Friday, December 6, 2013

Characters Who Lie

Today we welcome author L. J. Sellers as our guest.

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?  

L.J. Sellers writes the bestselling Detective Jackson mystery series—a two-time Readers Favorite Award winner—as well as provocative standalone thrillers. Her novels have been highly praised by reviewers, and her Jackson books are the highest-rated crime fiction on Amazon. L.J. resides in Eugene, Oregon where most of her novels are set and is an award-winning journalist who earned the Grand Neal. When not plotting murders, she enjoys standup comedy, cycling, social networking, and attending mystery conferences. She’s also been known to jump out of airplanes.
You can keep up with L. J. at one of the following places:


Michael W. Sherer said...

Unreliable characters, unless handled extremely well, cheat the reader, in my opinion. Flynn did it brilliantly in Gone Girl, and while I usually don't care to read about unlikeable characters, Flynn set me up so nicely that I was too deeply hooked by the time I realized how despicable both the main characters are.

A character like Dallas, though, is a delight to read because we know where her loyalties lie despite her deception. I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of The Trigger, and can say with certainty that you have a winning series on your hands, LJ.

Gayle Carline said...

I like to tease people sometimes, with gentle fibs - no horrible lies and I always confess the truth. (E.G. I led a friend to believe the plastic jumping fish in a pond at Disneyland were real trained fish.) So the unreliable narrator works for me.

The unlikeable protagonist, I'm still on the fence about. My buddy Jenny Hilborne writes female characters that I don't exactly love. They make choices I wouldn't. And yet, she has a way of making me care about them and want to keep them from getting harmed. I think there has to be some spark of empathy or sympathy to keep me reading.

Peg Brantley said...

I'm not sure how I feel about unreliable narrators. Unless done exceedingly well, it feels like it could be a cheap way of providing a twist or surprise.

Characters who lie for a good cause may still have an underlying morality that could become a very interesting conflict.

If a protagonist is unlikeable or unrelatable to me, I'm very likely to put the book down and move on. Why spend time with someone I don't enjoy?

Anonymous said...

We all lie to ourselves at times, and that's a theme that's playing into my story right now. And how much we have invested in making others believe our lies. It's all very fascinating. Good post, LJ.

Jodie Renner said...

I don't warm up to unlikeable protagonists as I want to identify with and bond with the protagonist, but I do like unreliable narrators, in the hands of a skilled writer.

And I love Agent Jamie Dallas! She's gutsy, smart and savvy, with lots of life experiences to bring to the table. And she has a good reason to pretend and deceive. She does her research into the character type she's impersonating and pulls it off so well! And of course our worry about her getting caught adds to the suspense!

Teresa Burrell, Author, Attorney, Advocate said...

I have a very difficult time writing an unlikable protagonist. I've often thought about trying it, but can't seem to get there. Maybe one day.

Thought provoking post, LJ. Thanks.

L.J. Sellers said...

Thanks, Criminal Minds, for hosting me. And thanks, dear friends, for stopping in. I'm very excited about this character and series. And nervous too. We'll see what readers think.

Sheila Lowe said...

I don't like people lying to me, and that includes the narrator. If I feel I've been tricked, I'm unlikely to read that author again.
As for Gone Girl, I looked at the huge number of reviews and scanned some of the 1 and 2 star, which specifically talked about the unlikable characters and what they saw as a ridiculous ending. I didn't buy the book.
But having recently read The Sex Club, I will certainly buy your book, LJ :-)

Sheila Lowe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Thanks so much for dropping by Criminal Minds, LJ! Like you, I have to like the protagonist, or at least find him/her redeemable in some manner.

Meredith Cole said...

Thanks for being our guest at Criminal Minds, L.J.! Great topic. I admit to being a little disappointed when I'm "fooled" by an unreliable narrator... Perhaps this trend too will pass?

Unknown said...

It's alright for characters - be they protagonists or villains to lie through their teeth to one another. And a narrator can also be creative with the truth or unreliable. But you are all right that a writer who breaks the bond of trust between the readers is one risking losing their respect and loyalty. A writer can mislead or trick readers, but they can't outright lie. Great post!

Barry Knister said...

Lying to readers is a no-no, or should be, I think. But this applies to first-person narrators. What every mystery writer relies on is not lying so much as "sins of omission." Information is withheld in the interests of generating suspense--until revealing it will produce the best result. Is this lying? No, just timing.

Susan C Shea said...

LJ, I missed this Friday, my apologies. Your new series sounds like great fun to write and a real winner for readers! Finding Jamie Dallas is on my priority list for sure.