February Character Studies - Cloud Strife

Over the past two weeks, I've looked at how to refine a character and how to develop a character over a series. Today, I'm going to use Cloud Strife to show how to develop a certain type of character. Before we go any further, here is your SPOILER ALERT. I've tried to be vague, and I've definitely trimmed the details down (no, really, I have), but Cloud's story is central to the game's main plot and even telling you why I'm writing a character study is a spoiler. So, if you haven't played the game and intend to, I highly recommend you come back after you've completed it. Don't even look below this gif. It's a huge spoiler. Huge. Save yourself now if you don't want to know.

Okay, ready?

Yeah, Cloud's going to show us how to create an unreliable narrator. 

If you want to write an unreliable narrator, make sure you keep very good notes. The character might never reveal all to the reader, but as the author you need to know everything. And deconstructing the unreliable narrator that is Cloud Strife will show you why.

We think Cloud can be trusted, but as he loses faith in himself, we lose faith in the truth as he presents it. In the early stages of the game, although we have no reason not to trust his version of events, it's clear Cloud isn't entirely who he presents himself to be. He rapidly goes from being totally disinterested to incredibly motivated. It looks like simple character development - he's getting invested in the cause he's fighting for - but there's more to it. Further into the story, Cloud's change of heart will start to look more like a change of personality. The remake's trailer actually gives you a great look at the Cloud you'll first meet in the game...

To get to the heart of why Cloud is unreliable, we have to start in his past. Cloud left his hometown at fourteen to join SOLDIER, the most elite army working for the global power company Shin-Ra. The night before he left, Cloud promised his best friend Tifa that if she was ever in a bind he would come and save her. Two years later, Cloud returned to his hometown with Sephiroth, the ultimate SOLDIER, to investigate monster attacks at the local Shin-Ra power station. It's there that Sephiroth discovers his own grim origins as a science experiment . Believing he has been betrayed by the entire human race, Sephiroth swears he will have his revenge. He destroys Cloud's hometown. Devastated, Cloud confronts him...

...but he can't remember what happened. Sephiroth is supposed to be dead, but Cloud can't remember killing him. He knows he's wasn't strong enough to defeat the man, and it seems that Cloud's memory pretty much ends that day until five years later when the game starts. Cloud's become a member of AVALANCHE, a terrorist organisation who want to save the world from Shin-Ra's environmental destruction. Why did Cloud leave SOLDIER? Why is he now a mercenary? What happened in the five years between him confronting Sephiroth and him coming to be in Midgar where the game starts? Cloud won't tell you because he can't remember. Tifa points out that there are things Cloud doesn't remember that he should, and things he does remember that he shouldn't. She's the only one who knew him from childhood, and there are times when their memories should align, and yet they don't. Cloud's reliability as a narrator is constantly in doubt because things just don't line up.

It's that promise he made to Tifa that also suggests Cloud's not being entirely truthful. Tifa says he can't leave AVALANCHE because he hasn't kept the promise he made... and yet in what little Cloud does remember of the events of five years ago, we see that he rescued Tifa after she'd been attacked by Sephiroth. This is a giant red flag, but Tifa doesn't accuse him outright of lying. It's almost like she's too afraid of what it could mean.

Not only is Cloud's memory bad and the one person who might know more about it not talking, he suffers from blackouts. He has flashbacks to events of five years ago, and a voice in his head taunts and berates him. At times he loses control of himself and lashes out violently. The slips in his recollections and self-control grow increasingly serious, but Cloud refuses to confront what means when it turns out Sephiroth isn't dead.

Cloud is compelled to hunt the other man down. He chases him across the planet, even as his mind steadily unravels. When Cloud finally catches up, Sephiroth says Cloud's nothing more than a puppet, a rogue science experiment with delusions of grandeur. He says Cloud's not a real person at all; he was constructed in a lab, given false memories and set loose. Cloud refuses to believe Sephiroth, but it's not like his memories offer incontrovertible proof Sephiroth's lying. And at his lowest moment, when Cloud is about to fall apart, Tifa refuses to tell him what she knows. She tries to tell Cloud he is real because they have memories together, but he's beyond hearing her. Sephiroth says the experiment that created Cloud means his very nature also created fake memories in Tifa. Shattered, Cloud provides Sephiroth with the means to wipe out all human life on their world. It seems he may be exactly the puppet Sephiroth claims him to be.


The reason Cloud is such a good unreliable narrator is because we spend the first half of the story relatively certain that this guy is a former SOLDIER who suffers amnesia but is nonetheless determined to protect the planet and settle the score with his nemesis. The moment he catches up with Sephiroth, that belief shatters along with Cloud's personality. We no longer know what to believe because it's impossible to separate the lies from the scraps of the truth. With an unreliable narrator surrounded by additional liars, how can we pick what's real and what's fake? It's certainly one way to create a compelling story your readers can't put down. How you reveal an unreliable narrator relies on the nature of your story. Maybe you never will. Maybe the revelation is the novel's climax. Maybe it's the mid-point twist. However you do it, you can delight in leading your reader in one direction and then blow their mind by tearing down everything they thought they knew.

