The Unreliable Narrator

In my humble opinion, one of the most powerful tools in storytelling is the also the most intrinsically human: the unreliable narrator.

People have biases, and those biases color their entire world. No matter how open-minded or educated an individual is, they simply cannot have the whole picture of an event. Individuals are not omniscient.

Narratives that are in third personeven a limited third personinherently offer us an outsider’s perspective. When the prose speaks of “he” or “she” or “they,” we may have the illusion that the one recounting the tale has a certain level of detachment. In that, the reader has an expectation that it’s more or less unbiased.

But in a first person narrative? This presumed detachment is shattered, and can be used to incredibly powerful effect.

Some of the most celebrated works of the modern era are written in first person for this very reason: The Great Gatsby, which has the distinction of being told from Nick’s perspective and not Gatsby’s, crisscrossing preference and prejudice between the two; Huckleberry Finn, whose puckish voice ties together a story of outsiders; and, of course, the most notorious example of the unreliable narrator: Nabokov’s Lolita, a novel that has arguably changed the landscape of literature and language.

I love the unreliable narrator. I love that how, coded between every line, sleeps some of the very bones of what it means to be human. It celebrates the fact that every story has multiple sides. It makes us question our own motivations and understanding. It allows us to settle into the skin of another mind, see the world as they see it, and become intimately (and sometimes uncomfortably) familiar with their skewed perceptions, blind spots, and convictions.

But the first person narrative has come under strict scrutiny these last few years. For one reason or another, it has become a popular choice for the Young Adult market. Whether I agree or not, this has condemned it to the realms of “amateurish,” prone to romanticizing self-important and self-absorbed teenagers all the while flouncing a complete lack of self-awareness.

In this onslaught of criticism, I’m forced to wonder one thing: are the authors aware of their character’s inherent fallibly?

In many cases, I’m unfortunately inclined to say no, and that is what distinguishes a bad first person voice from a good one. Any author writing from such a limited point of view needs to be entirely conscious of the character’s bias.

The narrator will be wrong. They will be misinformed. They will misconstrue words, and will likely subconsciously skew events in their favor.

And, if I do say so myself, the difference between a good first person and a great first person is when that skewed perspective is an active part of the story.

That is the truest strength of first person: the reader is taken along for the ride in another person’s head, and an author can twist the lens so that it becomes difficult (if not impossible) to see the other side of the story. A reader’s empathy is woven directly into the veins of the narrator, and through them it becomes increasingly easy to tug at heartstrings or convictions.

If a narrative isn’t taking advantage of that, then why is it not written in third person limited instead?

That said, I don’t inherently have a problem with first person stories that don’t take full advantage of what the point of view can offer. I’ve enjoyed many a book where I walked away wondering, “Did the author have any idea that their narrator is unreliable? I don’t think so.”

For example, last summer I devoured Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey; I found the novel incredibly fun, despite its flaws. Through much of the book, I watched as the “bad guys,” the Skaldi invaders, were given character and humanization. We’re allowed a chance to meet a group of them, and even come to like or potentially sympathize with a few of the members.

For a few brief chapters, I had wondered if we were going to be treated to a conflict of morals, but no. At the climax, the Skaldi are still portrayed as vicious invading barbarians, and we are meant to cheer when their warlord falls. Without getting too far into the details, I felt that the way it unfolded was meant to remind the reader that our narrator was correct in her initial assessment and understanding of the situation.

In the end, we’re given a crisp and clear cause to trust our heroine’s veracity and not question her biases. Despite any previous sympathies, overall the reader can be assured that the “right thing” happened. Good was victorious, and our heroine is an objective source.

Again, I did enjoy the story, but I was left with a niggling disappointment. (Hell, this sort of disappointment has plagued me most of my life and spurred much of my own writing.)

Now, I might be completely wrong, but I can’t help but feel that Carey is under the impression that her narrator has enough information and intelligence to be mostly unbiased in her retelling of history. As much as I did enjoy her voice, and I feel it did cast the world into a more personal and intimate light, I couldn’t help but feel that so much more could have been done with it.

I feel this is the exact problem that plagues most first person novels: the author simply never confronted the narrator’s fallibility. Instead their voice is treated like limited third person… just with the added “benefit” of snarky commentary.

Events are remembered with vivid clarity. Conversations or details can be recalled word-for-word. The narrator’s assumptions are proven right consistently, and what’s more, the other characters act and react as if dancing on cue.

