The Self-Contained Narrator

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Usually when I post on Magical Words, I talk about something general like queries or plotting or submissions.  Today I want to talk about something very specific: tightly self-contained characters.  This is something very close to my heart, because I have the tendency to write characters who hold themselves apart from the world, who are in control and don’t need or want your help, thank you very much.  I have authors who write these sorts of characters as well, and as a consequence have to go through more than their fair share of revisions to draw in editorial interest because these sorts of characters have a difficult time forming emotional connections with the reader just as they do the other characters with whom they interact. 

Mind you, there are ways around this.

One such way is to make your hero or heroine an unreliable narrator, so that when he or she thinks things like, “which didn’t bother me in the least,” we’re clear that exactly the opposite is true.  How do you do this?  One way is through body language, which is often reserved for those the viewpoint character is observing rather than for the narrator him or herself.  He or she might have some sort of involuntary reaction –a gasp or flinch or some other tell that lets us know the truth.  Alternately, you can have another character observe this tell and show us with a smile, a smirk or by straight-up calling the person out on his or her contradictions. 

There are also unguarded moments.  Maybe it’s late or the mood is right or the character has been drinking.  Maybe there’s been extreme emotional distress or a near-death experience.  But there’s bound to be a moment during which your hero or heroine is more vulnerable than usual, and his/her true feelings will slip out.

Furthermore, sometimes feelings are revealed not in what is said, but in the words used.  For instance: “her blonde hair fell over her eyes” versus “her golden hair blew across her face, obscuring those dove-gray eyes…”  In the first, the “her” could be the hero’s sister.  In the second, that’s a lot less likely.

Or maybe your “hero” isn’t the narrator.  Consider that with the Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s Dr. Watson, the more everyman character, the one who does form ties and take risks, who actually narrates the adventures.  As much as I love the good detective, I can only imagine how pedantic the stories would be in his voice, should he care to explain himself at all, which, of course, he wouldn’t.

To sum up: your readers can’t form emotional attachments with a character who won’t meet them halfway.  One way or another, you have to find a way to let the reader in on the secret of your hero or heroine’s vulnerability and underlying emotion.

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8 comments to The Self-Contained Narrator

  • Lucienne, I had this very problem when I was writing the first Jane Yellowrock novel. I knew there was something wrong with Jane but couldn’t put my finger on it. I asked the husband of a writer friend to read the first 100 pages (all I had written at the time) and tell me what was wrong. And I waited and waited, and I realized he couldn’t even tell me what was wrong–which was very bad indeed. Finally he sent word through my friend that he simply didn’t *like* Jane. With a bit of prodding, he added that she was *cold*.

    And the lightbulb went off in my brain. Jane was emotionally unavailable. And I knew how to fix that. I added in a character — Angie Baby — a toddler who adored Jane. One careful rewrite of those now 150 pages and I had a character who was distant, and emotionally unavailable, and puddle of mush around children. And totally likeable.

  • With Tavis, the lead character in Winds of the Forelands, I had a similar, but slightly different problem. I wanted him to be obnoxious, spoiled, and generally difficult to like; difficult, but not impossible. I wanted my readers to see some redeeming qualities in him, so that they would care about his fate and be open to liking him more as the series went on and he matured. It was a challenging balance to find. In part, as you suggest here, I needed to make him unreliable, and use the perceptions of other characters to fill in his blind spots. But I also needed to have other, more likable characters, see enough good in him that they could guide my readers, and make them see those good qualities that I would be building on later. Interesting and instructive post, Lucienne.

  • Thanks for such a timely post. I was struggling with this issue in my WIP. My main character is terrified of relationships because being in a relationship means you depend on someone, something she can’t handle. So she constantly puts down her partner. I wasn’t sure how to show what she would never admit: that she actually cares about him. After reading your post, I came up with the perfect idea for a scene to illustrate that.

  • I’ve had this problem myself and I ended up doing the ‘unreliable’ story teller approach. The other suggestion to combat the problem are also interesting. I never really thought about how the Sherlock Holmes stories would be like in Sherlocks voice, but it’s true it would probably be impossible to get into the book (if, that is, he would even say anything at all about his adventures, which he probably wouldn’t). Great post.

  • Lucienne> Thanks for the great post. I’ve thought about this because I have one protag in one work that’s pretty cold. She isn’t interested in people because people around her get killed–she softens some throughout, mostly because she doesn’t want to see other people make the same mistakes she did.

    In another work, my co-author and I had to totally rewrite a character because all our betas though he was flat. We knew him a lot better than what we got on the page. So we’ve gone back and done things to make him more on the page what we see: a hero, a good guy, a bit arroagant, a good fighter, very loyal to those he’s close to, etc.

    I like the unreliable narrator idea–that I think can work very well–I’ve seen it work well in stuff. I’ll have to tuck that in my bag or writer’s tools and use it sometime.

  • Razziecat

    Great post! I do tend to write this sort of character, and then have to really dig to figure out why I cared about him or her, not to mention why readers should. I have one character who killed someone for reasons only he understood; it took me most of a year to pry the secrets out of him. Those secrets became his motive to undertake a mission that would both help his homeland and redeem him; and, to make him more likeable, I had him make a special effort to help a young refugee displaced by the war my character had fought in.

  • sagablessed

    Late as always I am, but good post Lucienne. My current WIP has the very problem you describe. My MC has been slapped by my writer’s group for being cold and bitchy, without any redeeming qualities. Trying to fix it, but sometimes you have to put it down and come back to it later.

  • Thanks so much, everyone for stopping by! I’m sorry I was so quiet last week. Vacation in paradise has the side effect of making modern technology so much less appealing. Aloha!