Category Archives: Character Building

The unreliable narrator

In my ‘Corpse-Eater Saga,’ I wanted to push myself a bit with my writing.  I try to do that as often as I can.  In this case I did a couple of things that I don’t normally do.  The first thing I did was give myself a narrator who relies less on his eyesight than the rest of us.  That has actually been much harder for me to handle than you’d think.  Recently i went back over book one and I found several things I should have done differently if I really wanted to make that detail stick.

But the other thing I did, the thing that I want to contemplate right now, is use an unreliable narrator.

As a rule, the unreliable narrator is not my favorite tool.  Mostly it goes back to my own gullibility.  As a rule, when somebody tells me something, my first instinct is to believe them.  Even after having been lied to many times, and having discovered that I was given an obscenely one-sided story, when I talk to people and they tell something, I have to make a concerted effort not to assume that their recitation is the literal truth.

I have used unreliable narrators before, particularly in short stories.  Having someone who is misinformed or unable to perceive the truth of a particular situation is quite useful for twist endings.  But in ‘Awfully Appetizing,’ I am trying for something a bit subtler with my character.  I’m trying to write the story of somebody who is dishonest with himself.  Giving quiet hints that his perception of the world is skewed has proven more difficult than I anticipated.

Part of the problem may be that I’m going for something a little bit too subtle.  Or maybe he’s not dishonest enough with himself.  Is he really an unreliable narrator, or is he just uncertain?

Maybe I failed to make him unreliable and only made him conflicted.

One of the tricky things when you’re looking at writing a series is that it’s hard to maintain what you perceive as a flaw in your narrator over the course of years and years, and books and books.  You see the flaws in them so clearly, you can’t imagine how they could completely miss it in themselves.

Well, if that’s the case, at least he should pick up some of my own personal flaws, the ones that I’m blind to.

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The price of power

So, I think that one of the problems that I have with so many books and movies and television shows these days is that the writers often forget that power should always come with some kind of price tag.  More than that, though, that the price should be, both related to the power it accompanies, and somehow similar in scale.

One of the most annoying things I find in vampire literature is when the only downside to becoming a vampire is that you get all whiny.  I’ve read a few books like that.  The main character bemoans his status and considers himself damned, but has a totally manageable bloodlust, a slight aversion to sunlight, and is completely unaffected by articles of faith.

One of my favorite examples of the cost of power properly associated with the degree of power is in Firefly.  You have the Captain, whose skill and resolve are the result of having the joy and hope beaten out of him over the course of a long and miserable war.  Zoe, the consummate soldier, is incapable of shedding her attachment to military formality.  She MUST obey her captain.  She MUST hide her emotions.  Then there’s the doctor, who has dedicated himself so fully to his practice that he is barely functional outside of a hospital.  He is constantly putting his foot in his mouth, constantly unable to relate, but dammit he’s brilliant.

You can go down the list, and each and every character has a greatness associated with them, that has also cost them in some way.  And the most powerful character, River, is also the most flawed, being, depending on how you view her, either completely nuts, or one hundred percent sane.  Either way it amounts to the same thing, and makes her as much of a liability is she is an asset.

Seven Favorite Sins

So, there are a lot of ways to go about building characters.  You can base them on people that you know, or exaggerated ideals.  You can make them to fit a special need in your writing, or you can imagine a crazy society and ask yourself what would come about because of that.

Sometimes, though, what I find myself with are too-perfect characters.  I make them, not into reflections of myself, but reflections of who I’d like to be.  I make them the ideal human, then wonder why nobody can relate to them.

Well, if you ever find yourself with a character that you think might be just a little bit too perfect, here’s something you can try: ask yourself what their favorite sin is.

There are seven deadly sins, let me see if I can list them all:

Lust

Greed

Wrath

Pride

Sloth

Gluttony

Envy

Now,as I understand it, there are people out there who have managed to completely rid themselves of one or maybe two of these, but let’s be honest here, for the rest of us, all seven are pretty big.  But the thing you have to keep in mind is that everyone has at least one of these that is there go-to sin.  Or, if you’re not a fan of the word ‘sin,’ let’s call it imbalance.  Whatever name you give it, it comes back to the same thing:  There’s something in you that drives you to behave foolishly.

Pick one, give it to your character, and whenever you write that character, remember that failing and make a point of bringing it out a bit.  It’s a fantastic way to make your characters be just a little more human, when you would otherwise be writing them as minor gods.