In such stories, the world feels too imagined, too perfectly choreographed, too sterile.

I find that treatment a shame. It undermines what makes first person so engrossing, and so ripe for interpretation and deconstruction. So, in my own work, I attempt to always keep one thought first and foremost in mind: my narrator is unreliable.

I actively skew events due to my narrator’s perceptions of the world. I seek out elements and moments that support a confirmation bias, and gloss over or explain away others that conflict. I have my supporting casts’ motivations or meanings misinterpreted.

And yes, my narrator speaks with conviction, as if his ideas are truth. Because, to him, they are.

But it is my responsibility as a writer to provide an environment that challenges the reader. That, upon examination, the question can be asked: is this what really happened?

Yet one thing continues to have me scratching my head. I have a handful critique partners, all wonderful people, and they review my early drafts. Almost universally, they swallow my character’s recount—hook, line, and sinker.

At first, I was concerned it was a weakness in my writing. I was providing too much to bolster my narrator’s perspective in his favor. When it continued to happen—that the comments I received echoed my narrator’s world view—I began to get seriously concerned.

So, I asked another reader to review a few of my chapters. The only difference was, this time, I stated explicitly that my narrator was unreliable. I asked him to make note of any point that seemed like it was a biased or had a potentially incorrect explanation.

Lo and behind, he was able to pick up on most of the conflicting information I’d set out.

This set me to wondering: do most readers instinctively trust their narrator, even in first person?

The more I considered it, the more this seemed likely. After all, that was a large part of the reason that Lolita was so incredibly controversial. (And nowadays we even call a sexualized but “innocent” style of dress “lolita.”) Perhaps this is why Catcher in the Rye is so often found in the possession of those who commit acts of violence.

Perhaps then this is why so many first person stories are written the way they are: both readers and writers come to the table expecting to be given the Truth and Nothing but the Truth. Perhaps then I am the outlier, approaching it as an inherently biased and thus flawed account.

Yet, at the end of the day, some of the greatest works in literature are the ones that challenge the reader’s perceptions. It stands to reason that, while some may never look past the literal meaning of words on the page, those that do are given a richer understanding of the story.

Maybe next time you pick up a book in first person, you’ll remember that it’s just one side of a story. Maybe, you’ll wonder what the other side was.

And just maybe it’ll be a more interesting story that way.

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10 thoughts on “The Unreliable Narrator

  1. I write third person limited and still make use of the unreliable narrator. Partially because, like you said, it’s more realistic. But usually because it’s the easiest way to railroad the reader, lol.
    If you set them up to believe that someone is bad, then that person turning out to be good is just that much more fulfilling… and vice versa of course.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh most definitely. Unreliable narrator can be used to great effect in any PoV, I feel. Third person just has more of an opportunity to present a more detached perspective; it doesn’t mean it will. In first person, though, there really is no escaping it.

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  2. People do definitely trust the narrator, and sometimes they’re upset when the narrator is wrong. I had a part where my MC killed someone, and he was glad he did. And a critiquer said “But he can’t say that! It’s wrong to kill people!” And I thought “haha. Gotcha!”
    Unreliable narration of events can be really tricky, though, because sometimes you only ever see it through that one set of eyes. I’m not good at doing that, for sure. Are you talking about Piety when you say you have an unreliable narrative people swallow hook line and sinker?

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    • I’m not sure I’d say your example is one of an unreliable narrator; the whole twist of the knife comes from the fact he’ IS serious. It doesn’t matter if it jives with the reader or not. On matter of his feelings, then he’s the final verdict. It’d be a moment of an unreliable narrator if you turned around later and showed that he’s fooling himself, and he actually WAS upset by it.

      Unreliable narrator is almost entire related to events, or at least how they’re presented. It’s like when a person tells you about an argument, they’ll (either consciously or subconsciously) sway it to their favor. For example, they might not mention that their own tone was acidic so they got a harsher response; to them, they were just being cool and collected.

      In a first person narrative, you will have a similar situation of bias. However, you as the writer should be aware of the scene as a whole, as you do have an omniscient eye. So, if you were writing the above example of a fight, you would know the narrator sounds acidic and have the other person react as such, but keep the narrator’s inner dialogue as insisting it was reasonable and even.

      But oh yes. I’m definitely referring to Piety in particular, but I do write nearly all my prose with an unreliable edge.

