Why would I want to use an 'unreliable' narrator when writing in first person?
Published: August 11, 2011
Q: Why would I want to use an 'unreliable' narrator when writing in first person?
some extent, all first-person narrators are unreliable. After all,
they’re recounting events filtered through their own unique set of
experiences, beliefs and biases. There isn’t just one absolute
experience of reality. A first-person narration will be shaded by
everything that makes that particular character unique and individual.
This is true of even the most honest and objective personalities.
narrator might see a charity gala as an overly decadent affair because
he spends a lot of time in the poverty-stricken village the charity
serves. The contrast between rich and poor is sharper to this narrator
as he considers that the money spent on just one of the plates for this
event could have saved the life of a young mother who was not able to
receive the medical attention she needed because she could not afford
the trip to the only area hospital, hours away by bus. Another narrator,
one of the organizers, might describe the gala as spectacular and
moving. She focuses on the more general picture—the school that will be
built and staffed as a result of this fundraising effort. Is the event
gaudy or glorious? Perhaps it’s both. There’s no one right answer.
course, there are certainly narrators who are more unreliable than
others. They may misunderstand or misreport events, leaving readers to
make their own judgments. Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The
Catcher in the Rye is unintentionally unreliable. His youth and
inexperience often obscures his full understanding of some of the people
he meets and situations he describes. The narrator in Edgar Allen Poe’s
short story “The Tell Tale Heart” is mad, leaving the reader to sort
out delusion from reality. In Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, Humbert
Humbert often describes scenes in a way that justifies his sexual desire
for twelve-year-old Lolita. Humbert Humbert, no doubt, believes this
version of events, but the reader can see beyond his perspective.
narrators can create intrigue. A narrator that seems reliable may
reveal details that make the reader question his credibility. This can
become an evocative source of tension. Unreliable narrators can also
make for complex characters. Readers may delight in discovering the
reasons behind the narrator’s lack of reliability and going deeper into
his peculiarities and motivations
Some people simply cannot (or
choose not to) be on the up and up. This is another facet of the human
experience that fiction can explore.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She
was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for
Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University,
University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a
visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University.
Send your questions on the craft of creative writing to firstname.lastname@example.org. All of Brandi's other Ask The Writer columns are available to registered users.