From Lemony Snicket to Agatha Christie

Rosalie Chan
Jun 12, 2017 · 5 min read

“It is very useful, when one is young, to learn the difference between ‘literally’ and figuratively.’ If something happens literally, it actually happens; if something happens figuratively, it feels like it’s happening. If you are literally jumping for joy, for instance, it means you are leaping in the air because you are very happy. If you are figuratively jumping for joy, it means you are so happy that you could jump for joy, but you are saving your energy for other matters.”

This passage comes from Lemony Snicket’s The Bad Beginning, the first book of A Series of Unfortunate Events, a series that had a major influence on my life, partly because of the dark sense of humor and partly because of all the words these books taught me, especially “literally.”

I became a huge fan of Snicket’s voice, and I started narrating my life in my head in a similar fashion. “She scrunched her nose after drinking a can of pop that was especially effervescent, a word here means giving off bubbles, or fizzy,” I thought when I was drinking a can of Sprite shortly after learning the word “effervescent,” a pretentious-sounding word that I almost never use. Or, “After running a mile in P.E. class, she felt like she was dying. She was only figuratively dying, as she was only exhausted from running and struggling to catch her breath, but after some rest, she will be fine. But she is also literally dying, as we are all moving closer to our deaths every moment.” You get the point.

An omniscient narrator can be just as important as the characters in a book, movie or TV series. In A Series of Unfortunate Events, Snicket is indirectly involved in the lives of the main characters, the Baudelaire orphans, constantly reminding us that it’s his “solemn duty” to record the events of their lives. He frequently explains words, phrases and literary devices and often foreshadows future events. For example, when he introduces the oldest girl, Violet, in The Bad Beginning, he frequently references the fact that he is right-handed. Take note, because that is important later in the book. He even talks about his personal life, such as his love for Beatrice, the mother of the Baudelaires. His cynical and satirical voice makes A Series of Unfortunate Events impossible to slam shut, even though he constantly tells you to put the book down now.

I picture Snicket’s voice in my head when I have to deal with mildly unfortunate situations. I over-explain the situation to myself in my head, mentally defining words and describing any person I run into. This voice adds humor, and even when bad things happen, I can find the irony and silver lining of the situation. I hope my life is never as unfortunate as the Baudelaire orphans, but the omniscient narrator with a wicked dark sense of humor helps me deal with the absurd events in my life.

The Latin Lover narrator in “Jane the Virgin” is another narrator who I’ve wished could narrate my life. He adds commentary that makes the series almost impossible not to binge-watch. My life is nowhere near as dramatic as Jane’s. My love life is either pretty stable or nonexistent, and as far as I know, I’m not connected to any murders or drug lords in any way.

Based on a telenovela, “Jane the Virgin” imitates the soap opera of the drama that comes with love, murder and passion, but the narrator brings a lot of humor to the show. Even though we never actually see him, he is likely the sexiest person in the series. Keeping track of who’s dating who, who broke up with who, who murdered who can be pretty complicated, but fortunately, the narrator helps us catch up in the recap. He explains each character and what connection he has to others on the show. He’s like the friend who knows all the secrets, like Gretchen Weiner who has secrets up her hair.

This type of voice is best when there’s tons of drama and lots of characters involved. It’s like listening to the wild dating lives of people around you and trying to keep track of them, pretending to sympathize with your friends when they breakup with their partners but secretly relishing in listening to all the gossip and venting. This narrator knows exactly where the connections are and which thread goes to which pin on the map. What’s more, this narrator can read minds, a telepathic gift that I could only have in my wildest dreams.

There’s a third type of narrator, the one I hope to never have. It’s the unreliable narrator, one whose credibility has been seriously compromised. The narrator may be lying to you, may be delusional, or completely twist the ending. When that twist happens, it’s like having a carpet pulled under you. You fall to the ground and see the room from a new perspective, and as you look up to the ceiling, you wonder, What just happened? You have to rethink about your point of view and look for clues in the story about what really happened.

Agatha Christie uses the unreliable narrator in some of her novels, although for the sake of not spoiling her mysteries, I’m not going to name which ones. Gone Girl is another recent example, where the actions of Amy, the supposedly dead wife, has spawned think pieces about whether Gone Girl is a feminist or misogynist statement.

According to author William Riggan, there are five types of unreliable narrators. There’s the pícaros, who are unreliable because of how they exaggerate facts and brag about the events of their lives. There’s the madman, who may suffer from severe mental illness or suffer from the effects of trauma. Then there’s the clown, who you can’t take seriously, and the naïf, who is immature and naive and doesn’t fully understand the ways of the world. Finally, there’s the liar, who purposely misleads you and distorts information.

I hope to never be an unreliable narrator. But even I fall short of being a reliable narrator for my own life. I make up scenarios in my head for what could have happened instead of that awkward interaction I had with an acquaintance today. I giggle at the most mundane sentences. And I lie to myself, telling myself that I’ll be OK, that I made the right choice — or that I didn’t.

Our memories are shaped by how we frame them. We remember certain images, and forget others. We agonize over the most embarrassing situations, rewinding them in our heads over and over again. When we laugh with friends or fall in love, these memories glow in our minds. We narrate and frame our own stories in our head. Sometimes we’re cynical, sometimes we’re dramatic, and sometimes we’re unreliable. For different moments in my life, I will play a different narrator’s voice in my head. Perhaps I’ll be entangled in a telenovela-like romantic knot this year and play up the dramatic narration, but for now, I’m going to save my energy for other matters.


Rosalie Chan is a writer and software engineer. Her work has appeared in TIME, Inverse, Racked, Narratively and more.

The Awl

Be less stupid.

Rosalie Chan

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writer/engineer/cat person. subscribe to my newsletter highlighting stories by WOC: http://tinyletter.com/truecolors or https://medium.com/true-colors

The Awl

The Awl

Be less stupid.

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