A fellow author in my writer’s group is working on a first-person account of a terrible real-life experience. Year ago, her son was arrested and prosecuted for a crime he did not commit. I will avoid any more specific detail here, because it’s her story and not mine. I also want to make clear that I am not picking on her. Her story is compelling, and I think it is going to end up being a great book – but she has been struggling with a few core concepts that I want to illustrate.
The critical problem I think she is encountering is that the book is written from her own perspective, and the mother of the accused is always, always going to present a problem of reliability. My guess is, when the mother of the accused says “I guarantee my son is innocent!” none of us take this as fact.
Compounding the problem, however, is that almost all of the factual information presented in the story comes from the mother’s voice, with no attribution to another source. This includes the core concept that the accuser is using the alleged crime to further a political agenda, that the son is “not even capable of this kind of action,” and other essential facts that the reader needs in order to weigh the piece.
Even further complicating things, the mother/narrator mentions in places that her son has on occasion gotten into trouble for vandalism, and has a history of taking hallucinogenic drugs. These facts, combined with nature of the alleged crime, the reliability problems presented by the mother-as-narrator, push the reader in the direction of suspicion – which could make for an interesting story, but is not, according to the author, her intention.
There are a few relatively simple solutions, as I see it. The first, and simplest, would be to introduce other characters with more authority, and have them deliver facts to the reader through dialogue. For example, instead of the mother saying through exposition that the accuser is a known liar and political manipulator, there might be a scene where she has coffee with a sheriff’s deputy who tells her so. By putting this information in the mouth of an objective and authoritative source (or, at least, more objective and authoritative than the mother of the accused) the reader can treat this information as reliable, and use it to form their own opinion.
A more extreme revision would be to take the story out of the first person and present the entire thing from a third-person perspective, maybe even from an omniscient narrator. If this were the approach, I think it would be smarter to craft the work as a novel based on actual events, rather than a non-fiction work – this allays questions about the author’s own reliability, being that she was personally involved in the actual events. Even in this case, however, it is important that facts the reader is meant to take at face value come from a source as objective and authoritative as possible.
In my opinion, the most interesting approach for a work like this would be a first-person account, in which the bulk of the facts come from characters with varying degrees of reliability – the mother of the accused, the accused himself, the accuser, and the residents of the small town who regard the accuser as an outsider and don’t necessarily welcome him. In a story presented this way, the reader is left to decide who he or she trusts, and to form their own opinion about what probably really happened and what the consequences should be.
Another member of the group has compared this kind of narrative to John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a book I myself have not read. But of course the decision belongs to the author, and it’s up to her to decide what purpose her story will serve, and how she would like her reader to relate.
“You think you can catch Keyser Soze? You think a guy like that comes this close to getting caught and sticks his head out? If he comes up for anything, it will be to get rid of me. After that… my guess is you’ll never hear from him again.“
— Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), The Usual Suspects
Few literary techniques can be as interesting – and few as frustrating for beginning authors – as the unreliable narrator. When someone (usually a fellow writer) accuses me of over-intellectualizing the craft and comments on how useless all my book-learnin really was, I bust out the unreliable narrator as proof that a good author must learn at least a few things about literary technique. Every reader is familiar with the unreliable narrator, and every reader responds to it – even if they don’t know the name, and often don’t recognize their own response.
As a concept, the unreliable narrator is simple. You’re sitting on a park bench, and a stranger sits down next to you. He begins to tell you a story. You as the listener, are doing two things: you’re listening to his story to try and follow the narrative strand, but you’re also (consciously or unconsciously) measuring the things he says to determine whether you can trust him as a source. You’re measuring how reliable a narrator he is. Continue Reading
Example 1 (third person): Jimmy never saw Rachel rob that bank.
Example 2 (first person): I never saw Rachel rob that bank.
Example 3 (second person): You never saw Rachel rob that bank.
Read the three examples above, one at a time. Imagine each as the first sentence in a short story, and think about where you would expect the story to go from there. Better yet, imagine you’re sitting on a park bench with a total stranger, and this is the first sentence of a story they tell you. Note the dramatic difference in effect, even though only one word changes. Note the change in your assumptions about the narrator, particularly his or her reliability. Do you find yourself, unconsciously, wondering whether you can trust what this narrator is telling you?
I have heard authors variously refer to this as voice, perspective, or mode, but as I understand it (and Wikipedia, at least, agrees), the correct term is point of view. The role your narrator (and, in second-person, your audience) plays in the story has major ramifications on the reader experience. It is critically important for the author to realize this, and to choose the right point of view to have the effect he or she wants.
Let’s do one more, with a more significant change. Think about how much this changes the way you read the sentence, and how you immediately make assumptions about Jimmy, about Rachel, and about the narrator.
Jimmy told me he never saw Rachel rob that bank.