Okay, chucking in another massive SPOILER WARNING here. This is your last chance for me to not spoil one of Final Fantasy VII's biggest plot points.

Sticking with me? Here we go...

As I said, halfway through the game, Cloud comes apart at the seams. The players have to go into his head and rebuild him. Granted you couldn't do this in a book, but it makes for a good study because you can see how a character can bury the truth about themselves beneath a web of lies and misconceptions. For Cloud, it all goes back five years, to when he was sixteen and returned to his hometown to investigate the monsters at the Shin-Ra reactor.

First, let's deal with the things Cloud lied about. Although lied isn't quite the right word. Convinced himself of is closer to the truth. Remember, this is one unreliable narrator who is somewhat unaware of his own failings. How unaware is up for debate. You can debate with me in the comments if you like.

Cloud never made it into SOLDIER, and certainly never ranked as First Class. He only made it into the basic infantry. He wasn't cocky, self-assured and supremely confident. He was shy, anxious and physically weak. Not only that, we discover Tifa wasn't his best friend when he was a child. Rather, she was the popular girl he always wanted to hang out with but couldn't get noticed by - until he called her out to the well when he was fourteen. It takes Cloud having a breakdown for Tifa to admit they weren't truly close growing up. She was too scared what telling him the truth might do to him. Cloud, I suspect, didn't want to confront the truth about his real relationship with Tifa. I believe this is the only fact of his past he's fully aware he's lying about.

The rest? Gaping holes aside, Cloud believes his memories are what truly happened.

He's wrong.

While Cloud did return to his hometown, he never fought alongside Sephiroth as his equal. That honour fell to a man called Zack, Cloud's best friend. Cloud idolised him the same way he idolised Sephiroth. Except where Sephiroth barely acknowledged Cloud's existence, Zack became his friend.

I'll come back to Zack. For a character we barely see, he's very important.

One lie Cloud can't control is something Sephiroth says. Although, from a certain point of view, Sephiroth isn't lying. Cloud is a puppet, albeit a very human one. Cloud spent the five years before the start of the game as a lab rat. The experiments he underwent meant his mind could be overwhelmed by Sephiroth's. This is why Cloud hunts Sephiroth so relentlessly; he's been programmed to find the other man. So, from that perspective, Cloud is a lab created puppet. However, he really did grow up with Tifa. And thankfully Cloud breaks free of the control and ultimately goes on to stop Sephiroth with the aid of his friends. Cloud's misconceptions about his past are his mind's way of coping with experiments performed on him and the trauma he experienced. And, to a certain extent, the experiments themselves are the reason Cloud is able to take on another personality.

Which brings me to the things Cloud says that are the truth. After all, it's easier to lie when there's a bit of truth threaded through it all.

Cloud did fight Sephiroth five years ago. And he did keep his promise to Tifa. The reason Tifa doesn't remember is because she had no idea Cloud came home. He was so ashamed of not making it into SOLDIER, he kept his face hidden behind a mask.

...Sad to say that's about it for the truth.

Finally, what did Cloud completely forget?

He defeated Sephiroth, although he didn't manage to kill him. Severely injured, Cloud was captured along with his friend Zack and imprisoned in a lab for five years. Zack broke them free and took them across country to the city of Midgar where the game begins. But Cloud completely forgot Zack existed. Cloud absorbed so much of Zack's personality and experiences, his memory had to erase the real Zack in order for Cloud's replacement memories to make sense. Cloud became Zack. Or a version of him at least. Zack was the SOLDIER. He was the hero. He was the one who had the strength and the confidence to fight. He was the one who worked alongside Sephiroth. Cloud simply found himself caught up in events that nearly destroyed him. Cloud's re-imagining of his past, and the person he pretended to be early on in the game, are his mind's way of coping with experiments performed on him and the trauma he experienced. I really don't believe he's consciously aware of this split in himself. The inner voice taunting Cloud is his true self fighting back against the person he's tried to become. The fake personality he's taken on is the unreliable narrator because it's the only way he can cope with the horror he's experienced and the illness and injury his body endured. Cloud perceived himself to be a failure, and he buried it beneath a secondary persona. Only after Cloud is forced to confront his false memories and the consequences of his actions does he reclaim his true self. He accepts himself and all his weaknesses. He admits what he did to his friends, and thus we spend the second half of the game with someone we can trust.

Cloud's one of my favourite unreliable narrators because the revelation was such massive and unexpected plot twist. You don't have to unveil your character's true selves in such a dramatic way. Your narrator could tell the reader straight away they aren't to be trusted. The revelation could be the story's big finale. It could never truly be dealt with. But however you do it, have fun!


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