How do you handle an unreliable narrator in your novel? Do you have to be over the top, or can you be more subtle?
Jonathan posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I am interested in creating an unreliable narrator for my story (kind of like in the Turn of the Screw by Henry James.
My problem is, I don’t want to just use the “Hey, this guy is crazy!” card, I would like it to be a little more subtle so that it’s open to interpretation whether or not the narrator is, in fact unreliable.
Are there any good ways to do this without beating the idea that he is crazy into people’s heads?
Randy sez: There are a lot of ways for a narrator to be unreliable. In Mark Twain’s novel, HUCKLEBERRY FINN, the narrator is Huck Finn, a naive and uneducated young boy who tells the story as he perceives it. The reader knows that Huck will tell the truth as he sees it, but the reader also knows that Huck often gets it wrong. Huck “knows” that he’s doing wrong by helping the runaway slave Jim, but the reader knows Huck is doing exactly the right thing. When Huck encounters two feuding families, he can’t see the Romeo/Juliet kind of disaster looming, even though it’s obvious to the reader.
It may be helpful to remember that just about every character ever written is unreliable to some extent. Nobody perfectly understands what’s going on. The hard part is communicating the real situation to the reader in spite of the character’s failure to understand.
If you’re going to use an unreliable narrator, it’s important to get yourself fully inside the skin of the character. You need to understand exactly what makes him tick and how he thinks and why he’s slightly out of touch with reality. You don’t have to make him overtly crazy.
You can make a narrator unreliable even if he’s perfectly sane and highly intelligent.
One of my favorite historical novels is RIVER GOD, by Wilbur Smith, set in 18th century BC Egypt. The narrator is Taita, a slave owned by the wife of the pharoah. Taita is clearly a genius. This is clear from his actions, but also from his interior monologue, because Taita is only too happy to tell you how clever he is. He’s very knowledgable for an ancient Egyptian. But at one point, his knowledge is defective. Taita has taught himself a lot about human physiology by doing dissections on corpses, but he has no idea what the brains are for. The ancients believed that the seat of emotion and intelligence was in the heart — the one in your chest that beats. There’s an amusing passage in RIVER GOD where Taita mocks some poor foreign fools who suggest (get this) that the seat of emotions and intelligence are in those stringy gourd-like brains inside the head. Ha! Imagine that!
Another novel I really like is THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, by Mark Haddon. It’s about a 15-year-old autistic boy, Christopher, who’s investigating the murder of the neighbor’s dog. Christopher is brilliant at math and is a very logical thinker, but he doesn’t understand how other people think and so he’s unreliable when he describes his relationships with them. This novel is a really good example of a somewhat unreliable narrator.
So the answer to Jonathan’s question is that you have a lot of choices in how to make a narrator unreliable. You can be overt or you can be subtle. The choice is yours.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Donna Hole says
Interesting question; and thanks for the informative answer. One reason I don’t write first person POV is because I’m unsure I can effectively have the reader “get it” when the MC is off his rocker without having to state it flat out. Or when disclosing hints/facts to the reader that the narrator is supposed to miss. I’m with Jonathan; sublety is the intent. But getting that across is difficult.
Kim Miller says
There’s a bit of Jonathon’s question that hints at the answer. Henry James didn’t intend the narrator/governess in Turn of the Screw to be unreliable in herself. James wanted to create an air of mystery – does she see real ghosts or are they only figments of her imagination?
One way it’s a horror story, the other way it’s a psychological thriller.
The importance thing is to understand the concern, and therefore the logic, of the narrator. In this case it was her overriding concern for the children, a concern that became obsessive, and in that state other people thought she was unreliable. But her logic was true to her own understanding.
This is the place for ‘less is more.’ If you push the character too far, you lose the reader. But if you merely hint, the reader will assemble the character in his/her own head in the manner you desire. You want the reader to trust the narrator, but that trust slowly becomes fragile. Then the reader gets to a point where they want to trust the narrator, but it’s getting harder to do. Never take the reader beyond that point. As soon as you settle the inner argument in the reader’s mind that the narrator is mad or bad, then you have lost the essential contact.
And in terms of Christopher in ‘Curious Incident..’ He is only logical as we would see it when he is doing logic puzzles, Most other logic is of his own invention, such as ‘seeing three brown cars in one morning means it’s a good day.’ But it is this self-invented logic that controls most of his behaviour. Christopher draws emotional attachment from the reader nonetheless as we somehow get to understand his need for such logic so we keep our trust in him as narrator.
Lois Hudson says
Isn’t it true that any narrator is unreliable, in that his/her perceptions are based on what they know, believe to be true, suspect to be true, and all the history of experiences, biases, prejudices,et al? And the more naturally and unobtrusively these can be related, the better. I think that’s what makes “story” fascinating.
Principle of the old “gossip” game.
LeeAnn Bonds says
The story that leaps to my mind with the mention of an unreliable narrator is Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I thought Pi WAS reliable, but then, maybe not. Is he, or isn’t he? I read the book two or three years ago and am still debating with myself.
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Naomi Craig says
I think that writing in that POV can be difficult at first but once you get into the flow you find it easier. If it is too hard then you can always write your story in a different POV.