The Unreliable Narrator

Firstly, it is important to understand that the writer and narrator aren’t always the same thing. The writer simply writes the narrator’s words.

 

The unreliable narrator is a brilliant, yet tricky technique to master, but can be the writer’s most powerful tool. The term was coined in the early 1960s by literary critic, Wayne Booth.
 

So what is an unreliable narrator?

The unreliable narrator’s narration cannot be taken at face value. They may have an agenda, have misunderstood the situation, they may be mad or lying, or they may simply see things differently to others.

Examples that come to mind:

 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

The narrator sees things differently to others, since he is severely autistic.

Atonement

The most crucial part of this novel is told from a child’s point of view who has misunderstood a situation and is lying.

This technique can be used for different reasons:

  • The reader may know that the narrator is unreliable which changes the way we look at the events of the story.

  • The narrator’s unreliable nature may be revealed gradually as part of the story

  • It may come as a surprise, serving as a plot twist.

But what does the writer stand to gain using an unreliable narrator?

There may be a myriad of reasons, including, but not limited to, the following:

 

  • Blending the line between fantasy and reality.

  • A way of looking into madness

  • Having a plot twist

And so on.

How does the writer reveal the truth of the narrator?

Here are a few ways:

  • Showing the reactions of other characters. The narrator may act differently to the others (inappropriately, for example, such as in Lolita).

  • Learning the true situation later on - via accidental unravelling of the truth, perhaps.


 

But let’s go one step further and look into the issues of the term ‘unreliable narrator’.

Is it possible to have a reliable narrator?

 

Think about this for a second…

You’re probably thinking ‘yeah, of course it’s possible’. Straightforward narration is impartial, right?

 

Well, if you analyse it more deeply, the narrator can’t ever be impartial.

 

Use JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books as an example.

On the surface, the narration seems impartial - but the whole story is actually biased towards Harry’s point of view. Harry et al are good; Voldy is bad.

 

To be truly impartial, we’d need to know every aspect of every character and event - nothing left out. Simply by leaving out information (aka withholding information), following one character, the writer becomes biased.

How many stories have you heard where the evil character turns out to be the good character (or vice versa), simply by looking at it differently?

Examples: Snape, Jaime Lannister, the Wizard of Oz

 

It’s definitely something to think about and consider when writing your own narrator.