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      • Huh. I had thought part of what made Lolita’s narrator unreliable was his internal approach to and justification of his stuff. Not just that his version of events wasn’t 100% accurate. But I really don’t know much about this, and it’s been a long time since I read Lolita. I don’t think I picked up on a single sign Piety was unreliable, either. Probably went right over my head 🙂

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      • You’re partially correct there, but what made him unreliable is that his justifications are about Dolores. He paints her as being the reason he’s attracted to her, shirking blame from himself. She’s seducing him, so it’s obviously not his fault.

        Humbert Humbert isn’t unreliable because he’s attracted to a 12-year-old girl. This fact means that the audience will likely find him despicable and be less likely TO trust him, but that isn’t the crux of being reliable. What makes him unreliable is that he places the blame on Dolores. We’re then put in the position whether we believe Humbert’s account of her actions, or we doubt the veracity of it.

        Humbert’s skewing of events (his justifications) are exactly what I meant in a sicker version of my above example. To him, he is the one being seduced. He’s either tricked himself into believing it, or really does. We the reader have to look between the lines to see if Dolores really is the nymphette he thinks her… or, more likely, not.

        Part of the brilliance of Nabokov’s work is that he intentionally places Humbert in a position that we’re less inclined to trust him. He’s a pedophile, and has been in and out of treatments that he thinks he’s better than. We get to watch him be manipulative, and we know he’s a liar. So, the reader is less likely to believe his account, which is very much the point. That’s why Lolita tends to be the go-to for explaining unreliable narrator, because it’s so quintessential.

        And I do admit, Piety’s account is significantly more subtle. His is more of a focus on bias, than outright manipulation.

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  3. I don’t know how much it matters that readers identify an unreliable narrator while reading. Maybe it is okay to have people so in tune with the character that they accept the tainted pov as fact? Maybe that will make the story more interesting, the plot points more shocking or surprising, the whole experience richer. And then later, it might provide a reason for the story to live on in reader’s imaginations, give the story a new life even after it is over, when people re-think their initial impressions.
    I guess I’m not sure any narrator is ever truly “reliable.” Even an omniscient 3rd is picking and choosing what to show, what to highlight, and what to ignore, and the reader is left to hope or trust that those clues will lead to the appropriate conclusions.

    “Trust no one” LOL

    Liked by 2 people

    • I definitely agree that no narrator is ever truly “reliable.” I just often feel that the detachment of a third person often offers the illusion of having less bias. At the end of the day, though, every story comes from a human source, and so it will inherently be biased.

      There is definitely nothing inherently wrong with trusting a narrator, I was merely surprised at the prevalence. I personally find it more enjoyable to question while I’m reading. I do think it’s worth giving it a try as well, as I’ve often found it very enlightening and enriching. It helps to remind us that we are inherently biased, and encourages us to stretch to understand how those biases might affect us and others.

      But the variety of interpretation is half the fun of literature, so I certainly would never knock another person’s preference.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Oh definitely. I didn’t mean to imply that I’d thought you were knocking any reader style!

        I guess what I was trying to say is that the narrator, in my mind, is never reliable, but that is not something that impacts the story much one way or the other. For as long as I’m in their head, their opinions and observations are all that matter, even if they are wildly wrong and extremely biased.

        But I’m also thinking maybe this is a genre thing. Romance is pretty much always told by a very obviously unreliable narrator. Fantasy is more often omniscient, or told in a more distant third, and so maybe more trusted by default? I don’t know.

        I also just realized this is an old post! Somehow it was in my G+ feed today 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      • I fixed a typo and I think it re-posted in a few places, so it wasn’t you! I certainly don’t mind having a conversation about it. (And I hope you are enjoying the in-the-comments discussion, too.)

        I was just largely surprised that the general consensus among readers was to trust the narrative, whereas my natural inclination was to deconstruct it. I think many people don’t think of the narrator at all–either as reliable or otherwise–but simply default to believing what is said. (A la my Catcher in the Rye example.) I simply wanted to make the argument to encourage thinking about the narrative in general as being inherently biased, and also laud one of my favorite devices at the same time.

        I do think genre plays a big part in it, as well. I feel too often fantasy tackles big moral issues (e.g. Good vs Evil) without truly taking into consideration narrative bias. Because it’s another world, it is presented as How That World Works, which I feel does an injustice to the setting as well as the work as a whole.

        Plus, in general I often wonder if writers are consciously aware of their own and their characters’ biases. I feel that it’s definitely worth considering and using to your advantage in a work.

        Liked by 2 people

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