Friday, March 6, 2009

Unreliable Narrators

Unreliable narrators can be fascinating and frustrating - both to read and to write.

Over the past few days, I started thinking through possible types of unreliable narrators, and I've come up with this list:

1. An insane 1st person narrator
2. A sane 1st person narrator
3. An insane 3rd person limited narrator
4. A sane 3rd person limited narrator

Insanity is not a requirement for an unreliable narrator - it's merely the most extreme case. Because it's extreme, it can be pretty easy to recognize when you're listening to the voice and internal thoughts of an insane person. For the writer, establishing the patterns of an insane voice will take some effort, but at the same time, the voice itself provides critical evidence of the narrator's unreliability. Thus, it isn't quite so critical to give the reader external evidence for the narrator's bad judgment.

A sane narrator can also be unreliable, for any number of reasons. All they have to do is be wrong about something. There are plenty of ways for this to happen - as many ways as there are for the character to cast judgment. Maybe the character misjudges a situation, or misjudges people in a systematic way.

One of my own characters, Imbati Xinta, is unreliable because he constantly denigrates and undervalues himself. The tricky part is that his unreliability is difficult to recognize, because he's reliable in his judgments of just about everything else. How, then, can you tell that he's an unreliable narrator in the first place? That's where you need evidence.

For the misjudgment of a situation, you can contradict a narrator's stated/internalized judgments about a place, or people, using details of the situation. Say a character enters a room and thinks it's not dangerous - the writer can place an object in the room that belongs to the antagonist, for example. The writer can have the unreliable narrator see this object, yet not recognize its significance. Then, provided that the reader can identify this object as indicating the possible presence of danger (or the antagonist him/herself), the contradiction works and the narrator is shown to be unreliable.

Anytime the reader can read a situation differently from the judgments expressed by the narrator, it will become clear that the narrator is unreliable.

In the case of a character who misjudges himself, like Xinta, it's tricky. I can plant counterevidence to his view of himself in a number of ways. I can have people be respectful and deferent to him, or compliment him on something he's done. I can show him getting things done properly even though he isn't satisfied with his own performance. Or I can always switch to another point of view so readers get a view of him that isn't colored by his own judgment. Mind you, this doesn't always mean the second POV character is correct in all judgments, either!

I love a situation where every point of view character interprets things a little differently, and nobody is precisely right.

One thing I would say is that as a writer, I don't ever want to lose the reader's trust. So giving the reader an impression that is later contradicted has to be done carefully. If it's a discovery made by the point of view character, the reader who is identifying with that character is likely to accept it. If it can be interpreted as authorial deception, however, the reader may abandon the story right there. This is why I would never try to have a third person omniscient narrator be unreliable - because that person is trusted to be omniscient!

Colin F said that "having a sane narrator talk about an insane character strikes me as being a rather sad story." This could be true, depending on who the narrator is, and whether he or she thinks it's sad. There are many permutations of this, however. There's the criminologist who's trying to get into the head of the insane criminal. There's the loved one who can't understand their beloved's condition. There's also the person who's been cured, looking back on his or her mentally ill years from a new position of sanity.

I think it should be clear at this point that unreliable narrators can take many different forms, and be unreliable in many different ways. It's fun to explore ways in which your narrator might be unreliable - because in my experience, I find that narrator unreliability adds a new level to the reader's experience. I love to feel like I'm sharing a secret with my readers, and giving them the opportunity to say "I know something he doesn't know!" That sense of confidentiality is something I love as a reader, too.


  1. Omg, she said my name! Hehe, I feel special.

    No, but in all seriousness, this was a very enlightening post. I had not thought of all the implications or forms of an unreliable narrator. In referrence to my quote, I had not thought of all of those additional situations. But it's true, it doesn't have to be a sad story.

    Now that I read this, it seems to me that unless you have a 3rd person omniscient narrator, there should be at least some factor of unreliability. Even a 3rd person limited narrator would have at least some slight bias towards the POV character. And if there's anything I've learned, it's that everyone sees a situation differently. Since that is the case, if presented correctly, the reader might have a slightly different take on a situation than the narrator.

    Thanks again!

  2. Unreliable does not automatically equate to bad. You touch on this, but as so often your post has me going off in several directions at once.

    A narrator who is a good person, with good intentions, may simply be mistaken or may miss something, perhaps something important. If this is the POV character, the reader only knows what he knows and sees, or doesn't see, what he sees. He can learn later that he was mistaken or that he missed something, something that may perhaps totally change the way he perceives a situation or fellow character. Is this unreliability or growth? Characters are supposed to grow, change, develop throughout the course of a story. As part of doing so, they may learn something about themselves or others. Is a character who learns and develops unreliable at first and reliable at last? I guess I'm asking for bounderies or definition of unreliable.

    After all, every person, real and fictional, has a viewpoint, biases, strong and weak points, areas of expertese and ignorance. For instance, I myself would be a most unreliable person to ask about auto mechanics and maintenence or about Football. I'd do rather better telling you about English Medieval history or about Cosmology or the theology of St. John's Gospel. Surely, it is reasonable to expect that fictional people would have similar limitations. Once you know where my strengths and weaknesses lie, you can tell when to pretty much believe me and when to pretty much discount what I say. I suppose - though I never thought of it before - you need to establish the narrator's limits.

    For instance, might he have some reason to be predisposed to dislike a certain character? Disliking that character, might he then be more easily misled about the other or might he more easily misinterpret the other's words and actions? What if he also misses a crucial point that explains a specific action of the other? Does this complex of factors pertaining to one specific other mean the character must necessarily be unreliable in general?

  3. Thanks for these comments. I think you both have good points. Everybody is unreliable to a certain extent because we're each individuals. However, I think there's a bit of a distinction between a person who grows through the story and an unreliable narrator. I would hope that all main characters would grow and learn new things over the course of a story. The question of reliability I think comes down to whether the author chooses to provide evidence that the character's views are wrong. If there is no such evidence, then the reader remains congruent in viewpoint with the character. Once the author chooses to provide character-external evidence aimed directly at the reader, the reader's view becomes divorced from that of the character, and the reader must recognize areas of unreliability in the narrator's viewpoint.

  4. So, based on that, it seems that having an unreliable narrator is a way to distance the reader from the narrator's point of view. Under normal circumstances, the reader will relate themselves to the narrator or main character (guess that depends on POV?) But in this case, the reader will tend not to relate to the narrator because they will have a different outlook on events in the story. To what end would an author want the reader not to associate themselves with the narrator or main character? It seems like that would be the opposite of what you would want to do.

  5. Actually, Colin, while giving evidence of narrator error puts a little distance between reader and narrator, I don't think it completely removes the reader from their link to that character. It just shows them the character's errors, like peeks into the future. "Uh-oh, he shouldn't have left that on the floor!" Etc. It creates suspense about what will happen, and it creates suspense also about what the character is likely to do.

    Whether you feel a character is like you, or makes judgments that you would agree with, isn't necessarily the measure of that character's link to you as a reader. If you know the character is getting him/herself into trouble and doesn't realize it, that can make you feel even closer to that character.

  6. Ah, great point. I have much to learn...