Is that Dog a Gator or a Catfish?

dad on the dock after a hurricane
dad on the dock after a hurricane

“Look,” Dad says. “I got the gator.”

I am six. I look out into the lake and see the alligator gliding its way toward the dock. Dad keeps reeling in his line. “We’ll cut off its tail and paint it. You can take to school as a dog.”

“Dad, stop.” I tug on his arm. “Daddy.”

The gator keeps coming in and dad laughs. “No one will bother you if you bring a gator to school.”

What I don’t know is that dad has caught a catfish and the gator is following the fish as dad reels it in. I think he is really going to pull that gator on the dock. “Stop it!” I jump up and down. “I don’t want to take a gator to school!”

“But you’ll be the only kid with a gator.”

I take one more where the fishing line disappears into the water, turn around, and run. I’m still wearing my Catholic school uniform and the sun is setting. The lake is orange, red, and pink in the distance but brown around the dock.

My foot catches between two slats. I fall into the lake. The water is warm and the sand slick. But I am up. The water level isn’t high and I scrap my arms and legs on the dock’s edge.

For years my dad thinks it’s a good idea to take a gator to school as a dog.

In fiction, I like to have characters in a scene believe different things are going on. That isn’t to say I pull that off, mind you, but it’s a goal. Sometimes it’s hard to know how much the reader should know. The reader may be pulled more into the story by believing what a particular character believes. Or perhaps the reader will keep turning pages for the conflict they see between two points-of-view. Which do you prefer? How can you do decide?

6 thoughts on “Is that Dog a Gator or a Catfish?

  1. I’m suddenly picturing something like this. Probably not, eh?

    Tricking the reader (not that you called it that) doesn’t feel like good clean fun to me — maybe I just know too many sensitive readers, who wouldn’t appreciate my cleverness. But it works if done well. If you’re writing in 3rd-person omniscient, failing to tell the reader something which is The Key to understanding a really big plot point is just flat-out manipulative — crosses the line from tricking to cheating. BUT if you’ve instead adopted a limited POV, say through the eyes of a character who couldn’t possibly be expected to know everything, it can work really well. (At least, I hope so. :))

  2. I’m dense. I go completely into the POV character and believe every mistake she makes. That’s why I love The Great Gatsby. It’s the first book where I realized how beautiful an unreliable narrative can be, even though I still had to have it explained to me. 🙂 Now I’m worried that my POV density made you question things you shouldn’t have questioned in your ms. If so, sorry.

  3. The value of an unreliable narrator or faulty character pov cannot be underestimated. But it needs to be done carefully lest the reader feel hoodwinked. That generally pissed them off, lol.

  4. You know, I like the unreliable narrator. And I like when different characters have different frames of reference and different perspective and different goals and different understandings. Isn’t that where tension happens?

  5. Going completely simplistic here: I like reading books whose characters have different life interpretations going on inside their heads. It reminds me of the Choose Your Own Adventure books in a way. should I believe this character is more perceptive and accurate or this one? If I go with character A, then what does that mean for the rest of the cast and the plot. I’m reading a book right now with three different main characters and the author gives each one a chapter or two at a time to tell of their lives and then switches to another main character. I love that stuff. These types of stories feel more complete to me.

    Your dad and the alligator? If I’d written a fictional tale like that, the little girl would have tripped, then sped off without looking back, hearing the gnashing of teeth as the gator exploded through the water and snapped the dad’s fishing pole off 6″ from the father’s hand. Dad wouldn’t have been hurt per se, but he would have been put in his place enough to never make jokes about Take a Gator to School Day. 😉

  6. JES, I oh WISH I could show my dad that picture. But anyway, I would never want to hoodwink my reader in a bad way. I hate that feeling of being duped by an author. All the same, you’ve got to consider tension and surprise–which does require a certain amount of hoodwinking, I suppose. Perhaps it is a matter of intent and my attitude towards the reader. Whatever you do, you ought to respect your reader–then no one need feel conned.

    Sherri, you didn’t make any comment that made me worry unnecessarily. These are things I worry about no matter what. Your comments were helpful and clarified a few plot points for me.

    writtenwryrdd, I don’t think I could pull of the unreliable narrator. I mean, perhaps my narrators aren’t reliable because I don’t know what I’m doing, but they are reliable in that I trust them to tell the story.

    rowena, that is exactly where tension happens!

    sophie, Oh, I used to like those choose your adventure stories! And knowing my dad, he would’ve been unfazed at an alligator anywhere.

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