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Relying on the Reliable Narrator

by Christine Sunderland

World War I (“the war to end all wars”), begun a century ago, seeded an era of cynicism, doubt that “civilization” was possible, that the savage beast could be tamed. England lost one third of their best and brightest young men. Despair and disbelief filled those who were left, a despair reflected in the arts and letters of the 1920’s and into the present day.

After this bloody and horrific war, a thread began to unravel our confidence in authority. It was a watershed time in our history, and the thread unwound many beliefs – in religion, in art, in man’s ability to order his world around him in a civil manner, to create a good civilization. Relativity seeped into science, philosophy, and religion. Deconstructionism reduced art and literature to personal interpretation. All effort revolved around the self, the feelings, the needy needs of the individual both as reader and as writer, as patron and as painter, for who could we trust but our own self? In short we embraced the bestial over the celestial, and the law of the jungle – me first, save yourself – replaced the law of sacrifice and code of honor. Our carefully-cared-for garden of civilization became overgrown with brambles.
Magdalene Mystery
In fiction, this unsettled, troubled mood was, and is, often seen in the creation of the unreliable narrator. But when I read fiction, I want to rely on the narrator. I want him or her to tell me a story, a story I can believe in, at least for a while. I don’t want to wonder if he means what he says or if she might just be simply expressing her personality. I want the author to speak with authority, the narrator to narrate the truth.

One way to do this is for the author/narrator to use the traditional, past tense, regardless of point-of-view. Writing in the present tense is in fashion today, although I’m not sure why some editors prefer this. Perhaps it is the belief that immediacy trumps reliability, that the author sees herself as a painter of the present rather than a painter of the past; perhaps it is the natural child of stream-of-consciousness or the cousin of in medias res. “She hears the doorbell ring and answers the door.” I prefer, “She heard the doorbell ring and answered the door.” The first leaves me immobile, anxious, pulled into the moment to be sure, but somehow stuck like a deer in the headlights; it does not move me forward. The second leaves me wanting to know what happened next, trusting I will find answers to the questions posed and that disorienting setups will be paid off. The rhythm of the past tense is the rhythm of history, sure and final; I trust it; I feel secure.

Maybe some editors like the present tense because it is new, edgy, quirky. For, after all, part of the rebellion against authority is the embracing of change for its own sake, like a child who screams for attention. And often, new/edgy/quirky need not have depth of content or character. It is experimental, experiential, of the moment, a quick fix. But quick fixes form addicts; they drug the mind, crippling it through lack of exercise. They shorten attention spans so that novelists must produce fast vivid sound bites. But novelists are not in the ad business.

As a Christian novelist, I try to write with a tone of trusted authority, developing thoughtful themes that follow natural paths to satisfying conclusions. I want my readers to find it easy to believe Kelly Roberts in her quest in The Magdalene Mystery and to follow Meredith Campbell in her journey in Hana-lani. I want my readers to hear the beat of their hearts but also walk alongside Kelly and Meredith as they reason with their minds.

My reliable narrator creates a reliable universe in which my characters face life’s challenges of both body and mind. Such reliability was the Creator’s intention before Adam and Eve fell from Grace. When Christians tell stories, we want those stories to reflect the orderliness of God, the sanity of our Creator’s love. We want to re-connect the dots.

We must fill the void left by unbelief, despair, and angst, with the reliable, loving, words of truth about man and God. We must rebuild houses of belief, room by room, creating orderly worlds in which we tell the story of redemption through the lives of our characters. We must re-civilize our civilization.

For the God of both Christians and the Children of Israel was and is and ever shall be the most reliable narrator of all. We must step into his story of reasonable, sacrificial love and tell it again and again, mapping the world’s way to the sanity – and peace – of heaven. There shall always be wars and rumors of wars, but our destination is a good and happy one, where God shall wipe away all tears from our eyes.

Christine SunderlandChristine Sunderland is author of five award-winning novels: Pilgrimage, set in Italy, Offerings, set in France, Inheritance, set England, Hana-lani, set in Hawaii, and The Magdalene Mystery, a quest for the true Mary Magdalene, set in Rome and Provence (all OakTara). Her novel-in-progress, The Fire Trail, about the coarsening of our culture, is set in Berkeley, California. She serves as Managing Editor for the American Church Union. Visit Christine at www.ChristineSunderland.com (website and blog) or on Fiction Finder.

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6 Responses to Relying on the Reliable Narrator

  1. Great article. I had the privilege of interviewing Christine and reviewing The Magdalene Mystery (as well as her earlier novels) on my blog. It’s an excellent read by an excellent author. The depth of thought in this article reflects the depth with which she writes her stories. Good to see her featured here.

  2. Susan says:

    I enjoyed this article very much, Christine. You share some wonderful insights. I must admit never having heard of reliable or unreliable narrators! However, it has caused me to ponder a bit my own love of creating alternate worlds. In doing so, I am the most reliable of narrators, because the world I’m writing is my own creation. There is no need to deal with the relativism or unreliability of the current view of reality. Maybe that is one reason why fantasy (or “faerie” as J.R.R. Tolkien called it) lends itself so well to encouraging spiritual growth.

  3. I love this! I just changed an entire novel from present tense to past tense for this very reason. Thank you for articulating the whys so beautifully!

  4. Thanks, Bruce, for all your support and encouragement!

    Susan, your narrators are always reliable I have found, for you use classic storytelling style, resembling myth and legend (as did Tolkien). It is this sense of telling the story (“let me tell you a story…”), telling what happened (not what is happening), that piques the reader’s interest. Omniscient point of view naturally lends itself to reliability as well. First person and third person can be trustworthy or not.

    And Melinda, thanks for your comment – it is a factor to consider in the scope of each work and I wish you the best in your writing!

  5. Mary Lewis Johnson says:

    Dear Christine,

    I have been thoroughly enjoying your books and so looking forward to your newest one, I cant’ wait. They are so informative and exciting to read, which shows in the already receieved replies. I’m excited to meet you some day. From your writings, you must be a wonderful Chrsitian woman with a lot of insight.

    With love,
    Mary Lewis Johnson

  6. Thanks so much Mary! I hope one day our paths will cross… I would love to meet you too one day! You have been most encouraging with your supportive comments. Blessings to you,
    Christine