Saturday, November 19, 2011

Why I Love Unreliable Narrators by Rebecca Johns

As a reader, and most especially as a writer, I like to be surprised by characters. If I know for certain who someone is at the beginning of a story, and then they don’t challenge me to rethink those assumptions, then I’m disappointed. I want characters to startle, to change and shift in my perceptions of them, which is why I love unreliable characters, and most especially unreliable narrators, and why I chose an unreliable narrator for my latest book, The Countess: A Novel of Elizabeth Báthory.

Character is always paramount to me when I’m mulling the decision to start a new story, especially a new novel. My first book, Icebergs, was about nice people trying to get by in some not-so-nice circumstances, and after spending three long, exhausting years with them, I was aching for the chance to write about some not-so-nice people for a change.  Bad people doing bad things makes for good fiction. One of my favorite books is Lolita, precisely because it demands a lot from a reader. Just when you think you’ve got Humbert Humbert figured out, he manages to surprise you, even move you. The end of that book is one of the saddest, most pathetic (in the classical sense of the word) endings I’ve ever read. His life, and the lives of all he touches, are in ruins, and yet he’s able to accept his own responsibility for causing that ruin, and to recognize that everything he’s said until that point is merely self-justification. He is a slave to his passions—he can’t be trusted—and yet he is as much his own victim as Lolita is, as Clare Quilty is. Even now I can’t stop thinking about that book. Every time I read it, it brings me to tears.

So in the fall of 2008, when I first came across the story of Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Báthory—one of the most notorious serial killers in history—I was intrigued. All the books about her I’d been able to find were third person, with someone else telling her tale for her, a classic example of history being written by the victors. When I read about her legend, and how it had expanded during the Victorian era to include the outrageous idea that she must have bathed in the blood of her victims to preserve her youth and beauty, I was hooked. She’s supposedly this human vampire, and yet she was fluent in four languages and a capable businesswoman, a loving mother, very well educated for her time. So how could she be both—a loving mother and a psychopath? How could someone lavish love on her children while justifying the murder of dozens of servant girls?
So when I started the book, it was with this question in mind: Is it a lie if you believe it?

The best liars are people who believe, really believe, what they’re telling you. Sympathy for the narrator of The Countess was a deliberate choice—not because I believe her when she says she’s innocent, but because I want the reader to want to believe her, if that makes sense.  For most of us murder is so foreign to our understanding of ourselves—something we can’t imagine ourselves actually committing—that I think it’s only natural to place murderers in a category as people completely separate from ourselves.  In this book I wanted the reader to get uncomfortably close to her view of the world, see things through her eyes, but who’s going to do that if they don’t like her, at least a little bit?  She starts off in the novel telling us about her childhood, and it’s hard not to sympathize with a child.  But as the story goes on, that sympathy starts to erode.  It’s a little bit like sitting next to someone on an airplane as he tells you his life story, and little by little you realize he’s completely nuts.  You don’t start out wanting to dislike him, but that’s where you end up.

Was she a psychopath? Yes, I think so, in the truly psychological sense. I think she was capable of great violence, and of viewing people, especially servants, as possessions, which then would give her the ability to look on their suffering as insignificant. When the tables are turned on her, of course, she demands our compassion and is surprised when we find it difficult to give. But she doesn’t look at herself as a liar or a murderer, because she doesn’t believe, even at the end, that she’s done anything truly wrong. That’s the greatest tragedy of all. Almost everything she’s lost, she owes to her own failures as a human being. Like Humbert Humbert, Báthory has two kinds of victims—her servants, and herself.

Rebecca Johns's first novel, Icebergs, was a finalist for the 2007 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for first fiction and a recipient of the Michener-Copernicus Award. Her second, The Countess—a fictionalization of the life of Elizabeth Bathory, the “Blood Countess”—was published in October 2010 from Crown Books. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, the Harvard Review, the Mississippi Review, the Chicago Tribune, Cosmopolitan, Mademoiselle, Ladies' Home Journal, Self, and Seventeen, among others. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the Missouri School of Journalism, she teaches in the English Department at DePaul University in Chicago.

To learn more about Rebecca, you can visit her website:


  1. thanks to debra marvin for sending me over here today via twitter. i had just posted on A Good Kind of Reader Manipulation and Rebecca's post totally relates.

    on a side note, i think it's fascinating that you chose to write about the blood countess. from the info on your blog, you seem to recount a very different motivation for the acts attributed to her (gaining the love of her husband). just b/c i'm curious, did you find some personal correspondence that would corroborate that interpretation? i'd be very interested in reviewing this book at some point in the future!

    the character therapist

  2. I love novels that aren't just another boring rehash. I've seen references to your novel before and it is definitely going on my Christmas wish list.

  3. Rebecca did a great job of developing Erzsébet's personality. She starts off so tarnished. The "you suffer too little" comment still sticks with me LONG after I've finished the book.
    The book allowed me to see what she would have been like. It was within her "rights" to do those things. She was being framed. And she presents a great alibi. I definitely loved her presentation of herself.

  4. Thank you, ladies--it's always nice to know there are such thoughtful readers out there!

    And Jeanie--the book I found the most helpful was Tony Thorne's Countess Dracula. It did include some translated correspondence that I hadn't seen elsewhere, a few things that really helped me develop her voice. Kimberly Craft has since translated a bunch of Bathory's personal correspondence, but it wasn't yet available when I was researching the novel. I also liked Katalin Peter's Beloved Children, which did a LOT to help inform the sense of family dynamics and politics of the time period.

    I did have to take something of a creative leap with the countess's motivations. It seems from the formality of her correspondence with her husband that they were not terribly warm toward each other. There's a lot of formality there, where other couples of that time period would have been more loving. But it followed, at least to me, that if she felt the servant girls were taking away her husband's affections that she would take out her frustration on them.

    And I'd love to see your take on the book. Thanks for your interest!