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[personal profile] omphale posting in [community profile] ds_workshop
So. I'm a tiny bit late.

Okay, a lot late, and I'm very, very sorry. There were things, and then more things, and...well. It doesn't much matter, does it? Suffice to say that, once I stopped looking at this as an assignment and started looking at it as something fun, everything got a lot easier.

Hi. I'm [profile] omphale23, and I'll be your slightly-nervous (okay, seriously petrified) guide to the wacky world of narrators you can't trust. Pull up a keyboard and tell me I'm wrong. Or tell me I'm right. Whichever.

[Fair warning. I'm pretty sure all of my examples are slash, because that's what I read. And probably F/K, for the same reason. The bullet points, though, are good for whatever pairing (or lack thereof) you prefer.]

Don't Believe Everything You Read

The first thing we learn in Trial Law is that witnesses are not to be trusted. They lie, they forget things, they fail to mention important facts. The quickest way to get five versions of events is to ask three people what happened. The same goes for fiction.

Case in point? “Seeing is Believing.” Three people, three versions of the same (brief) scene, all of them wrong in important ways. And that’s just an example where the speakers don’t have an interest in the events. When they do, it all gets a bit more complicated.

So let’s talk about unreliable narrators. What they are, why we love them, and (hopefully) how to make them work.


In reality, all narrators are unreliable. Anybody who’s in the story has a bias, has things they leave out, has a fault (or two, or three) that blinds them to the “real” version of events.

In short, never trust your narrator. Not when you write, and not when you read. He (or she) is trying to sell you something.

However. In this case, we’re going to pretend that there’s a difference between an ordinary narrator and this concept of unreliable narrator, narrators you really can't or won't trust any farther than RayK can throw a cigarette lighter, if only because eventually we’re going to get to the question of how, exactly, one writes such a character.


Point the first: for whatever reason (there are four, and we’ll get to that in a minute) what the narrator is describing isn’t actually what’s happening. This generally means that you’re writing in the first person, although (as we’ll see) when it comes to fanfic, the narrator is just as likely to be working in third person limited.

Omniscient narrators aren't unreliable. Well, not usually. When they are, readers get pissed off, and nobody wants that. So, for the sake of argument, let's say that as a rule you want your unreliable narrator to be both a) a character, and b) part of the story somehow.

This doesn't mean you have to stick to Ray or Fraser. It can be an outsider after the fact (as in the case of lamardeuse's "Evidence,"  in which the narrator is aware of the story but the events as provided by the secondary narrative are incomplete) or a character central to the story but not to the canon (as with Beth H's wonderful OFC, Sara, in "If It Walks Like a Duck...").

That's not to say that Ray doesn't make a damn good unreliable narrator. He's got issues, he's got an attitude, he's been known to make decisions without all the facts. In my own stories (yes, I know. But I've got a point to make, here. Who's leading this discussion, anyway?) Ray Kowalski is *always,* and I do mean ALWAYS unreliable. Sometimes it's obvious, as when he says one thing and does another. Sometimes it's subtle, as when he knows that Fraser loves him but Fraser never actually says the words.

For that reason, I never trust him when other people use him as a narrator, either.

Does this make it hard to point out specific ways to make him unreliable? Maybe. Does it make him a bad narrator? Not at all.


Point the second: your narrator is unreliable for a reason. Maybe multiple reasons.

Technically, there are four sources of unreliability: a) the narrator doesn’t know what’s going on, b) the narrator is biased, c) the narrator is lying, or d) the narrator is Teh Crazy/Drunk/Mentally Unsound. Each of these present its own challenges and benefits.

a) Writing an unreliable narrator who doesn’t have all the facts (or, in some cases, doesn’t have any of the facts) is perhaps the most common use of an unreliable narrator. Usually, this kind of narrator eventually figures things out (Barbara Kowalski in zillieh's "Eight Weeks"  is an example of this), although not always.

[There's a fic in which Welsh, the new Consulate Inspector, and Frannie all observe Fraser and Ray and get it wrong that's a good example of the not-knowing narrator never getting a clue. Anybody know which one I'm thinking of, so I can add it in here? *smiles winningly*]

A large proportion of the unreliable narrators in due South fic fall into this category. We'd rather see Ray, Fraser, Ray, or anyone else confused and wrong than think that they'd lie to us.

Stories written from Victoria's point of view are often the exception that proves this rule.

b) A biased narrator is trying (whether he/she knows it or not) to make the facts fit their own agenda. Frannie-centric stories often come from this, as she fails to see the relationship between Fraser and one of the Rays. She's not lying, and she has all the information. She just doesn't usually see the truth because she *wants* it to be something else.

