Using an Unreliable Narrator
Narrators are pesky little things. They are there to guide you through the story, but the direction they take is determined by the path they know. Some are omniscient, some are prone to human error and others? Well, they purposefully mislead you.
So, what is an unreliable narrator? Well, it says it on the tin. It is a narrator that is unreliable, for whatever reason, in the story they tell. Sometimes it is immediately evident in the text, for example the narrator explaining they have a mental health condition with lapses in memory and/or judgement. In some stories the unreliability of the narrator is used as a plot twist: it is revealed that the narrator has explicitly left out or concealed vital pieces of information. This forces the reader to retrospectively look back and review the story they’ve read.
In previous essays I have talked about the voice of the narrator, and sometimes the unreliability of this comes hand in hand with voice. We’re less likely to trust a first-person’s perspective but we, as a reader, are still likely to take what is said as fact. If a protagonist decides a villain’s ambitions, then it is assumed this is correct until proven otherwise. In my advice, I would argue that all first-person narrators are unreliable, but don’t take it as an insult to your character. Yes, you may have an honest person trying to tell their story, but they’re still human (or not) and thus prone to errors of judgement. It is their side of the story. They are only guessing at other people’s motives, at past events and so on (unless they are psychic fortune tellers, but even then it’s still subjective).
Examples of unreliable narrators include Lockwood and Nelly in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Lockwood’s narrative is of what Nelly has told her, creating a second-hand interpretation of Nelly’s own perception of events. Both Lockwood and Nelly have their own biases, likes and dislikes, and, most importantly, their own agendas. What we read in Wuthering Heights may not actually be the true story of the Linton, Earnshaw, and Heathcliff families.
There are several categories that unreliable narrators fall into, depending on their agenda.
The Picaro (or Pícaro) is a narrator who is characterised by exaggeration and bragging. One that immediately jumps to my mind is Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. He’s not the actual narrator of the story, but claims to be a lot of things, which might not be true. Another example is Felix Krull from Thomas Mann’s unfinished novel Confessions of Felix Krull.
Here we have a narrator who is afflicted by mental health issues, ranging from anxiety all the way to schizophrenia. A reader would immediately distrust a narrator that admits the latter. The most infamous Madman is Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. Another that springs to mind for movie types include The Dark Knight’s Joker. Again, while not a narrator, he does tell the story of “how I got these scars,” which changes depending on his mood and who he is talking to.
This type of narrator does not take narrations seriously and consciously plays with conventions, truth, and the reader’s expectations. An example of a Clown could be The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne.
The Naif (or Naïf) is a narrator whose perception is immature or limited through their point of view. This has been a favourite of mine to play with, especially with young narrators who have limited life experience. Examples of naïves include Huckleberry Finn from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Funn and, for you movie folk again, Forrest Gump.
This narrator deliberately misrepresents themselves, often to obscure their unseemly or discreditable past. John Dowell in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier is often classed as this kind of narrator. Loki in Joanne M Harris’ Gospel of Loki could be a Liar (or possibly a Clown).
Narrators could fall into multiple categories, which are widely documented and often debated amongst critics whenever an unreliable narrator falls into their laps. And yet, it doesn’t seem to be as widely recognised as it should be. Sometimes readers fail to pick up on the hints of an unreliable narrator and this could backfire, having them consider this a consistency error or a character development failure.
I had one such issue with a proof-reader who called me up on my character mentioning the time of day, saying it didn’t match up with something said later. I could have argued that she was guessing the time (hopelessly optimistic) and hadn’t looked outside, but maybe I had failed in demonstrating that the character isn’t omniscient; or maybe it comes from the idea that what we read is fact.
To this I say: it takes practice. There will be some readers who will completely miss the signs, no matter how many times you beat them over the head with it. Don’t be discouraged and see how much you can play with your novel from the perspective of a compulsive liar or someone who has been given false memories. Try writing with the intention of fooling your audience in such a way that they re-read the book to find all the clues they missed, so they kick themselves yelling, ‘of course!’
Well, that’s just a suggestion. I’m hardly reliable. I’m only human, after all.
© 2017 Lannah Marshall
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.