- T. Marshall Bunn
Once Upon a Time, Not So Long Ago
One thing about the protagonist of Young Blood, Ray Young, is that he’s what’s known as an unreliable narrator. While there is a great deal of myself in Ray — and, to some extent, all of my characters — he’s definitely not the real me. I’ve described him as a smaller, less enlightened version of myself, someone I might have become had circumstances been different.
For example, his parents — who don’t properly show up on the page until Part Four, a deliberate choice — are not my real life parents. My mother and father were rather conservative and in a lot of ways controlling and overprotective. There was never any real abuse, but I did rebel against them quite a bit as I grew up, including forming my own worldview that was often contrary to theirs. None of this is unusual. But when I began writing as an adult, I knew that there was no way that Ray, Susanna, and Carolyn would be able to get up to the things they do with ever-present parents like my own. Instead, I based them on the mother and father of a friend I had later in life, people who were extremely left-leaning, wealthy, and hands-off when it came to parenting. This resulted in, to varying degrees, the children growing up to be similarly aloof, somewhat out of touch with reality. No, none of them ever developed a potion that turned them into murderous monsters, but then, that’s where metaphor comes in. And I needed a different framework in which to build my story and make it as believable as possible.
The two other major factors that play a big part in the tone of this story are time and location. Things take place in the American South in the 1980s, a time just before political correctness — for better or worse, depending on your point of view — became a big thing. Also, the majority of the characters are white, and while they don’t see themselves as racist (or, as we more commonly called it back then, “prejudiced”) or malicious to those who are different, in some ways it’s hard for them to help it given where and when they are. Because Ray is the narrator, he embodies some of these shortcomings, and he’s not always aware of them, even when speaking as an as-yet-undisclosed-aged adult looking back on his childhood.
What I found while writing — and I hope this translates as well to the reader — is that there is a way to distinguish the author from the narrator, especially if the narrator or another character says something problematic or ignorant. The trick is to surround such a character with smarter, more enlightened people. They can then show themselves to be such, either through their actions or things they say, possibly in direct contradiction to an undesirable viewpoint. Whether or not this does any good depends on the maturity and flexibility of the characters, though. In Part Two, Susanna suspects that a problem she and the others have come up against may be tied to the effects of generational wealth and power in the city, including the racial element of that. But her efforts to educate her younger siblings and their friends on this mostly fall on deaf ears because they’re too young — and perhaps too privileged — to understand or be bothered to care. In some ways, that’s who I was when I was little. At least I grew out of it, but sadly, I know some people who never did.
Getting back to the more general point of Ray being an unreliable narrator, I sometimes sum him up this succintly: He’s not a nice person. A reader may be experiencing things through his eyes, but that doesn’t mean they’re supposed to like him. Ray is selfish, controlling, and manipulative, traits that only get worse the older he gets. Some of the other characters have these same flaws, and in the bigger picture, they all share the same guilt for the horrible crimes they’ve committed. How they deal with that, and whether or not they will ever achieve any kind of redemption, is revealed as the tale unfolds, first in Young Blood and then throughout the rest of the trilogy.