There’s a concept in stories, the unreliable narrator, where the main character is so convinced of something that his beliefs color his every word and thought and action, even though we the readers know otherwise (Humbert Humbert in Lolita is a great example of this). Or sometimes, we the readers don’t know it until an outside event opens our eyes.
It’s not that the characters are lying, necessarily. Teenagers always think they’re persecuted and misunderstood, but most people realize the melodramatics are overblown by the time they reach 25-30. In my Lone Wolf novel, the main character Andrew sees himself as a martyr, as always doing the right thing and being punished for it. The reader, I think, can see right through it, but that doesn’t make him less of a person. The female MC, Kasey, is also a bit of an unreliable narrator, although with her it’s more subtle.
It can be more blatent. One of my students told me today that he went by an Army recruitment office yesterday, and that if he signs up (he’ll be 18 in a few months) they’ll pay to send him to Missouri for training. Yesterday he had a story about missing a job interview at McDonald’s. He went by and talked to a major factory employer who offered him a job. His uncle is a millionaire. The list goes on. We both know that he’s exaggerating or outright lying, but it’s who he is – he wants to impress everyone, so he makes up stories.
A friend of mine is the same. He tells outrageous stories that I know didn’t happen. But he’s told them so many times, to so many people, that he now believes they’re true. To him, now, they did happen.
Our perceptions color so much of how we experience life, how we process our thoughts. I think the key to building great characters is to give them that lens that colors their world, and then let the readers decide if their POV is justified.
PS: My muse went AWOL last night. I think I know why and I’m hoping it’s just temporary (it usually is), but if not, if you see my muse tell ’em to come back. I’m a little directionless without it and with NaNoWriMo starting in a few weeks, I need all the help I can get. Stupid fickle inspiration.