Going Off the Rails: Irrational Actors

I’m dealing with several irrational actors in my writing, so I thought that I’d take today to talk about these difficult characters. I’ve always been something of a fan of the unreliable narrator (assuming it’s done well), especially when the reveal at the end of the story shows us a whole new way to look at the story. It’s very tricky to pull off, though, and honestly I’m not sure if I’m ready to do it, though I do see myself edging closer to it.

The narrator of Entanglements, at least in the journal segments, is not a unreliable narrator, but she is an irrational actor. Where Matty was very down-to-earth and able to cut through a situation very clearly, Carla, the “main” protagonist of Entanglements, is not. She’s highly driven by her emotions. For instance, she struggles with a food addiction that drives her to make some irrational decisions early on and becomes important later in the book. For her, that addiction is a manifestation of a need to be loved. She’s had obstacles to being loved all her life – her father was distant and critical, her mother was also critical – so when she stumbles across real love, she has difficulty first even identifying it, then embracing it. Especially since she’s in a hostage situation, which makes things a lot more complicated. It drives a lot of the internal conflict of the book, especially in the later stages, when her prospective lover disappears for a time.

So what makes a good irrational character, and can you have an irrational protagonist acting of their own volition, driving a story?

Well, the answer to the last is a resounding yes. The story will be a little more…for lack of a better word, “jittery”. You don’t get to see as much of that out of Carla until the end, when she makes some rash judgments that might not be the best idea in that moment, but that’s sort of a function of being a captive. But that’s what happens when an irrational character is in the driving seat – sometimes you’re not quite sure what’s coming around the next corner. Of course with her being constrained, there isn’t a whole lot of room to explore that beyond her interactions with characters. Now that I think about that, there are some opportunities for that to shine through, just not in an overt physical form.

As for the former, the question of what makes a good irrational character…well, how do you create an irrational character without a story falling apart? I think the answer is internal consistency for the character. This means that even if they make a rash decision that changes the face of the story itself, that rash decision is internally consistent with the character’s emotional values, motivations, and back story as established within the story.

For example, Carla makes a decision to eat something that could well have meant her death based on her emotional vulnerabilities and background. She doesn’t realize until much later that she could have died there – they could have tricked her, and it wouldn’t have been out of character for them to do so, given that they just beat her.

This is where I get into something that I talk about with my fellow writers: I think we kind of have to be armchair psychologists. I know that I personally spend a lot of time picking through motivations and unseen causes for behavior in both day-to-day life and in books. Having undergone a good deal of introspection into my own internal vulnerabilities and drives, I think I’ve learned to better recognize what’s happening in someone else and be sympathetic to it.

That’s also important when presenting an irrational protagonist: you have to be sympathetic to their weaknesses. You’re creating a human being, not some sort of cardboard cutout or superman. Those weaknesses are going to inform your story. For instance, Carla is obviously overweight because of her food addiction. It would be easy to play it up for laughs, but I think it’s more important to be sympathetic and both understand her emotional issues and present them in a light that touches the reader. Hell, those issues can drive the story itself, too.

I suspect this has to do with my problem with building an unreliable narrator. I can understand and empathize, but my biggest problem is trying to make an unreliable narrator through the story itself. How do you make a reader identify with someone who’s lying to them? It’s something I haven’t quite worked out. I do think I’ll examine it sometime in the future, but I’m nowhere close to writing a work with an unreliable narrator.

Tomorrow, I want to examine framing stories, as they’re becoming more and more important to me. Something to look forward to!

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