Yesterday I bemoaned the evils of denial, and I am certainly unenthusiastic when denial is embraced by readers or writers. (Which isn't to say I never embrace it myself, on occasion. But I don't view it as a virtue.)
However, denial can be a great feature in a
fictional character. It's a defense mechanism that can arouse our
sympathy or our contempt, depending on the situation.
Chris Lynch's Keir, the narrator of Inexcusable, is one of my favorite examples of a character in denial. Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, in Lolita, is another.
takes skill to tip off a reader that a first-person narrator is in
denial. Once the reader sees it, she will often become impatient for the
character's self-realization, so the pacing of that (and the decision
about whether the character ever has that realization) can be tricky.
Often we're clued in to denial by a gap between what the character says
and what he does, or by a gap between his version of events and the
other characters' versions. There's often a period of disorientation,
where we wonder which version of the truth to accept, and then there's
the point where we become sure of the truth. We break with the
narrator's version. (I suppose we don't have to become sure of the truth, though--a book could leave us hanging, wondering which version of events is real.)
the character comes out of denial, it can be an occasion for growth,
but it has to seem natural. In real life, people are able to carry on
living with incredible amounts of cognitive dissonance. People don't
like to give up their defense mechanisms. And so the motivation for a
character to shed denial must be compelling. It could be the result of a
long-present vulnerability, or new safety in the character's life, or a
consequence of having something very important at stake.