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.
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