. It became impossible for me to see it as anything other than the writer's feelings on the matter. That made me stop reading. That was disgusting to me, and not in a good way. It also eroded any investment I could have in how The Land and its inhabitants were being presented to me because the discord of this event, compared to the peace and tranquility of everything else, was like a dry-socket infection. It nagged constantly.
     
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  16. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    This changes things. I know from other threads that you were in the military too, same as I was.

    As well he should be. This is part of the religion of soldiering.

    The part in bold is the only part I need to know as a soldier. I would not find them noble, but foolish. I would not find them brave, but instead weak. The part in bold would override anything else. If I am sure of the mission and what I am doing, and why I am doing it, then the ones who want to join the enemy are just enemy.

    Exactly.

    And your average Joe/Jane may not be tuned in to the ways of war and the decisions that get made therein. You may have to paint for the reader, through the mind of this character, what it means to be a soldier, and what it means to be this particular soldier, because it must also be stated that we don't all take the same point of view on the matter.
     
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  17. LostThePlot
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    LostThePlot Contributing Member

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    That changes a lot. The reader will definitely sympathise with him, a guy who is going too far certainly but more of a damaged, fallen hero than a murderer. Obviously it matters how you characterise him beyond that but on the barebones he doesn't come across as really a villain. To me he's just a product of a terrible situation.

    That's a good thing but it's also a bad thing. It's good because you won't alienate readers but it's bad because it might be hard to show him as 'wrong'. The other characters may come off as being hopelesly niave if they are going to just say 'but killing is wrong' in the middle of a warzone.

    Don't be afraid of delving into the complexities of this though. Your other characters might equally fear him and be sad for him. They might be too afraid to tell him he's wrong or secretly worry that he's right and it's left up to the reader to decide what's right an wrong in this situation.
     
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