Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Unreliable Narrator

In writing, there's something called the unreliable narrator. What is this you ask? According to Now Novel, the unreliable narrator "is a character who tells the reader a story that the reader cannot take at face value. This may be because the point of view character is insane, lying, deluded or for any number of other reasons."

I'm sure you've all read at least one book with this type of narrator. A couple of summers ago, the book Gone Girl was a hit. That novel is a great example of a story with an unreliable narrator. (If you're not sure why, you should go read it. As much as I detested the characters, and felt the book was over-hyped, for those of you who like a thriller, you might be pleased. So I won't spoil any more of the story.) A more classic example of an unreliable narrator would be the teenager Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. (For the record, I didn't like that book that much, either. I remember my dad repeating over and over to me, "It's satire! What didn't you like about it? It's satire." But again, I loathed the character. It's hard for me to find love for a book in which I just don't like the characters. However, I do have plans to reread the novel because I think now, I'd probably appreciate what good ole J.D. was trying to do.)

It took me long enough to realize that these unreliable narrators...well...I don't like them much. If your narrator is a child, unreliability goes hand in hand and seems natural. But if the narrator is older, I expect to be told a story that is more or less true. That's not to say that I don't like a twist or two in the plot line, but the narrators who flat out lie to, I'm not a fan. The narrators who, due to illness can't recall the story in the proper way? That's the sort of unreliable narrator I'm more drawn to because their unreliability in unintentional.

I've been thinking a lot about unreliable narrators not so much for my writing, but in my real life. We encounter people who might fit that description every day. We all know that when a first grader tells us a story of what happened at school, she might very well be an unreliable narrator. Or how about the 87-year-old woman down the street? She might also be an unreliable narrator. As might the jaded teenager you know from church or the ex-husband of a friend of yours. All examples of people who might tell a story we can't take "at face value."

I know that we all see things differently. The details of a situation that I grab are going to be different from the ones that you focus on. Two people can see one event and describe it in two different ways. I know this happens. But I strive to be reliable in my story-telling, whether in a book or in life, and I'm finding lately that I don't have much patience for people who aren't like that.


Anonymous said...

Okay, so my best friend just brought up the concept of unreliable narrators a few weeks ago and the concept intrigued me. I pondered it for awhile, and then was promptly distracted. I'm so very happy that you've brought the subject up again. After reading your post I immediately opened another tab and searched for a list of books with unreliable narrators. Ten minutes later I can safely say that I've read none. The closest I've come is an attempted reading of The Great Gatsby when it was forced upon me in high school (long before I cared about books). Perhaps this is why I had an even harder time with it, why I never quite liked it as much as other people seem to (or maybe other people just really like DiCaprio); perhaps I'm just so trusting of narrators that it hadn't occurred to me that Nick Carraway's perceptions of events and people could be awry. Maybe I'll give the book another chance sometime.

Christina said...

I never liked Gatsby either, but I read it again when I took a writing class a few summers ago. I enjoyed it more the 2nd time, partially because I was fascinated by the use of color in the book. So, when you read it this time, think of that, too. It might help. But I have found that if there is an unreliable narrator, I don't usually like the book. Not sure how to get around that...

Anonymous said...

Color? Interesting... I'll keep that in mind. I love the use of color in stories :)