Friday, 30 December 2016

Unreliable Narrator – the Weirdest Way to Tell a Story

An unreliable narrator - First edition cover of
Huckleberry Finn, E.W. Kemble, Public Domain
An unreliable narrator is a story-teller whose account you cannot take on face-value. An unsympathetic unreliable narrator won’t share the reader’s values, won’t record things accurately, will be judgmental and in denial, maybe even reprehensible. They’ll try to fool and mislead you and you won’t know where you stand.

The second kind of unreliable narrator could be a child, who will tell a story from his/her own reality. Frequently quoted examples used in writing classes of this kind of narrator are Huckleberry Finn in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

An adult narrator could also be unreliable through their own lack of experience or knowledge.

Even if part of the story is told accurately, the unreliable narrator will interpret the meaning in a weird way. Readers may disagree on the unreliability of the narrator and this makes for an exciting debate in literature classes.

In order to write in the voice of the unreliable narrator, you first need to look at the technique of using the modified objective viewpoint. We’ll start with the basic objective viewpoint.


Objective Viewpoint


You narrate as though you are reporting. You must describe the action as though it is being played out in front of you in a theatre. The disadvantage of this viewpoint is that the reader will have no clear sense of the subjective viewpoint of your character, how they think and how they feel. This viewpoint works if there is a mystery involved. When moving on to the modified objective viewpoint, matters become a little more complicated.

Modified Objective Viewpoint


This viewpoint is even more difficult to master than the objective viewpoint. The reader can only guess at the character’s inner motivation, and sometimes the guesses are completely off the radar. The result of this is an “unreliable narrator” who simply draws conclusions, much as the reader has to do. Some readers dislike this viewpoint, preferring not to have to do the work of reading the meaning behind the words, or holding their final evaluation in abeyance.

The Narrator is Not the Author


When we use the term “narrator”, we mean the voice that the author is using in this particular work of fiction. Author and narrator are not usually one and the same.

Other examples of unreliable narrator are Henry James’ "The Turn of the Screw," Robert Pirsig’s "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" and Vladimir Nabokov’s "Lolita." In every case of unreliable narrator, the main premise is that s/he is unlikely to share values with the reader (and, indeed, the author). S/he may be lying out of self-interest or may be insane.


If you want to try this technique, it would be helpful to read several works of fiction written from the unreliable narrator viewpoint and start off with a short story – just to see if you’re ready to tackle a longer piece of work.

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