Thursday, 5 July 2018

And if you believe that...

Much as I enjoy blogging to moan like a whiny bitch about writing, this post is actually about a technical aspect of writing. Which is less fun, but probably more useful, and (*whispers*) a sign that my writing is going a bit better lately? 


A couple of people have noted that my MC in Flying Tips, Finch, is an unreliable narrator and asked about how you write an unreliable narrator. The answer is that I never consciously thought about it, but they’re right, he kind of is, and it’s an important part of the book. And actually I don’t think it’s that complicated to do.

Unreliable narrators can be unreliable for several reasons, including, but probably not limited to:
  • They’re outright lying to the reader for some devious reason of their own, e.g. to force them into a position of moral confusion (Lolita)
  • They’re too young/innocent/na├»ve/mentally ill/drunk to understand the situation so the picture they paint is necessarily inaccurate (The Great Gatsby, Fight Club, The Turn of the Screw, Rebecca, The Sound and the Fury)
  • They’re in denial about the situation or their own motivations for some reason, and their perceptions are filtered through that (Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Remains of the Day, The Little Stranger)

The phrase for some reason, is the important bit here.

First off, I don’t think you have to treat unreliable narrators as a discrete category with special rules. I think all good characters are unreliable because all people are unreliable. There is no objective ‘truth’ even in a fictional world, and so there are no ‘reliable’ narrators. What are they narrating? Only their own view of the story. Unreliable narrators are just characters with complex psychological reasons for doing things.

So all characters are unreliable, but the unreliability of a narrator is more important in some books than others. Some characters are just unreliable because people are unreliable and the purpose is just to make them three dimensional. Some characters are unreliable because it contributes to the plot. Some characters are unreliable because the intention is to make the reader feel uncertain and examine their own feelings. You have to decide why and how and to what degree your narrator’s unreliability is going to manifest itself, and how that relates to the themes of the story.

Which is all very woolly and unhelpful. But I think one practical way to think about all this is the idea of the character’s Ghost (sometimes called their Wound). 

Not that ghost

The idea is that something will have happened to the character in their past that has made them the way they are now. It’s linked to the way they (erroneously) see the world, and that erroneous view is the thing that has to be put right in the course of the story. The ghost doesn’t have to occur in the course of the story, it can be in the backstory, but it must be referenced because it explains who the character is.


The character was abandoned by his parents and now believes ‘you can’t trust anyone’ and has to learn to trust someone by the end of the book

The character was attacked once and now believes ‘the world is an evil place’ and has to learn to see the goodness in people by the end of the book

The character was taught that winning is everything and believes ‘I am worthless unless I win this race’ and has to learn that there are more important things by the end of the book

Etc etc etc

This is there in all your favourite characters. Lizzie Bennet was insulted, Scarlet O’Hara was hungry, Jane Eyre was unloved. The entire movie 'Solo' was just the retelling of Han Solo’s ghost – he was betrayed by the woman he loved = he’s a bit of a dick in 'A New Hope'. 

Most prequels are probably retellings of ghosts. The ghost colours their perceptions and interpretations, and this is where the unreliability comes in.

And I would argue that it needs to be there, whether your character is going all out to mess with people’s heads or is just being a normal unreliable human. And here’s why:

The disparity between how the character sees the situation and what’s really going on is a gap the reader will bridge through empathy. The reader has to put herself in the place of someone who was rejected by their parents in order to understand their weird behaviour in adult relationships. And this is hugely important because it’s not only a mentally stimulating exercise, it is what makes them connect to your character. If you fill that gap for them by over-explaining, they won’t make that connection for themselves and they won’t be on that journey to revelation with the character. 

An unreliable narrator can be someone who isn’t in possession of all the facts, so writers get freaked out about how to convey these facts to the reader when it’s the clueless narrator telling the story. But it’s not that complicated. We’ve all have that friend in a bad relationship who tells you stories about how great her boyfriend is while you sit there wondering how she can’t see the blatant red flags. 

Just because your narrator tells the story, doesn’t mean your reader will accept their interpretation of it. If the story doesn’t add up, the reader will spot it. Trust your reader.

In practical terms, how you demonstrate all this to the reader without spelling it out is simply by allowing the character to act as they naturally would. My character Finch was rejected by his best friend and since then has avoided making new friends because he believes he’ll be hurt again. I don’t have to spell that out to the reader, I just described the incident with the best friend, and then when the new boy, Hector, arrives at school and tries to befriend him, Finch reacts with hostility. Finch isn’t aware of why he doesn’t want to be friends with Hector, and to square this lack of self-knowledge he tells himself (and us) it’s because Hector is geeky and hopeless and that Finch is too busy saving his family’s circus school to bother with the new boy. Do we believe him? 

Remember, characters have to make sense to themselves, even if they’re wrong about everything.

I first encountered the idea of the character’s ghost in a podcast by KM Weiland but the idea was completely familiar to me, having done a degree in psychology. The fact is, it’s not just characters who have ghosts and wounds. We are all defined by our pasts and we don’t go around analysing how that affects our behaviour in the present. Most of us aren’t even aware of our ghosts, and we are in denial about why we behave the way we do.

I know

Characters are no different. Finch starts to have feelings for Hector that he’s not comfortable with. He deals with this by displaying hostility, jealousy and anger and by criticising Hector. None of it is unprovoked or out of the blue, but the real underlying reason isn’t discussed or analysed because he’s in denial about it. He will eventually come round to understanding the truth, but only when the evidence has mounted up subtly through the whole book so he can’t deny it any more.

