1. Killer300
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    Killer300 Active Member

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    What makes a First Person Narrator Scary?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Killer300, Feb 14, 2014.

    I ask this, because many years ago, when I was far less experienced as a writer, I managed to write a scene that really terrified someone, unintentionally too. The scene itself was the protagonist beating someone to death. In that case, I was trying to emulate the scene from, "Sin City," where the Bruce Willis character beats someone's head into the floor.

    Keep in mind, I don't my reader, at the time, was the most easy to scare ever. Additionally, again, this was during my early, kind of embarrassingly bad writing phase. Despite this, a scene full of rage came off as really terrifying to someone. I haven't written a scene like it since, and I've unfortunately long lost the original text, but I remember it now as something that perplexes me.

    See, usually, the more we know about someone, the less scared we are of them. And who could the reader know more about than the character they're viewing the story through? Especially in first person, when the very person's thoughts are available for the reader to view, as that was how I wrote the sample.
    However, clearly this isn't always the case. American Psycho, for example, did this with the main character, and I'm there are many many other examples I don't know of. (Although, to my knowledge, there isn't a book that does with a character that is supposed to be a hero, albeit perhaps a heavy anti-hero.)

    The thing is though… what allows it work? Is it because we're trapped in the driver seat as someone does something horrifying to another human being? Could it be the character projects enough emotional force to impact the reader in that way?
    The latter I bring up because the scene I had did boil with rage, however that isn't an emotion I usually associate with scary scenes, especially not when the emotion belongs to the viewpoint character.
    Help with this please? This is a puzzle for me, and without the original text, or at least that I can access right now, this is hard to figure out. Perhaps suggested readings to help me get this element from other books that take the approach of a scary, potentially anyway, viewpoint character?
     
  2. Thomas Kitchen
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    Thomas Kitchen Proofreader in the Making Contributor

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    Narrators can lie. And it can be subtly done, too. For example, this is particularly scary: "Two years ago, I was put into jail for manslaughter. Okay, that was a lie. I actually murdered someone." That sentence is too forced and too sudden to get any sort of reaction from a reader. But if you began to introduce the character, then told the reader he committed manslaughter (by now you should have the reader's sympathy for the character), and then later on, maybe a long time after, have him converse with someone, like this:

    "Ah, Harold, so good to see you." Mike said, the wine glass sparkling in his hand.

    I glanced left and right, looking for a way out. No, I couldn't be reminded...

    "So how's your wife?" Mike asked. "I haven't seen either of you in years."

    "She's uh...she passed away." The sweat formed on my brow.

    "Oh, I'm so sorry. When, if you don't mind my asking?"

    I glanced left again. There was a gap in the crowd. Freedom. I didn't even answer the man - I practically dived through, a parted Red Sea that would save me. I couldn't afford to remember what had happened, what I'd done...

    Even though I didn't explicitly say it, it's pretty obvious that he not only committed murder, not manslaughter, but also that he murdered his own wife. What else can we trust about him? Anything? Has he killed more? Did he kill again when the reader wasn't truly thinking about it, such as missing persons after being over at the narrator's house? It all adds up. I've never had an unreliable narrator, let alone a downright liar, but I'm sure it would be very effective and scary.
     
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  3. Killer300
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    Killer300 Active Member

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    That is an interesting point, although an unreliable narrator is… difficult to pull off, to say the least.
     
  4. Thomas Kitchen
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    Thomas Kitchen Proofreader in the Making Contributor

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    I didn't say it wasn't. :D But why not challenge yourself? ;)
     
  5. Killer300
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    Killer300 Active Member

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    True, true.:D
     
  6. Passero
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    Passero Member

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    Isn't that a perfect example of subtext?
    We've been dealing with subtext in class lately and this example shows the concept very nicely.

    I think I will bookmark it for reference if i forget about the concept of subtext :)
     
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  7. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Having read a lot of true crime it never failed to creep me out that the killers always felt that their actions were perfectly logical. So for me an mc that's not trying to be scary, he just is is the epitome of terrifying.
     
  8. Killer300
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    Killer300 Active Member

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    See, I can see coldness being scary, because detachment from doing something horrific certainly can be terrifying to behold.

    But the example that brought me here still perplexes me, as I don't think boiling hot rage has been terrifying too often before.
     
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  9. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    If they're not available in third you're not using it properly, because the heart of writing fiction is to make the reader know the situation as the protagonist does, and that can't be done in a "This happened...that happened...and then..." format.

    The simple fact is that the personal pronouns you choose are not point of view. They're only the means with which a given author chooses to present it. POV is what makes the story dynamic and personal for the reader. It's a look into the heart and mind, the struggles and uncertainties of the characters. It's what makes the difference between informing and entertaining your reader. Here's an example of what it can do and why it matters.
     
  10. Killer300
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    Killer300 Active Member

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    Okay, true, true. I admit to screwing up third person quite often from that, to the point where I find I can't write it without it going too omniscient.:(
     
  11. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    If you want a good example of an unreliable narrator done well, look at Nabokov's Lolita. The narrator is a sick guy, and essentially self-delusional in a number of ways. The perspective is very tight with respect to the character, his thoughts, etc.
     
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  12. Killer300
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    Killer300 Active Member

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    Hey, I actually remember reading that! Didn't finish it but… yeah, I see the point there.
     
  13. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    For me rage is never terrifying unless it's unexpected. It's sort of like swearing. If a person swears all the time it loses impact when you need it to have it's punch.

    I was watching The Stepfather - the old 80's version on Youtube - the other day and there's this terrific scene of rage - I won't use any spoilers but it's great.

    There's also a rather interesting book called Perfume by Patrick Suskind about a psychopath - I think it's first person, but I'm not sure I haven't read it in a while.

    I think some of these books can work because readers have a dual desire to rebel but they're always a bit of hunter's justice in them - they want to see the mc wreaking havoc but they also want them to be stopped. It's like writing Jaws from the sharks pov. You could empathize with his hunger, even though horrified that he's munching on bikinied babes and children, and you could sympathize with his rage over someone trying to destroy him. But in the end you know he needs to be killed.
     
  14. Killer300
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    Killer300 Active Member

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    As I thought with rage, although this finally clues me into what must have happened with my piece.
    The reader wasn't… expecting a hyper-brutal piece.
     

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