The Unreliable Narrator

If we look up the meaning of the word AUTHORwe discover that one of its definitions is GOD. That’s audacious at best. But what does it mean? It means we get to create a world entirely of our own making. We get to decide what it looks like, who and what populates it, and best of all, we get to fool around with life and death. We can invent species, even languages, like werewolves and Elvish. Anything is possible.

So who is this deity in the world of fiction? It’s the author of course. Yes, but who tells the author’s story? Eye roll–the narrator, duh. In a sense, the author must become a master of disguise. However much or little of ourselves we put into our narrative, we don’t necessarily want the reader to perceive the narrator and the writer as one. For that we look to essays and memoir.

Where does the writer end and the narrator begin? They’re coming from the same place, but the trick is to make the reader forget that. To truly grab hold, a writer must separate from her narrator and convince the reader there’s no connection.

Let’s imagine ourselves for a moment as readers, not writers. We’ve heard about a fabulous book. We download it or actually buy it from a bookstore, hold it in our hands with a degree of reverence, hurry home, slip into something comfortable like a bath, and open it. It’s the start of a relationship. My book and me–on our first date. As a reader, I start out with a reasonable amount of good faith. And things go well. The narrator, a personable chap, tells me that the sky has been blue for an hour, and the sun is out. He could be more creative, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe my book is a tad boring, but I read on.

And stop dead in my tracks. A few lines down, my trustworthy storyteller says, “It’s been raining for two hours. It’s still raining.” We hear a resounding clang. Never mind that it’s only in our heads, we’re appalled that such an author got published. Someone made a mistake, but who? Must have been the writer. But why didn’t the editor pick it up? So the book was published by halfwits. Let’s see…um…St. Martin’s. Hm. A reputable press. So this odd lapse is intentional, not just bad writing and fact checking? The writer, using the narrator, is conveying something important to us.

We read on, with trepidation. The relationship has changed. What can we believe? Anything? Tension builds. Suddenly we have to pay closer attention. We’re drawn into a world where we have to be on guard, and the stakes have just skyrocketed.

We’re dealing with an unreliable narrator, one who, for various reasons, can’t be trusted. This kind of narrator often reveals him/herself as the first person protagonist, whose point of view is compromised. There could be a myriad of reasons for this, and here are just three:

  1. MudpiesThe narrator is a child. If we consider that most or at least many adults don’t know which end is up, imagine what it’s like for a child. Children test all sorts of boundaries to see how far they can go as they discover they can walk on their own legs. Sometimes they lie. Sometimes they forget important things, like where they hid your ruby necklace, and sometimes they’re sneaky (they exchanged your ruby necklace for a Snickers bar). Many times they don’t know the answer but have one anyway. They’ll say anything to avoid getting into trouble. Children see the world differently from adults, and not just because they’re smaller. Their naivete may cause them to perceive things not as they are but as they imagine them to be: magical, fanciful or terrifying.
  2. The narrator is a psychopath. Oh, I’m sorry, you expect him to tell you the truth? Right till the very end and beyond, Bret Easton Ellis’s narrator, Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, ties us in knots of horror and confusion. What’s real, what’s imagined? In another example, a narrator who’s a serial killer expresses his liking for cats, dogs and little old ladies with blue hair. He actually means it. Do we trust him? Hell no. A schizophrenic narrator, or one who has Alzheimer’s, can draw the reader into a distorted psyche or consciousness that immerses her in an unfamiliar space, often an unsettling one where conflict and tension really come into their own.
  3. The narrator has an agenda. If we consider the lame narrator above, who tells us the sky is blue and that it’s raining, we get a sense that he’s either lying to hide something, or he’s conveying a coded message under threat. Deceit, rhetoric, or vanity may lie at the heart of the narrator with an agenda, but whatever his motive, the writer will find a means to indicate that the narrator can’t be taken at face value.

The writer, as opposed to the narrator, is alerting us to the latter’s slanted view of the world. An off-kilter perspective that requires of the reader deeper engagement with the novel. The unreliable narrator alerts the reader to subtext and deeper meaning, revealing layers and nuance that engage the reader on an inspired level. This kind of narrator enhances characterization in a subversive way and provides a sometimes oblique means of getting to a facet of character that might otherwise remain hidden.

The breach, or instant when we realize that we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator can manifest in a number of ways, such as lying, contradiction, altered world view, conceit, flippancy or exaggeration. Tension is generated between what the reader knows to be true and what the narrator reveals. This says something about the narrator as a character and alerts us to a flaw that could have mild or catastrophic consequences, and the uneasiness keeps us reading.

Edgar Allen Poe, Vladimir Nabokov, William Faulkner, Chuck Palahniuk, and a host of others from Geoffrey Chaucer to Agatha Christie, all used the unreliable narrator as a device to create suspense and intrigue or alter a reader’s point of view. Remember the twist at the end of Fight Club? It played out so brilliantly because of an unreliable narrator.

Next up from Jenn…  The Secret Benefits of NaNoWriMo



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