Just because it’s subtle doesn’t mean there should be any room for confusion though. The underlying reasons have to make complete sense and have an underlying unity and coherence. There is ONE basic wound leading to ONE erroneous belief leading to ONE revelation. The wound may have happened over a period of time and it may manifest in various different (but linked) behaviours and the revelation may happen over the course of the whole book but it can probably be simplified to one short sentence. (And this is probably your elevator pitch, btw.)

It’s about a miser who had a lonely childhood and now clings to material success but will discover over the course of one night the true value of human companionship.

Why, that sounds wonderful, Mr Dickens, allow me to give you this six-book contract…

If Dickens hadn’t put in that bit about Scrooge being lonely in school and his parents not loving him, we’d have no sympathy for him because we wouldn’t understand his motivation for closing himself off in the only world he’s ever found rewarding. 

So, I’d say don’t obsess too much about creating unreliable narrators. You don’t have to be sneaky or talk in riddles. Just create believable characters with believable motivations who gradually come to discover something about themselves or the world and boom – you’ve got an unreliable narrator with a complex psychology for the reader to delve into. Yay!

OK, so you probably knew all that already. I'll go back to moaning/memeing soon, no doubt. Possibly about the fact that it's so hot my brain has melted and all my characters do these days is sit around eating Fro-Yo.


Monday, 18 June 2018

I guess there were teenage girls reading Smash Hits in the 16th Century too

A definite highlight of our holiday in garden terms was Powis Castle. 

Not too pretty really but it was a fortress originally.
And they made up for it with the gardens and interior.

This is a medieval castle and fortress which, unlike most medieval castles, is not only still standing but in pretty good shape. It was owned by the Herbert family from the 1500s, but by the late 18th Century it was running out of cash (they'd spent a ridiculous amount getting it ready for a royal visit that never happened). 

The Herbert who inherited it decided, pretty cannily, not to marry, because his sister happened to have married the eldest son of the richest self-made man in Europe, Clive of India, and this allowed the estate to pass to her son. The Herberts (and therefore Powis) got the Clive money, and the Clives got the Herbert name, so everyone was happy. 

The castle is still owned by the Clive family but run by the National Trust. There's a Clive Museum, displaying a lot of his stuff, much of it amassed illicitly in India apparently.

The Clive Museum

The gardens are absolutely gorgeous. I'm a sucker for a terrace, and Wales, being hilly, is full of them. I lost count of the terraces at Powis, and they all have fantastic planting.

I can see three here but there were more

The Orangery

This guy seems pretty relaxed considering he's accidentally come out in the nip.

 There's a great view and more formal gardens down at the bottom, to the left.

The large lawn used to be three huge pools but has now been restored to its original function - hosting Space Hopper Jousting.

This statue is all that remains of the pools

Last year's trip was all about the roses. By going a few weeks earlier, this year was all about the wisteria. It was stunning and I want to smother my house in it.

There were some roses too

As you wind your way down the terraces there are long avenues and naturalistically pruned hedges.

And then a series of formal gardens at the bottom with orchards, a bee garden, herbaceous borders and fountains.

Usually I'm all about the outdoors, but the inside of the house is no less spectacular. Everything's so valuable they have to keep the curtains closed to protect it so it was hard to take photos. 

They were big into ceiling painting.

And wall painting. And everything painting.

The kitchens were less than luxurious

OK, what is it with rich people and stuffed dead things? There was a room that was wall to wall in glass cases FULL of stuffed birds, organised by size. Most disturbing thing I've ever seen but I bravely took photos because otherwise no one would believe me.

Again... why?

They were having an exhibition of their portraits (by people even I have heard of, including Joshua Reynolds, John Singer Sargent and Thomas Gainsborough). 

She's the one who married Clive of India's son.
This is by Joshua Reynolds.

Their star portrait is this miniature of Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury, painted by royal painter Isaac Oliver in the late 16th Century and fully worthy of a Smash Hits centrefold. Herbert was a politician, poet, musician and knight but I don't imagine he would have got as much done if he'd had a phone capable of taking selfies. 

This is him lounging in the woods after a joust.

Status: Feeling Handsome...

Some of Herb's poetry.

Meanwhile, we were in less luxurious surroundings but with fewer dead things so I was happy enough. The only downside to camping is school holidays. We always avoid the summer hols, but there's still weekends to consider and we managed to hit a bank holiday too. On bank holidays campsites go from this:

To this:

This one did have a pub next door though so that was nice on a rainy day. I had a Glamorgan sausage, which it turns out is just potato and leek like you get in a Maggies Veggie Fry! Who knew?

Mmmm... Maggies. 

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Cardiff, with extra cheese

So Cardiff is quite big! And has the biggest shopping centre I've ever seen. I escaped with my life, but barely. 

We also had the most awesome lunch ever at Madame Fromage in the very cute Castle Arcade. 

The Welsh for cheese is 'Caws'.
But Madame Caws doesn't have the same ring.

Then we went to the actual Castle. Cardiff Castle. Which is even older than Gerda. It was built by Norman invaders in the 11th Century, but even that was on top of a Roman fort from the 3rd Century. 

In the mid 18th Century it was taken on by the Bute family, who owned a fairly significant chunk of Wales at the time. They turned it into a Georgian mansion and they must have run out of things spend their money on because they seemed pretty keen on ornate ceilings and throwing gold leaf at stuff.

Actually I quite like this


Then we went to a huge cinema and saw Solo, yet another Star Wars movie. It was OK, and Daenerys from GOT was in it, but Han was altogether too cheeky chappy if you ask me.

Our own little Millennium Falcon threw a wiper blade during the jump to hyperspace on the way home so we had to stop and tie it on with string again. 

We carry a lot of string.