Stories featuring Stella (One example: "The Delivery," by Rustler) sometimes use this same conceit. She's smart, she puts two and two together--but she often gets an answer of five.

Bias can also be deliberately employed, but that walks a fine line between bias and lying. I've never managed it; I'd love to hear tips from anyone who has.

c) In all honesty, stories in which the narrator is flatly lying are difficult in fanfic. If the narrator is a character we love, lying probably pisses the reader off and gets read as bad characterization. If the character is one we hate, the fact that they're lying is no surprise, and not much of a stylistic draw. There are exceptions, of course (JS Cavalcante's "Straightness"  is one) but by and large this is a difficult road to travel in fandom.

d) And, finally, we have Teh Crazy. And not just your run-of-the-mill due South "ghosts, talking wolves, and playing dead" crazy. We're talking Geoffrey Tennant levels of mental instability, usually. It's tough to balance the way that the world doesn't quite fit with the need to give the narrator some credibility, but it can be done. Many Ray-is-drunk stories manage this. As does the occasional Fraser-pov (Julad's "Shack #11"  is a heartbreaking case in point.)


Point the third: Eventually, you’ll need to decide when to let your readers know about this lack of reliability.

There are three choices, here.

a) You can make it clear from the start that the narrator isn't to be trusted, as in Nemi's "Iqaqpaa." Amnesia fic, drunk fic, and any story with Dief as narrator probably uses this device.

b) You can use more than one point of view (but not, for the love of little green apples, in the same section) to play up the problems in each telling of events. If you do, the unreliability usually shows up when the second (or third) character takes over the narrative.

Speranza is my favorite author for doing this--in "Kowalski Is Bleeding," she does it very directly; in other stories like "Four Virtues," the effect is gentle but still clear.

c) You can keep your narrator's unreliable viewpoint hidden until a dramatic finish, one that throws everything into chaos and forces the reader to reconsider everything they thought they knew. Julad's story does this; so do a lot of first-time stories in which Ray (or Fraser) suddenly realizes that the other was flirting all along, or not really leaving, or secretly-gay-only-for-him, get the idea.

A good example of this (as suggested by [personal profile] j_s_cavalcante) is "Episodic Romance," the recent long fic by buzzylittleb.


So. Those are the basics. How, why, and when to fit them into a story is the hard part. I think this is where the discussion should start because I *know* there are people out there better than me at this, but just to throw out some suggestions from how I try to do it, and how I see others making the same effort:

a) Pay attention to what the narrator doesn't say. If Ray's claiming to be calm, and yet you tell the reader that Fraser is looking concerned and nervous about Ray's tone of voice/physical gestures/bulging forehead vein, maybe Ray isn't being entirely honest about his state of mind. Same goes for Fraser thinking he knows everything but ignoring Ray's intuition.

b) Sometimes a character is behaving uncharacteristically for the sake of the story. An author with a decent track record for getting it right, who suddenly is drawing a very different picture of a beloved character, probably has a good reason. Chances are good that something you don't expect is going to happen, and you shouldn't take the character's observations as gospel. Reverse engineer this back, and you've got yourself an unreliable narrator.

c) Often it's easiest to start your experiments in unreliable narration with a character who's known for being clueless. The reader won't be surprised when things go cockeyed, but neither will you, and you won't need to worry about whether it's within the realm of plausible characterization.

d) Most importantly, experiment. Don't be afraid to write a story twice, if the first narrator doesn't work. Don't think that, just because Fraser's honest and forthright, he should always be trusted. At heart, writing with an unreliable narrator is all about calculated risk.

[ETA: Something [personal profile] kill_claudio said in the comments reminded me of one more point. Because we're writing fanfic, there's an interesting way that the collective understanding of the characters can be used to point out a narrator's unreliability that ordinary authors don't have. Especially in a fic where the pairing is announced up front, fannish readers have a particular lens for viewing the characters actions. As a result, reveals which would otherwise come at the end of a fic (as in Sihaya Black and Chickwriter's "A Fine Romance," [personal profile] kill_claudio's example) become clear much earlier. It changes the dynamic of the story, for good or bad. Either way, it's something to keep in mind if you're experimenting with unreliable narration and a popular pairing or character, because it can make the process both more complicated to read and more difficult to write.]

Thoughts? Questions? Examples? Letters calling for my resignation?
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