The Utility of the (Unreliable) Narrator #writing #fiction

An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised.”


“They’re all unreliable. Well, we all are, aren’t we?”

Gene Wolfe

Unreliable NarratorWhen I see a story told from a first person narrative, I always end up being cautiously hopeful.  I say “cautious” because I often times don’t get the payoff for which I had hoped.

It bugs me when I encounter a first person narrator that seems to know everything and never gets anything wrong, whose perceptions are always 100% dead on.  I don’t know anyone like that.  I’m certainly not like that.  50% of the time I’m wrong 100% of the time.

Remember the game “Telephone” that we used to play as kids?  Every time someone picked up a story and relayed it, the story was corrupted just a little bit.  Get a few degrees of separation and it became unrecognizable.  It was like looking at a bad copy of a really bad Xerox copy.  Well, a first person narrative is really just the first degree of separation, isn’t it?

Then too, people aren’t always totally up front when they’re relating a story.  There are certain aspects of themselves that they might just not want to share, whether due to embarrassment, shame, ill intent, self preservation, or any other number of very human motivations.  Depending on the person telling the story (with regard to moral character and fiber), the impact translated to the reader’s understanding of the fictitious reality thereby presented may be minimal…or profound.

Authors cognizant of this very human reality in their work are required to walk a fine line; imperfect human narrators promote verisimilitude yet, being too humanly imperfect (i.e. often wrong), there is a tendency to piss off the reader.  Why the hell would anyone want to read a story peppered with unreliable bullshit?

The challenge set for a practitioner of this technique is an aggregate of several requirements:

  1. Characters get things wrong but the author shall write from the perspective that the character is doing his or her best to get everything right.
  2. If your character is going to purposefully mislead, that character shall come out at the beginning of the story (or before the first falsehood is perpetrated) and state that so the reader can be on guard.  Doing otherwise is simply cheating on the part of the author.
  3. The narrative and flow of the story shall be such that the work can still be enjoyed should the reader choose to consume the plot passively without asking questions (or in those cases where the inconsistencies simply go unnoticed).
  4. As the author, you shall present enough bread crumbs and key hints such that, when inconsistencies in the narrative are detected, the truth may be discovered by the reader (with a bit of deductive problem solving).

Practitioners of this technique as well as readers of the Commune Series are advised to keep these little ideas in the backs of their minds…

Commune Book One is available right now as an ebook for a couple of bucks and as a paperback for only a few bucks more.

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