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The Sublime Art of the Unreliable Narrator

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We want those around us to be honest with us, to tell us the truth. Most of the time, anyway. We want them to be reliable in their narrations. But in fiction, great beauty resides within the unreliable.

Author Wayne C. Booth coined the phrase “unreliable narrator” in 1961 to describe that narrative voice the writer employs with the goal of misleading us, the readers. It may not be the easiest thing to manage with success, but when it is it can be put to brilliant use.

So who are these unreliable narrators?

To name just a few, they can be liars, drunks, drug addicts, the insane, the jealous, and the guilty. There are lots more, but we can boil all of them down to two essential types: the intentionally unreliable and the unintentionally unreliable.

Intentionally unreliable narrators mislead you on purpose. Say your viewpoint character recounts the ferocious battle in which he saved a small boy from death by dragging him from a burning house, under fire from a sniper, when in reality he panicked and used the boy as a human shield. He wants to keep the truth to himself and build a more agreeable narrative.

Consider the narrator suffering mental illness. Maybe she’s manic depressive, maybe schizophrenic. She might be telling the truth, but it’s her truth, the truth as she alone sees it. If she narrates her story in which she alone survives the shipwreck and braves towering seas, blistering sun, and starvation, is her story an accurate depiction of the events? In her mind, yes. But her mind might be way off. Maybe she murdered everyone on the ship, but her mind cannot accept the reality.

Let’s go back to that character that used the boy as a human shield and lied about it. Suppose, after a time, he comes to believe his own lies, and repeats the story as his own truth. He has morphed into an unintentionally unreliable narrator.

Who are some other unreliable narrators? Well, children. Not because they are deranged, because I hear that some are not. No, it’s because they are viewing the world through different lenses than we, the adult readers, are. A five-year old will believe that Daddy’s “medicine” really is medicine, rather than rotgut whiskey, because Mommy and Daddy never lie.

In one of the first true mystery novels, The Moonstone (1868), Wilkie Collins splits the narration into first-person accounts by multiple characters, each of them giving a written account of the goings-on surrounding the theft of a sacred jewel. One character, Miss Clack, is the very blueprint of unreliability, as she piles her biases and jealousies onto every little thing, viewing all as affronts to decent society or as personal insults. Collins wrings comic effect from her deposition and the reader (and the story’s detectives) are left with a bucketful of proclamations in need of onion-peeling.

In Stephen King’s short story, “Strawberry Spring,” (1968) the first-person narrator recalls his college days on a campus wracked by a string of murders. He remembers the terror he and his schoolmates felt those eight years ago during a foggy false spring, a strawberry spring. His narration is honest, but he then begins to doubt his own memories when murder strikes again in his new town, during a new strawberry spring.

The art of unreliability lies in layers of truth and perception, challenging the reader to examine those layers for what they are, to consider the sources. This sounds self-evident, as we each evaluate the sources of information we receive from others almost daily.

One could argue that all narration is unreliable, and with good reason. Recall an event from your own childhood. Write it as you remember it. Is it reliable? Memory itself is a tenuous thing, a weak set of electric footprints on a decomposing chip, and the farther in the past the event happened, the more those footprints have been trod upon by others. Compare your recollection to a sibling’s or a friend’s. You will most likely get a version quite different from your own, because each of us filters through our own perceptions.

The writer that can manage the unreliable voice wields a formidable skill indeed.

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Ken Pelham’s debut novel, Brigands Key, won the 2009 Royal Palm Literary Award and was published in hardcover in 2012. The prequel, Place of Fear, a 2012 first-place winner of the Royal Palm, was released in 2013. His nonfiction book, Out of Sight, Out of Mind: A Writer’s Guide to Mastering Viewpoint, was named the RPLA 2015 Published Book of the Year. Ken lives with his wife, Laura, in Maitland, Florida. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers. Visit him at kenpelham.com.

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6 Responses

  1. Michael
    | Reply

    Interesting take. Most stories using unreliable narrators are told in first person. Aside from the liars, drunks, drug addicts, and the insane, unintentionally unreliable narrators are often just the main character who doesn’t have all the facts of the story, yet. Mysteries are the best examples of this, where the MC will probably be wrong several times through the course of the story. Dr. Watson is an example of this type narrator, who’s completely lucid (as much as anyone) yet often jumps to the wrong conclusion. I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure Arthur Conan Doyle knew what he was doing. Well done article. Enjoyed it.

  2. Ken Pelham
    | Reply

    Thanks for the comments, Michael!

    Glad you brought up Doyle. He really did make Watson the right choice for narrator, because it would ruin the illusion of Holmes’s untouchable intellect if we were seeing the story from his point of view.

  3. Nylda Dieppa
    | Reply

    Enjoyed your article, Ken! One more topic for a presentation to the MWG in the future.

    • Ken Pelham
      | Reply

      Yep, I could do something on this, Nylda.

  4. Elle Andrews Patt
    | Reply

    Great post, Ken! I first became aware of “unreliable narrator” as a writing skill to be developed while reading Dean Koontz’s “Odd Thomas”. Then I started to recognize them everywhere. As a reader, I value the complexity and depth they add to a story. As a writer, I admire the craft that goes into developing unreliable narration.

    • Ken Pelham
      | Reply

      Thanks, Elle. I haven’t read that Dean Koontz story but I’ll have to look into it. Unreliable narration can be an amazing treat, and can add all sorts of layers to a story. Writers of crime fiction seem to be using it to great effect these days, for obvious reasons. You, the reader, must question every bit of “evidence” they’re feeding you.

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