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Make POV Work for You: The Unreliable Narrator

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I’ve quoted it here a few times, but it’s simply the most apropos quotation to use for this topic:

      Obi-Wan: So what I told you was true . . . from a certain point of view.
      Luke: A certain point of view?
      Obi-Wan: Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.

Even if you weren’t an English major, but did pay attention in your required literature courses, you’ll most likely have heard the term unreliable narrator before. Usually, it’s applied to stories that are told either in First Person POV or utilizing a narrator instead of Deep POV. But the reality is that once you’re adept at writing in Deep POV, your characters become unreliable narrators—because you’ve put the reader so deeply inside each character’s thoughts that the reader is experiencing that the “truths” of the story depend greatly on each of your character’s own internal thought processes.

The reality of the human condition is that we lie to ourselves. Things aren’t as bad as they appear. (No, actually, they’re worse.) Things are horrible and can’t possibly get any worse. (Oops, they just got worse.) It’s a lot like when we discussed subtext in the Say What series—there’s a certain amount of stuff revealed (this time through the narrative, which, if done right in Deep POV, is the viewpoint character’s stream of consciousness) but there’s a lot more going on that isn’t being revealed. It’s Scarlett O’Hara deciding she doesn’t want to think about it right now, she’ll “think about that tomorrow.” Though some people are better at it (men, especially), we all have the ability to compartmentalize our thought processes. Some people are completely unsuspicious and unsuspecting—their imaginations don’t go “there” and try to figure things out ahead of time, they just experience them as they come; while other people are constantly questioning and theorizing and trying to come up with an explanation for everything that’s happening around them—much of the time drawing erroneous conclusions that can create wonderful conflicts.

I had a humorous conversation with a former coworker at a bridal shower this weekend. She quipped that as someone who’s twice divorced, she probably shouldn’t participate with all the other married women who were giving the bride marital advice. Once we all laughed and she jokingly gave out some negative advice, she said, “But, you know, the funny thing is that I still believe in love, and I still believe I’ll fall in love and this time it’ll last.”

I looked around the person between us and said, “That’s because you’re an optimist.”

“I am?” she asked, wide eyed. Then she thought a moment. “I guess I am.” She went on to tell us that as a kid she had a bicycle that she always fell off of and hurt herself—to the point that she still has some scars on her knees. But every time she went out to ride that bike, she said to herself, “This time, I won’t fall off.”

“I would have gotten rid of the bike—or put it away and never touched it again—after the second time it happened,” I said. “Because I never would have gotten on it again. I would have looked at it and thought, Every time I get on that bike, I fall off, so why get on it again when I’m just going cause myself pain? But that’s because I’m a pessimist. You know, the kind who doesn’t try anything risky because I know I’m the one who’s going to get injured.”

Now, can you imagine writing the same scene from these two different points of view? Even though each character believes she’s being totally honest (with herself and therefore the reader) in her stream-of-consciousness narrative, because each character’s perception of the world around her is diametrically opposed, the reader only experiences it from one vantage point. (Hmmm . . . I have the movie Vantage Point in my instant queue on Netflix. Maybe I should watch it while I’m doing this series.) While you, the author, aren’t necessarily having your viewpoint character lie to the reader, you can manipulate what the reader learns/finds out about what’s going on in the story by showing each scene through a certain viewpoint—by having the character see/hear/experience only what you want the reader to know, and not see/hear/experience (or not pay attention to it) what you don’t want the reader to find out yet. (I used this technique quite a bit in Stand-In Groom.)

You can also have your viewpoint characters draw conclusions about certain things that lead the reader down a certain path by how they process the experience inside their own head. She believes she’s heard the hero lie to her, therefore because she believes he lied to her, the reader should believe it too—until revealed either by the hero at a later date that’s not what he said/meant or in his own viewpoint when what he said is explained from his point of view.

This is where writing in deep POV actually becomes a much better/stronger tool in your writing toolbox than a more omniscient approach. Even if you’re writing in limited POV but still taking a more hands-off/eye-in-the-sky/narrator perspective, the reader will be frustrated with you as the author if you reveal things later in the story that the reader knows you knew back a hundred pages earlier. Because they’re reading the story more from your perspective than the characters’. By going deep and showing things only from your characters’ perspectives, you give yourself so many more opportunities to bury clues, to keep things from your reader, to have your characters be unreliable narrators than any other POV you could choose, whether in First or Third Person.

For Discussion
How have you used deep POV to keep information from your readers? If you haven’t used it yet, how can you employ it to keep your readers hooked and deepen your POV?

  1. Wednesday, April 29, 2009 7:45 am

    I have used POV to withhold information, as well as up the tension in my stories. It’s a great tool for building tension for sure, and fun to work with.


  2. Thursday, April 30, 2009 9:41 am

    Thanks so much for the post. My heroine has a big problem with her great-uncle (you know all that…) and so I’ve used her POV to come to conclusions that don’t necessarily end up being true. I think the whole thing is so fascinating. I’ve also done some witholding information as well.


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