Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 33.
So it is true that we are now a third of the way through the course. This is often the point where, if I’m writing a novel, I first run into trouble. There’s still a long way to go but maybe now I’ve had some good days and some not so good days, life has interceded as life so often does with competing bids for my attention and emotions, and I have a better idea of what I’ve got myself into, what completing this task feels like ‘on the ground’ so to speak.
I just want to say – and this might come off as unhelpful, apologies if it does – but if at any stage you decide to put this course down, take a break from it, even not come back, that is absolutely fine. Doing this marathon – and it is, it’s a colossal amount of work, only split down into bitesized pieces – should be an affirmation of your sovereignty, of your power to choose, not yet another rod for your back. Take it as far as makes sense for you, keep going as long as you’re still getting value from it, and if and when that’s not happening, stop.
Yes, there’s value in pushing through. Yes, there’s value in putting yourself in situations that give rise to discomfort. As someone who’s struggled a lot with anxiety I sometimes choose to go to events with my daughter where I know I’ll probably feel a lot of anxiety – you know, live performances, spaces where there’s a lot that’s out of my control and a lot of rules. That can be a very stressful, draining environment for me to be in, and it can leave me crabby and exhausted.
But I understand that in turning up to those sorts of things, to the extent I feel able, involves my moving towards things that I value. I value spending time with my daughter. I value giving her experiences and sharing those experiences with her. And I value challenging myself to do new things, even when those things aren’t easy, and expanding the boundaries of what I’m capable of.
But, in counterbalance to that, I’ve started seriously limiting my time on social media. Especially reading posts by strangers on Twitter. Because yes, that’s an experience I find similarly draining and stressful, but it’s not one aligned with anything I value. It’s just an unpleasant exercise in timewasting and not being kind to myself.
So, not wanting to bang on about it too much, but I think this is worth considering with regards to your relationship with writing. Why are you doing this? What’s your buy-in? Because, for the longest time, I think part of why I wrote was as a kind of superstitious ritual to maintain a sense that my life has worth and meaning. And I don’t think you need me to tell you that’s not healthy. Balancing the glass doll of your heart on this slender reed of putting one word after another word after another and always getting it right. Some day that reed’s going to break. Then the real work begins.
I’m not saying your reasons for writing have to be flippant and trivial. Simply that when it comes to reasons for positive self-regard you might consider diversifying your portfolio. Pray that you never become something so shrivelled and restricted as an author. The best art is done, not by artists, but by human beings.
At this point I shall slap shut the hymn book and guide us gently towards today’s exercise. Thank you for hearing me out. I know different people need different things from a course like this, so whether you zone out during my little pep talks or whether they give you a pinch of extra zest for the work that follows, I appreciate your bearing with me.
Now we’ve talked a bit before about the concept of the unreliable narrator. Or have we? Maybe I’m deceiving you, ho ho! I’m not a hundred percent sure whether the term ‘unreliable narrator’ is a bit misleading. It was coined by the critic Wayne C Booth is the sixties and although I’ve got reservations with what we might understand by the term itself, his definition is, for my money, very clear and pretty great, quote: ‘I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say the implied author’s norms), unreliable when he does not.’ Endquote.
I don’t want to scamper too far down the lit crit rabbit hole here but basically Booth is saying, when a narrator has opinions or an ideology or worldview markedly distinct from the author’s – and thus the ideology the novel is trying to sell us – they meet the definition of an ‘unreliable narrator’. Basically, their credibility has been compromised. Deliberately so, in fact. The reality of the novel, of what the author chooses to present to us, undermines the narrator’s interpretation.
But you don’t need to look to fiction to find unreliable narrators. I’ve been reading the autobiography of the Japanese soldier Hiroo Onada, who continued fighting the Second World War, hidden on an island in the Philippines, until the mid-seventies. In his account, he elides many important events – including the minor detail that he and the two soldiers he went into hiding with in the jungle shot and killed three islanders during their extended thirty-year guerrilla war. Now maybe he was being deliberately disingenuous, knowing that murdering civilians in peacetime makes him look bad. Or, maybe he genuinely didn’t consider their deaths important events, in a war where deaths numbered in the millions.
Any narrator, actually, makes choices about what they do and don’t include in their story. A story is by its nature a process of exclusion. I could spend literally an entire novel’s worth of words describing the items on my desk in front of me, their relative positions, their colour, dimensions, texture, provenance, how I feel about them, etc. It wouldn’t be very interesting for the average reader, but the fact is reality is fractal, and you can pull as much data as you like out of any given moment. As soon as you choose not to, you’re exercising discernment, and, in a sense, your viewpoint becomes partial, subjective and, yes, unreliable.
