How, then, am I mad?

The Unreliable Narrator

In my humble opinion, one of the most powerful tools in storytelling is the also the most intrinsically human: the unreliable narrator.

People have biases, and those biases color their entire world. No matter how open-minded or educated an individual is, they simply cannot have the whole picture of an event. Individuals are not omniscient.

Narratives that are in third personeven a limited third personinherently offer us an outsider’s perspective. When the prose speaks of “he” or “she” or “they,” we may have the illusion that the one recounting the tale has a certain level of detachment. In that, the reader has an expectation that it’s more or less unbiased.

But in a first person narrative? This presumed detachment is shattered, and can be used to incredibly powerful effect.

Some of the most celebrated works of the modern era are written in first person for this very reason: The Great Gatsby, which has the distinction of being told from Nick’s perspective and not Gatsby’s, crisscrossing preference and prejudice between the two; Huckleberry Finn, whose puckish voice ties together a story of outsiders; and, of course, the most notorious example of the unreliable narrator: Nabokov’s Lolita, a novel that has arguably changed the landscape of literature and language.

I love the unreliable narrator. I love that how, coded between every line, sleeps some of the very bones of what it means to be human. It celebrates the fact that every story has multiple sides. It makes us question our own motivations and understanding. It allows us to settle into the skin of another mind, see the world as they see it, and become intimately (and sometimes uncomfortably) familiar with their skewed perceptions, blind spots, and convictions.

But the first person narrative has come under strict scrutiny these last few years. For one reason or another, it has become a popular choice for the Young Adult market. Whether I agree or not, this has condemned it to the realms of “amateurish,” prone to romanticizing self-important and self-absorbed teenagers all the while flouncing a complete lack of self-awareness.

In this onslaught of criticism, I’m forced to wonder one thing: are the authors aware of their character’s inherent fallibly?

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The Piety of Others

Rise of a Warlord: Lord General Nikodemus

This is part of the PocketWatch Character Spotlight Blog Hop! Take a look at the others characters and their writers spotlighted at the bottom of this post.

I have always loved villains.

More often than not, I had found the antagonist more of an engaging character than the protagonist, especially in fantasy. They were the great ruling despots, said to have so much charm or force that an entire kingdom bowed to their whims.

They were painted in broad and vivid strokes, meant to be the impassable obstacle for the hero to overcome. In that, they were untouchable, and that air of mystery and power made them fascinating.

But I always wanted to know how they got there.

What was their rise to power like? What drove them? How did they see the turn of events, their reign? No one ever thinks of themselves as a villain—we are all the heroes of our own stories.

I wanted to see their side. What the hero’s journey looked like through the eyes of their adversary.

But, unfortunately, books usually left me unsatisfied in one of two ways.

The first, of course, has been long parodied and for good reason. Our Evil Overlord is kept more or less shrouded in uncertainty, right up until the very end. Then, either any motivation is skimmed over, or if something is given, it’s so rushed that it hardly feels genuine. What would start out as a terrifying and interesting idea would be boiled down to one-dimensional sludge by the finale.

I blamed this on the fact that we were, of course, following the protagonist. Their counterpart’s role was reserved for moving the plot and providing a challenge. Any further characterization was often left to the wayside, or hurriedly tacked on.

But at least there had been a glimmer of something greater there, even if it didn’t come to fruition.

Worse yet were the times where I was given a closer view of the villain… only to have them fall flat. Those times when a Tyrant King was said to be charismatic or brilliant, but then failed to be any of those things when they were on the page.

I was always left wondering how in heaven’s name they’d not been murdered in their sleep at the beginning, much less lasted long enough to become the Big Bad. (Terry Goodkind, I’m looking at you. I still don’t know why anyone followed Darken Rahl and he wasn’t just drowned in a river or something early on.)

So, in my frustration, I began stewing on an idea. What if an epic fantasy was mainly concerned with the villain’s motivations and reasons? Instead of just seeing the fruits of their labor, the already-won kingdom and army, what if the plot was focused on their rise to power?

And so the first seeds of The Piety of Others and its main character, the Lord General Nikodemus, sprouted in my mind.

