Worldbuilding: Unreliable Narrators

One thing I’ve run into in a lot of comments is “but why doesn’t character X see what’s obviously going on?”

Simple. Because every character is a person – and people don’t have perfect knowledge of other people’s actions and intentions. Not ever.

Unless you’re doing third-person omniscient POV, there’s no such thing as a completely objective narrator. If you’re writing someone’s point of view, third person or first, you are writing what they see and believe.  And any one character is not going to see or know everything that’s going on, even if they’re impartial as a judge. On top of that, if they’re a main (or even good supporting) character, they are not impartial. They can’t be. The events they’re caught up in are life-or-death important. They’re not going to stand around going, “Gee, what did Y really mean by that, and did I misread his intentions?” Nope. They’re going to jump in with their best guess and start swinging.

And sometimes, their best guess is wrong.

Readers have it a lot easier than characters. They can see inside everyone’s head, compare and contrast, bring in outside knowledge, and – most important of all – put the book down and think.

Something our poor beloved characters really don’t have time for as they’re trying to fight off the slavering jaws of alien death. Or even trying to sort out a whole bunch of refugees from another world.

Unreliable narrators are tricky enough in a regular story, but in a crossover, they become both more important and even trickier. Because the characters from each side are missing a lot – a lot – of information on their opposing numbers. And based on the background any particular character is coming from, they may not know how much they don’t know. Throw in any amount of tension or threat, and people are going to fall back on mental shortcuts of “this is how I deal with X”, just to stay alive. Because your brain can only keep track of so many things – and people! – at once.

FYI, there’s an actual reason the Five Man Band trope is such an enduring staple of fiction. Studies of people in high-stress situations confirm that four other people is about as many as you can keep track of when adrenaline is pouring through your bloodstream. Any more than that, and things get sticky. That’s not opinion, or even training. That’s a fairly hardwired biological fact.

So one of the things I check and recheck my writing for is, who knows what? Or, who’s likely to know what? And then, what would they do with that? Does Guy A know the details of the life or death situation Character B just escaped by the skin of his teeth? If he doesn’t, does he have some reason to find out? On top of that, does Character B have any reason to realize A doesn’t know what B knows by heart?

If not… well. Communication is hard.

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7 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: Unreliable Narrators

  1. This is one of my favorite things about your writing. I love Unreliable Narrators/Limited POV because it turns the story into a puzzle I have to put together in my head (and I love puzzles). It also gives me a lot of reasons to re-read your stuff because after I’ve read it once, I now know what the other characters were doing/thinking when other POVs were going on.

    And that’s a really interesting note about Five-Man ensembles…

    Liked by 3 people

  2. This was actually one of the things I thought was done really well in Ranma 1/2… and also a large part of the reason so much Ranma fanfic fails (and why there’s so much hatred for various chars, and division over who the hatred should apply to). So much of Ranma 1/2 leaves the audience going “but, _obviously_ X is true and Y is false”, yet careful examination of the series shows that Takahashi used two primary factors to build the series: 1) playing everything straight and taking it seriously, no matter how odd/crazy it seems compared with the real world, and 2) careful manipulation of timing and events, so that (almost) every character actually has valid reasons for what they think happened, because they only saw part of it (and add that to the ongoing history of what they’ve previously seen). It’s actually really impressive just how convoluted some of the sequences get, with both timing and observation being limited for each character, and how some of those build off of eachother like dominoes, to lead to a later character having a totally different view of what happened than what the audience saw actually happened, yet it is _not_ simply “because the character is crazy” or “because the character is jumping to blatantly wrong conclusions”.

    Also, on an unrelated note, I’m now wondering if Kayaba’s plan in Waking was at least partly to get an army of half-ascended. Specifically to have sufficient massed power to counter the local-ish full-ascended who might not like human ascended not following the silly non-interference rules…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Waking may be taking place before a lot of the canon Ascension storylines. IIRC, the next episode is the one where the Ascended guy shows up at Sam’s house.

      It’s not clear that Kayaba knows about Ascension, or the status among the ascended powers.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. That and not everyone reacts the same way to what they do know due to their own views. Reading movie and book reviews have been eye opening for that, because we do know that everyone saw the same thing…and yet look at how differently everyone reacts.

    And honestly, most of the time, culture does determine what you pay attention to when you’re stressed, at least in my experience. People used to violence tend to look for signs of that, people used to other things can miss them completely until things completely break out.

    Liked by 1 person

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