Monday, August 4, 2014

The Unreliable Narrator

Recent posts by Debby Harris on First and Third Person Limited Narrators and by Diana Hurwitz on Narrator Intrusion reminded me about one of my favourite ways of telling a story – via an unreliable narrator.

Photo by Sam Beebe via Flickr
I first came across this method in the book The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. Below, between the brackets, is a major SPOILER for the book; highlight from one bracket to the other with your cursor to view the text. The book is narrated in the first person by Dr James Sheppard, providing a Watson to detective Hercule Poirot’s Holmes. [The twist, though, is that Sheppard turns out to be the murderer, and] Sheppard’s entire account of the case is called into question in the final pages.

This particular technique is risky because it almost always requires cheating the reader by withholding information that the narrator is aware of. For this reason, I prefer using third person rather than first person for unreliable narrators as it creates just enough distance to allow for obscuring a fact or two.

Edward Gorey -
Shifty Eyes,
photo by
John Nakamura Remy,
via Flickr
The unreliability of the narrator doesn’t have to contribute to a major plot point, however, or even cast doubt on the character’s morality. It can also be used to deepen characterisation, and to add intrigue. In my book Madison Lane and the Wand of Rasputin I use third person narration through the point of view of a teenager1, Maddie. She is a “typical” teenager – flipping between being self-centred and having grandiose plans to save the world. Her unreliability as a narrator is most evident in her complete lack of interest in finding out more about a secondary character. So, while she is observing, she’s not making connections, and a decision this other character makes seems to come out of the blue. I could have written this story in multiple viewpoints and given this secondary character one of those, but I knew it would not be as poignant and powerful as allowing this character to be a fascinating enigma via the neglect of the narration.



1According to William Riggan she falls into the category of naïve narrator.



What about you? Have you played with unreliability? Allowed your narrator to make mistakes? How do you ensure you don’t cheat the reader? Or have you read books that use this technique? How did you feel when you realised you had been cheated of some of the pertinent facts?

Elsa Neal
Elle Carter Neal is the author of Madison Lane and the Wand of Rasputin, which is available on Kindle and will soon be published in print through CreateSpace. She is based in Melbourne, Australia. To keep in the loop about “Maddie”, join her mailing list here, or find her at ElleCarterNeal.com or HearWriteNow.com

16 comments :

  1. The reliability of a narrator can be crucial to a story, especially when told in first person. When I wrote 'Breaking Faith', I felt it had to be told in first person, but knew I'd have difficulty portraying the realities alongside the lies. The solution I found was to use both the male and female protagonists as viewpoint characters, telling the tale in first person in alternating chapters to allow the reader to determine who was really telling the truth. For this romantic thriller, it was a technique that reviewers felt worked well. How it would work in a different genre, I don't know, yet!
    This is an interesting piece, Elle. I suspect that most narrators are unreliable to some extent, since, as human beings, they have their own flaws and prejudices. Thanks for making us think.

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  2. Thanks, Stuart. I also love the technique you describe of alternating he-said she-said viewpoints that suggest potential unreliability. This can work in a mystery, too, where several different characters describe the same scenario completely differently.

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  3. I never cheat the reader of pertinent facts, although I may defer or disguise them. Although I have not used the technique as such, I think all first-person narrators are, by definition, naive and unreliable. If not, they are unbelievable, since everyone is naive and unreliable in some essential ways. Part of the fun tension of reading first-person narratives is when the reader gets ahead of the narrator--correctly or incorrectly.

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    1. Yes, definitely. There is so much to play with and providing a subtext that the reader is party to, while the protagonist remains oblivious, sometimes adds more to the reader's enjoyment than a fabulous twist might (but that requires withholding that subtext). It can be a difficult decision for an author to have to make.

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  4. Agreed, Larry; any narrator without human flaws is not a credible character. And I love the way it's possible for a writer, using first person, to kid the reader, manipulate a little, only to show the reality later and thereby deliver an emotional punch.

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  5. In my book Saving Grace, the protagonist, Grace, (it's in third person limited) is not deliberately unreliable, but she doesn't know everything that's going on around her until the end. The fun part, as the author, was putting in enough clues through observations and stating a few things that were happening without putting an interpretation on them for the reader to figure out what was going on before Grace did. It was a very fun way to write a story.

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    1. I know what you mean, Merry. I enjoyed creating "limits" to what my character would know, and even care about, and then meeting the challenge of presenting the story despite those limits.

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  7. If you are not using a remote narrator or multiple POVS, you are limited to one character's perceptions, opinions, outlook, biases, etc. So you could say that one POV character is always slightly unreliable. You can also have a character that appears to be a friend along the way and turns out to be a foe. Those are different from having a narrator that intentionally misleads or justifies his behavior by twisting the truth. It has been done in several novels that were successful. You run the risk of alienating the reader at the end when the truth comes out. They may love it or loathe it. I read one book that used a final chapter to slap on alternative take on what had really happened after the protagonist had been dismissed and the mystery solved. That author went on my "never to be read again" list.

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    1. It's funny; I think The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was the last Agatha Christie book I read - I haven't read her books for about 15 years now. I enjoyed that twist in that book, but I wonder if it did put me off her books in general.

      I think unreliability should be foreshadowed, or even blatant, so that the reader is prepared for it.

      Cheating the reader is unacceptable. I only ever read one Patricia Cornwell book and won't read another, after spending the book thinking I might have worked out the mystery, only to have her introduce the culprit for the first time during the reveal on the last page. This was a character known to the protagonist, so the author could easily have had a scene with this character, or dropped the name; there was no way for the reader to solve this mystery.

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  8. From my mystery-writing standpoint, I don't use 'unreliable' narrators, but I also don't let readers see anything other than what the POV character would see. A detective doesn't solve the crime until he's eliminated a lot of suspects, some of whom he might have pegged for the killer. I've used alternating POV characters, but Deadly Puzzles is told strictly from Gordon's POV, so unless he knows something, the reader won't, either.

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    1. I've just started writing a mystery, and, since it's my first attempt at the genre, I had to toy with different approaches. I've also settled on a single (detective) POV, of a reliable, observant character. But I found I had to "play out" the murderer's story off-stage first in order to set up the interactions between the detective and the relevant characters. It's very tempting to include all this background material...

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  9. I typically use multiple POVs, but the reader will not be privy to anything the POV character of any given scene doesn't see, hear, or know. This is a great post, Elle. :-)

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    1. Thanks, Linda. Multiple POV is another way to show how a previous viewpoint might be unreliable, by introducing contradictions to how that character perceived something.

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  10. I've recently started playing with this concept, both in first and third person - same story, just written from different perspectives. It's only a 'play story', that is one of those story ideas that just jump into your head and you write to see what happens. Nevertheless I've been having some fun with finding out what limitations or how much space to move in you have as a writer to discover how much potential the story has in first/third person. It's very interesting how the mood of the story changes with the perspective, but even more interesting is the different types of humour that you can play with.

    I find that the unreliable narrator makes the narrator more human, but the problem I keep coming up against is what are the best way to prove the narrator is unreliable for that situation? I keep running out of ideas.

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    1. Contradictions are probably the easiest way to show unreliability. The narrator could state one thing in narration and then say the opposite to another character; say one thing and do the opposite; do something and claim s/he did not or vice versa; just plain do something wrong. The hints can be subtle, as long as a reader can go back and see where the unreliability was foreshadowed.

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