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From the Bookshelf: The Graveyard Book

I’ve meant to read something by Neil Gaiman for years.

His writing advice is (in my personal opinion) some of the best I’ve ever come across, and has been my go-to when I need a pick-me-up. I follow him on his Tumblr and find almost everything he says to be charming, if nothing else.

More than once I’ve caught myself thinking, “I want to be that man when I grow up.” (Yes, I’m 26. But I am still very certain that I’m not a grown-up yet.)

This should all come as no real surprise, as I quote him near incessantly.

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From the Bookshelf: Starting Again

I remember being a child, finding solace in books. I was, as Neil Gaiman has so eloquently described it, one of those feral children raised by libraries.

Books took me places I could never go. It was in their pages I found friends and support, when I felt it nowhere else.

That is why I wanted to be a writer: to give back. Return the favor ages later for new readers I couldn’t have even imagined.

I will admit. Over the last eight years, I haven’t done as much reading as I would have liked. After school ended, I found myself forgetting to make time in the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Sure, there were a few times that I would sneak out, when the itch got to be too much to bear. Go to the bookstore to pick up maybe just one book, just this once, and drink the words from the pages as if ink were whiskey. It would be exhausted in a day or three, devoured during late nights where the words were more important than sleep.

I’d gotten my hit, then. The itch satisfied. Something to sustain me for a little while longer, until it nagged at the corners of my mind again.

Then, all of a sudden, my health took a drastic nosedive. Almost overnight it became too painful to hold even a common paperback. No matter what the angle, something hurt. If I sat up, it was my wrists. Laid on my side, my shoulders and elbow. On my stomach, my back and neck.

Reading became a Herculean task. Not to mention what it did to the rest of my life.

Between the pain and the struggle to find out what was wrong with me, reading had become low on my priority list.

Oh, I’d of course still make my runs to bookstores. Even then, I couldn’t go without it ever few months. I’d peruse those shelves, pick out a few titles. Tell myself I’d get to them soon. I’d feel better soon. I’d just take a few more pain pills, then I could do it, I was sure. Or maybe if I just sat in the recliner, or switched positions more often…

But it never worked.

Four years ago, I was finally diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Over that time, it’s been a battle of finding the right cocktail of drugs and treatments to turn me back into a real boy from the splintered wooden puppet with shattered hinges that I’d become.

I still haven’t quite found my Blue Fairy, but I’m getting better.

And then, a few birthdays ago, I was gifted with a Kindle. It’s lighter than most of the novels I tend to pick up, and I can put it down on a table or armrest without having to try to figure out how to keep the pages open.

Between my slow crawl back to personhood and the marvels of technology, I’ve made it a top priority to get back to reading. Not only have I missed it for years, but I am sure that my writing has suffered without that constant flow of words.

But, I’ve missed more than just reading. I’ve missed talking about books. About stories. I might be one of the few people in the world to think this, but I honestly used to like assigned reading in school. I liked being able to have a whole group of people with whom I could discuss the material, even if I had found it reprehensible.

Hell, some of my favorite times were complaining to a class or a teacher about exactly why I hated a book. It made me think critically, pick apart what did and didn’t work for me, and the mechanics of it. Much of my own writing has come from what I haven’t liked as much as from what I have.

So, with that in mind, I’ve decided to keep something of a reading diary.

Not reviews, not exactly. I feel there should be a standard to reviewing, something with transparent guidelines and rigor. I feel that’s an important part of the process of doing any kind of real review.

No, I want to discuss a book. What worked for me, what didn’t. Throw in some of my own thoughts, my own reactions and personal experiences. How they relate to the words, to the story, to the characters. What a story touched and stirred in me. What missed its mark.

Sure, talking to myself isn’t nearly as great as having an actual discussion, but it helps me to focus my thoughts, and yes, practice my craft.

All in homage to something that I loved.

Or didn’t.

All’s fair in love and war.

I don’t have a set schedule. Right now, the plan is just to “read more.” Stretch my legs, and my mind. Discover something surprising. Find comfort in something familiar. Remember what it was like to lose myself somewhere else.

Because isn’t that what it’s all about?