Booth says an unreliable narrator needs to lose credibility by adopting interpretations different to those held by the author. I’d argue that, if you’re doing your job properly as an author, your first-person narrators will always do this. If they’re humans, they will always see the world in a way that a) misses a few things and b) doesn’t perfectly align with your interpretation of reality. Sometimes they might even undermine your own dearly-held positions. They might make a case contrary to the one you set out to make. Which is brilliant. Fiction would be a rather crummy, boring enterprise if all we could produce were automata lifelessly parroting our own pre-chewed propaganda.
Sometimes we write unreliable narrators who see the world in a way we wish we could. True believers or fanatics who are absolutely certain that they know what they ought to do, and what the purpose of their life is. And of course they may well run into trouble as a result, because without conflict we have no story, and maybe we use them to explore yearnings we’ve felt to experience the world differently.
Some unreliable narrators are naïve or outsiders. They don’t understand the ‘rules’ of the environment you plonk them into, and so they’ll report back stuff that has implications they don’t appear aware of. Actually a narrator can be both naïve and a true believer. They might observe the guru of their religious commune receiving a stream of young women to his private chambers and feel impressed that he’s doing so much to minister to the spiritual needs of female devotees, and at such late hours, too, what an incredible feminist.
Some unreliable narrators are out-and-out fantasists, they might exaggerate or even out-and-out make stuff up, sometimes for benign reasons – you know, impressing folks in the tavern with their tall tales of daring-do – sometimes out of a sociopathic compulsion to cover up their crimes. Or they might be floridly insane and unable to distinguish between reality and hallucinations.
You can have a lot of fun with unreliable narrators, but I encourage you to think of all narrators in fiction as existing on a reliability spectrum, and also it’s worth remembering that reliability is very much in the eye of the beholder. The problem with Booth’s definition is that it presumes we can know with any sort of certainty what the author’s true purpose was, and that we can clearly locate that purpose within their fiction. To be honest I’m not too keen on novels that just push a single ideological line. I like stories that are in conflict with themselves, where the answers aren’t served up to us pre-carved on nice little platters but exist as messy oppositional forces.
Anyway, what I’d like you to do today is to take the scene you’ve been working on, and tell it from the point of view of an unreliable narrator. Could be one of the characters you’ve mentioned already, tweaked to become less credible. Could be someone we’ve not encountered yet, maybe someone who was there, maybe someone who claims they were there, maybe someone relating events secondhand, maybe an historian years later or a journalist recounting what happened.
It’s worth thinking how you might make this unreliability manifest? Does the narrator simply misread the intentions of people around them? Could they be very paranoid, or hopelessly naïve, assuming everyone around them has their best interests at heart? Might they be retelling this scene for a specific purpose, you know, trying to impress someone, exaggerating their role in it? Might their memory be flawed in some innocent but significant way?
An unreliable narrator is often someone who gives us a deeply partial account. Either they’ve got a big emotional stake in what’s going on, or some very strong worldview, or some other mental filter, that modifies what they experience. Maybe there are certain truths they cannot let themselves perceive. Maybe they’re just really happy-go-lucky and think the best of everyone. Maybe they’re a five-year-old who notices some things but fails to notice others – they’re not lying or anything, they just focus on the stuff that interests them and makes sense to them and probably can’t understand the nuances.
So this might be someone new, it might be one of your previous characters reimagined. Either is fine. I am of course going to bequeath you the customary ten minutes to have a play around with this. And just to go back to our previous work on character, remember that you don’t need to, necessarily, plan all the key points of this person’s psychology in advance. You can, at least partially, go into the scene, their voice, and ‘discover’ what they think through how they relay the scene.
Do feel free to go as big or as small and nuanced as you would like. This is your sandpit.
Right. Ten minutes. Have fun. Three… two… one… go.
And there we are. Congrats. Another workout done, another assignment in the bag.
How was that for you? How has your conception of this scene shifted since the original version? Are you still finding new nuances, new story possibilities, or has it exhausted itself? And which of these different approaches, these different styles that we’ve taken on thus far, have felt most interesting to you?
Right. Make sure you get plenty of rest. Drink some water. Pace yourself. Well done for your work. You’re doing so great. I’ll see you tomorrow.