I looked for my essay on unreliable narrators that was submitted as part of my MA, but can’t locate it. But I found my notes. It must be somewhere on my computer — I know that was backed up so has to be here somewhere.
I like unreliable narrators which is why I originally wrote While No One Was Watching as a short story.
An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised.The term was coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction. While most are first person, I think from what I talked about a few weeks ago, since you can make a third person narrative as subjective and deep as a first person, I would say that any deep viewpoint narrator is in essence unreliable.
It’s only really the more distant third person or omniscient narrator (we see far less of these days) where it’s the author’s voice we hear, telling the reader how all characters feel, where we might assume the narration to be more reliable. But even then writers have experimented and called into credibility the reliability of the narration. We like to trick our readers.
I will cover this subject again when I can find my essay because there are many examples from literature and film that were fun to discuss at length.
We tend to think of unreliable narrators as children, mentally ill characters or characters with ulterior motives. But I think any character whose viewpoint is used, as for any human being, tells their own version of truth. Perhaps they even believe their own truth. But what is truth? As a reader we pick up on the cues and we know when we’re not sure who we trust. This is where use of multiple narrators can really be justified and come into their own — we can see the ‘misunderstandings’ between characters and see how what one character thinks maybe not be what happened when we see it from another viewpoint. As in life … right?
While No One Was Watching was an experiment in voice that I wrote as a short story and decided to use it as part of my MA. It used three first person narrators — The Reporter, The Psychic and The Mother. Here we saw three parts of the same story, all hinged on a little girl who disappeared from the grassy knoll at the exact moment in time Kennedy was shot. It comes to light 50 years later she is still missing. But what really happened?
In the short story I was able to keep things a lot simpler and clearly there have been many changes when it was adapted but the basic story arc I knew was strong so it hasn’t deviated a whole lot from that.
How are the narrators in the short story unreliable? Well they are all first person for a start and therefore by definition, how can they be reliable? But take the character motivations. A reporter … someone who seeks story whether it’s there or not. Someone who puts ‘spin’ on any story, someone whose paper may well have political motivations. What story, even reported as news is truly ‘fact’ (I explored this in my final MA dissertation as I used an extract of the novel for that.) And we learn the reporter is a father, so that has to affect his feelings about a missing child. He also hates psychics which affects how he interprets her. The Psychic is a larger than life African-American who was sixteen when Kennedy was assassinated and remembers how she knew ‘somethin’ bad was gonna happen that day.’ But how reliable is a narrator who reportedly speaks to the dead? Is she being paid? Is it a trick? And finally in the short story we had the mother, now old and suffering dementia and therefore unreliable through mental impairment. And we begin to wonder how much of what she remembers are real or false memories.
So this was the premise that turned into the novel. I played with voice but in the end the first person still won. I still have it in three parts but The Reporter, The Psychic and The Reporter. This is because of an important plot development when it turned into a novel that meant I couldn’t use the mother in the same way. In an early draft I still had the mother’s story when we went back to 1963. But changing narrator in the final third was too much to ask of the reader. After a glowing critique by Welsh Books Council (she loved it), her comments were amazing, but she echoed my own concerns that the ending wasn’t as good as it could be. I knew it in my heart. So I reworked it extensively and finished the story with the reporter with I think one final chapter with the psychic. I knew it was so much better.
When the novel has been released I could release on here, this other ending as a short story so we get to go back to 1963 — it’s the same ending but a different voice to the one we have so it might be fun! (If I have fans that is!!!)
What I wanted the novel to do was examine the lives of the reporter and the psychic, so in essence it’s their stories, brought together by this story of Eleanor Boone. How could she disappear? A gunshot, a mother lets go of the child’s hand … she turns around, Eleanor is gone. And 50 years on Edith Boone wanders off from her rest home and is found in a park claiming a little girl she finds there is her little girl. And that’s how her missing child story comes to light — but no one believes the confused old lady initially.
What the reporter does with his son is use real evidence from that day in 1963, like the Zapruder tapes but instead of looking for a man in a crowd with a gun, they look for a little girl.
When his efforts only get so far, cue our wonderful larger than life psychic … I will say no more.
I think in essence the novel is about love, relationships and loss. But it is driven by a question, but not only what happened to Eleanor Boone but also is her story in any way linked to the most speculated on assassination in history?
The novel will be out in October and since Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago this November, the timing couldn’t be better.
How reliable are our narrators in the novel? I’ll let YOU decide.
So that’s it in a nut shell and I don’t want to give away any more than that. I won’t publish the short story here as it will do just that. Later I’m sure I will share extracts, but not yet.
So what’s next? Well I have now joined the Society of Authors who checked my contract and I asked the pertinent questions to the publisher. The contract is now signed and sits on my desk and even that feels really exciting. I will be going to Llanberis this morning to get it in the post.
I have been assigned an editor who was a journalist and so will check the credibility of The Reporter (although I did ask lots of questions to a friend who’s also a journalist when I wrote it). We have a few basic edits, nothing too major … so I will share anything new I learn and I’m sure I will.
Again thanks for all your support and I promise I won’t go on and on about this novel and bore you all before it comes out. But anything I think you my lovely followers will find interesting about the process, I will share as I want it to help all of you, especially those who have yet to have this … many of my lovely followers will be looking on saying, “Yep, I know about that” — many of those who have been In The Spotlight.
Well have a wonderful weekend. I am in phase 2 of ‘Project house de-clutter’ ready for a paint job soon before it goes up for sale … but that’s another story. Oh the glamorous life of the writer. This is the year of great things and many changes. I said it would be — didn’t I. Bring. It. On.
Wouldn’t have it any other way.
Never. Give. Up.