Monday, December 23, 2013

Liar, Liar: Deceptive Characters Can Be Fun

by L.J. Sellers, author of provocative mysteries & thrillers (reprinted from an earlier post at Criminal Minds)

Every once in a while, a crime fiction book goes viral and crosses over into mainstream reading, selling millions of copies. Last year it was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. A well-known reviewer claimed that “part of its success, I believe, is this current vogue for the unreliable narrator and also the unlikable protagonist. This book has both these factors in spades.”

Those features typically are more common in mainstream fiction than in mysteries and thrillers, but the trend is growing in crime fiction too, and readers are often divided on whether it works for them.

As a reader, I don’t connect well with unlikable main characters, but I can occasionally enjoy unreliable narrators because they add uncertainty, creepiness, and distrust to whole the story. Yet as a writer, I haven’t tried that structure and maybe never will. My connection with readers feels too important to abuse. And by nature, I’m painfully honest. So the idea of lying—directly—to my readers is foreign to me.

However, I’ve recently discovered that I love writing from the perspective of a protagonist who practices deception with others in the story. When I was researching Crimes of Memory, my eighth Detective Jackson story, an FBI agent I interviewed mentioned a real case involving the eco-terrorist group Earth Liberation Front and how the bureau used an undercover agent to break the case and arrest nearly all the members.

I knew immediately I needed to add that element to my story for realism. So I created Agent Jamie Dallas, a young woman who specializes in undercover work—and has to lie, cheat, steal files, seduce targets, and put on performances to accomplish her goals. Once I got inside her head and wrote her part, I had so much fun, I knew she had to have her own series.

The Trigger, launching January 1, is the first book featuring Agent Dallas as the main character. But even though she lies to, and spies on, the people in the prepper community she infiltrates, she doesn’t lie to readers. She doesn’t hold back either. She’s not only reliable, she kicks ass on occasion too. All of it, deception included, is for the sake and safety of her country, but Dallas loves her work in a special way.

Readers who recently encountered the agent in Crimes of Memory say Dallas stole the show. So it’s fair to say she’s likable, even though she’s a chameleon on the job. But you can decide for yourself.

If you buy a copy on January 1 and forward the Amazon receipt to, you’ll be entered to win a trip to Left Coast Crime 2015. Even if you miss the grand prize, I’m giving away ten $50 gift certificates too. And to celebrate the new series, the ebook will be priced at $.99 on launch day. You can see more details at my website. (

What about you? Do you like unreliable narrators? What about characters who lie for a good cause?

1 comment:

  1. First of all, of course, good luck - a great way to start the new year.
    Regarding unreliable narrators: The most famous protagonist, in arguably the best American novel, was an unreliable narrator: Huckleberry Finn. Henry James's The Turn of the Screw also relies on the unreliable narrator.

    In fact, an argument could be made that the most famous detective is presented through an unreliable narrator: Watson withholds information not only about Holmes and the case, but more importantly about himself.

    We might go further and say that, of necessity, every first person narrator is unreliable, because he or she knows more than is being told - significantly more. But put that aside. (I'll save it for a literary journal, if I ever write another critical essay.)

    Unreliable narrators and unlikeable protagonists are not identical. It may be that unlikeable protagonists (Is Holden Caulfield one?) have to be reliable narrators; otherwise we may have narrative quicksand.

    Unreliable narrators come in a variety of flavors. (Is the narrator of Christie's Roger Ackroyd unreliable?) My point is that an unreliable narrator need not add "creepiness" or "distrust." Satire, especially the picaresque, will often have an unreliable narrator (a fool who doesn't see himself as such - the fools are almost always male), and that's the point.

    I agree with you; I don't like unlikeable main characters. There are enough unlikeable people in life. That doesn't mean a main character doesn't have some unlikeable traits or habits. His or her basic goodness outbalances it, though.

    As far as characters who lie for a good cause - don't they all?

    Looking forward to your new novel.