Welcome to So Relatable, a bi-weekly newsletter featuring conversations about the creative process, suggestions for nourishing yourself, and inspiring links. I’m glad you’re here!
Whenever I start a new writing project, one of the first decisions I make is point of view. Who is telling this story, and more importantly, why?
For my current WIP, I chose to write in first person because—and here I quote myself—“I like the intimacy of listening to one character, no matter how unreliable they might be. I also like the way first person perspective limits the story—the reader can only know what the narrator knows.” (Or what the narrator chooses to tell!)
Two years and three drafts later, I’m certain I made the right choice. My book, which is about relationships, betrayal, insurance fraud, and our limits, both real and imagined, can only be told by a single character the reader can’t quite trust.
Unreliable narrators are nothing new, but what I find fascinating about them is figuring out where their unreliability comes from. Are they deliberately deceptive in an effort to win over the reader or defend their actions? Is their perception of the world tragically skewed by their own experiences? Are they blind to their own biases, convinced that they’re the victim of circumstance or the hero of the story?
The best writing reflects something true about the world, and unreliable narrators are proof that none of us are completely objective. Just like the characters we create, our view of the world is colored by who we are, how we’ve lived, the day we had. When I was a teaching assistant in my MFA program, I attempted to illustrate this for my students with the following exercise:
Imagine it’s a warm, sunny day. You were just offered your dream job, you won a million dollars, it’s the first morning of a long-awaited vacation. You go for a walk to think about your good fortune. Describe what you see, without mentioning your joy.
“The sun kisses my skin like a gentle lover.”
“The warm air feels like a hug.”
“I skip down the street, smiling and saying hello to everyone I pass.”
Now imagine it’s the same warm, sunny day, except this time you just got dumped by the love of your life, your boss is about to fire you, your dog got hit by a car. You go for a walk to wallow in your grief. Describe what you see, without mentioning your pain.
“The sun burns me with its poisonous rays.”
“The humid, suffocating air makes it hard to breathe.”
“Everyone I see is mean and ugly. They scowl at me, and I spit in the dirt.”
Same character in each scene. Same beautiful, sunny day. Two very different descriptions, and both of them true. It just depends on your point of view.
When you’re writing a book with an unreliable narrator, part of the balance—part of the fun—is playing with the reader’s expectations and testing the limits of their trust. No one wants to be lied to outright, but there’s a certain thrill in realizing the truth is more complicated than it appears.
That’s why the hero of my novel betrays her friends, lies to her loved ones, and break the law, all while insisting she’s the hero. I almost believe her; I think you will too. The truth is that most of us will forgive almost everything for the sake of a good story.
Snack of the Week
When it comes to food, one narrator I absolutely trust is Abigail of This Needs Hot Sauce, one of my favorite newsletters. (And I read a lot of newsletters!) A few weeks ago, she shared her family’s famous pumpkin bread recipe in a subscriber-only post AND she just lifted the paywall for the season because the people deserve pumpkin! (But you should still subscribe, because Abigail’s food writing is the best.) I doubled the recipe and made two loaves—one for my book club, and one to bring on a weekend trip to Richmond to visit dear friends. It’s the ultimate fall recipe, a great seasonal gift, and extremely addictive. I’ll be baking it again soon!
Who is the Bad Art Friend? New York Times*. If you don’t get the tweet above, it means you somehow avoided this twisty exposé about dueling writers, copyright litigation, and the morally ambiguous question of who owns a story. Congratulations! Meanwhile I lost an entire day to Twitter’s hot takes. 😬
Time Millionaires: Meet the People Pursuing the Pleasure of Leisure, The Guardian. “Leisure has become a dirty word. Any time we scrounge away from work is to be filled with efficient blasts of high-intensity exercise, or other improving activities, such as meditation or prepping nutritionally balanced meals. Our hobbies are monetised side hustles; our homes informal hotels; our cars are repurposed for ride-sharing apps.” New life goal: become a time millionaire. ⏰
The Nasty Logistics of Returning Your Too-Small Pants, The Atlantic. This is why we can’t have nice things. 👖
True Crime Is Rotting Our Brains, Gawker. “It’s easy and correct to condemn Fox News for increasing our grandparents’ blood pressure, keeping them in a perpetual state of fear about roving gangs of MS-13 coming to their gated communities, but we should also consider that other demographics might be susceptible to fear-stoking propaganda. How can we listen to story after story of women being abducted or murdered and expect it to not have an effect on our psyche?” 🔪
How To Write A Personal Letter, According To A Hallmark Card Writer, NPR. “Taking the time to actually put pen to paper lights up our creativity and stretches our vocabulary in ways that other forms of communication don't.” Mostly sharing so I don’t end this section with the knife emoji. 💌
*NYT gift link—no subscription needed, and clicking won’t count toward your free articles!
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