The Unreliable Narrator

I’m becoming more aware that, ever since I started writing exclusively in deep POV (deep point-of-view i.e. everything in the scene is inside the head of one character or another), my narratives are increasingly influenced by unreliable narration. It’s fascinating to see how these techniques in writing interact.

My Christmas Number One was a learning experience for me. I had written books before, but this was the first time I’d written something after properly learning deep POV and the classic rule (that often needs to be broken) ‘show don’t tell’. It was also a book I rewrote and that is an excellent technical education in how these skills interact. And I’m still pulling lessons out of My Christmas Number One, which influence my writing today. The headline for me at the moment is: if you’re writing in deep POV and showing, not telling, then you have an unreliable narrator. What impact this has on the story is something I’ve been thinking about with the book that’s being proof-read at the moment (for releast 20 May 2021) and book three, which will be released September/October 2021.

Unreliable narration, although a little risky, because you may lose your reader if it’s too subtle, can be great for stretching tension and providing plot twists. All stories are narrated by people who have an imperfect understanding of themselves and their own stories – it’s authentic, I think. There may be something the character knows, but doesn’t like thinking about, which can emerge as a plot twist. Or something they didn’t know. Deep POV allows the writer to drip-feed bits of the character’s psyche.

In My Christmas Number One, although both Cara and Javi are unreliable narrators by nature, it is Javi who is much less reliable. He enters the story as a playboy – racked by guilt, yes, but still a superficial charmer, a bit of a stereotype. But the guilt gives you a hint that there’s more to him than he himself realises and his character arc is him learning to trust himself, to forgive himself and for the reader, this means coming to see that he’s actually a big old softie and hasn’t been that flirty charmer inside for a long time. Javi’s narration tells a very different story to the actual plot.

Javi’s unreliable narration happened organically. I just listened to the character and wrote what he thought. It was only later that I realised he was lying to himself and, therefore, to the reader. When I was drafting the second book (official title and cover soon, I promise), I realised from the beginning that the main character, Lou, was terribly unreliable.

I helped to know from the beginning that she wasn’t showing the full picture of herself, because I could purposefully plan and execute the little hints that show the reader that there is more going on and I could make sure that I was taking the reader along for the ride by using the other POV, the hero Nick’s POV, to also signpost her character arc (he has a very different opinion of her than she has of herself).

It helped with that book (no title, I’m sorry!!), that Lou was a comic heroine. One of my favourite bits is, “She was feeling as if this were definitely a caper from an eighties comedy film and [she was] not sure whether she was the straight character or the silly one.” (although it’s a little self-reflexive. I must admit that one of my bugbears is a romance where the heroine insists she isn’t in a romance novel…). She was such an easy write because she was so naturally funny. But I can’t have Lou starring in every book I write.

Book 3 (also no title sorry), has a straight heroine and a funny hero. I must admit I found the idea of a straight heroine daunting because I wasn’t sure where the humour and the warmth of the character were going to come from. But she’s growing layers and, of course, she’s not as straight as she thinks she is.

I’ve just finished a scene where I needed to show a plot point in dialogue, but the conversation ended up revealing a lot more about the character. Knowing it would have more in it than was at first apparent, I drafted it quite carefully (often I just tap away at dialogue and it just flows, but this was a careful scene because I also wanted to keep it snappy because there wasn’t a lot of tension in the scene). Carefully stopping the character, Deirdre, from narrating her own conversation and instead letting her accidentally reveal the truth to her sister, I discovered a few more facets of her hidden fears. The hero will uncover a few more in the next scene!

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