The central character of Shift – Olive Corbett – is a deeply flawed character in many ways. What are the advantages and limitations of using an unreliable narrator?
It could probably be argued that all narrators are unreliable. After all, if we only hear the story from a single perspective how can we be sure that their personal biases aren’t shaping and skewing the details? It's easy to forget this when we read a novel though – the narrative voice has such authority that it’s tempting to believe everything it tells us. As an author it’s fun to play with this trust - because it can create such a surprising and unsettling effect when its revealed that the narrator is either lying or not telling the whole story. The danger of doing this of course is that you end up annoying the audience and turning it against the narrator. It's a fine balance.
The narrator of Shift – Olive Corbett – is pretty upfront about being a hit-and-miss witness of the things going on around her. She’s so battered by recent events in her life that she no longer trusts her instincts. This is why her friendship with Ami is so important. Ami acts as a sounding-board for Olive's thoughts and concerns – helping her distinguish what is true from what is pure paranoia. It's Ami, for instance, who insists that hot-guy Lachlan genuinely likes Olive when Olive suspects that his attentions are just a cruel joke. And it's Ami who finally persuades Olive that she should trust her gut about the creepy new girl, Miranda. That as crazy as it seems, Miranda is a parasitic shape-shifter who latches onto then drains the life from one victim after another. Ami's support of Olive's perspective lends weight to Olive's viewpoint. But when Ami's own credibility dissolves we're left doubting the veracity of anything Olive says or thinks.
The idea for Olive's character came after I overheard a woman telling a friend that at high school she was an 'alternative princess'. I liked the mental image this phrase conjured up – I imagined a sort of ‘anti-queen’ - and it made me wonder what such a character would be like and how she might have become this way. Olive – who is my take on an 'alternative princess' was a lot peppier in early drafts – probably because of my familiarity with writing for younger readers. As I redrafted however, she grew darker. She developed more depth, became more nuanced… and more unreliable. I was initially concerned that Olive might end up being an unlikeable character – especially when what she's been holding back is revealed – but I think (hope!) that her ability to laugh at herself makes her someone the audience can empathise with. By the end of Shift Olive starts to trust herself again and therefore hopefully regain the readers’ trust too.
Thanks Em! I loved having Olive narrate the story, and while I wasn't sure whether to believe her at times, I believed that she believed what she was telling us. And that made for very interesting reading!
The next stop on the blog tour is tomorrow over at Pen To Paper.