Should Your Story Be Told by an Unreliable Narrator?

26 Sep

by Julie Eshbaugh

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Stories told in first-person POV are enjoying great popularity at the moment. I myself write in first-person almost exclusively.  The benefits and limits of first person have been talked about on this blog and on others (first person is obviously a limited perspective, but it also allows you a deeper understanding of the character’s thoughts – see my POV post here) but I haven’t seen a lot of discussion about the reliability of the first-person narrator. After all, not everyone who tells you a story is telling you the truth.  Should we assume all first-person narrators are telling the truth?  Maybe an even better question for us as writers would be, “Should our first-person narrators always tell the truth?”

This blog has covered characterization from a lot of angles, and my colleagues here have given some great advice, such as in this post on contrarianism by Savannah, this great post about sassiness, also by Savannah, and this post about Mary Sues by Biljana.

But what about reliability?  Is the story your MC tells necessarily the “whole truth and nothing but the truth”?

First, it could be argued that no first-person narrator is telling the complete truth, because the story is filtered through the narrator’s perspective. That’s well understood. But what about the narrator who – due to willful deception or just a poor ability to understand events happening around her or him – just is not trustworthy?

Let’s look at some classic examples of unreliable narrators:

  • Holden Caufield, narrator of JD Salinger’s CATHER IN THE RYE:

Holden tells us a story of two days he spends in New York City after having been kicked out of yet another boarding school.  Holden is strongly opinionated, and rants about the “phonies” around him. But is he always being honest with the reader? No. Instead he’s secretive, a bit dodgy about the details, and frequently makes excuses for himself while holding others to a very high standard. As we read, we discover that we can’t assume that Holden’s side of the story is necessarily the way things really happened.

  • Humbert Humbert, narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s LOLITA:

This might be the strongest example of an unreliable narrator I can think of personally. Humbert is a pedophile and a very dangerous man. But his story is directed to the “jury,” and that should be a tip that he cannot be trusted. He is a character attempting to justify heinous crimes, and so, despite his amazing eloquence, the reader must stay on his or her guard at all times. The narrator is trying to deceive you. The success of this device is one of the many things I love about this book.

  • Nick Carraway, narrator of F Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY:

One of the unique qualities about THE GREAT GATSBY is that it is told in first person by someone other than the main character. In effect, it works to keep a lot of the hero’s secrets hidden, and also contributes to the mythical qualities of Gatsby.  However, unlike Holden Caufield or Humbert Humbert, I wouldn’t argue that Nick knowingly deceives the reader. He tells what he knows. However, what Nick is privy to is often limited to what Gatsby allows him to see and to know. In this case, Nick’s unreliability is more a reflection on Gatsby’s character than on Nick’s.

I hope that these examples give you some food for thought about unreliable narrators. Would this technique work for your story?

Here are some questions you might consider in deciding how reliable your narrator should or shouldn’t be:

  • Does the narrator see the situation of the story clearly, or is her or his perspective skewed by lack of experience, self-deception, pride, etc?
  • Is your character too flawless?  Is he or she infallible? Would suggesting that this character may at times be an unreliable narrator make the character more interesting?
  • Is your character unstable or delusional?  If so, and your story is told in first person, it would be almost necessary that your narrator be unreliable. An emotionally or mentally unstable character would rarely be able to tell a story from beginning to end without distorting the truth along the way.

As for me, I am currently examining the hero of my work-in-progress closely, in order to determine if I have made her more honest than circumstances would allow.

How about your own characters, or the characters in books you’ve read?  Any unreliable narrators among them? Please tell me about them in the comments!

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Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can find her on Twitter here.

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18 Responses to “Should Your Story Be Told by an Unreliable Narrator?”

  1. Rowenna September 26, 2011 at 8:52 AM #

    Great post, Julie! I agree that any first-person narrator should be a touch unreliable in that he or she will never be fully objective. That’s one of the failings I’ve found in a few first-person books I’ve read recently–the narrator kept such an objective outlook that I found it unbelievable–everyone has their blindessess and assumptions to try to see through! That said, I’ve never delved into the world of really unreliable narrators in my work. I think it could be a fun experiment–to walk the line of an authentic character voice while delivering a clear (enough) story to the reader.

    • Julie Eshbaugh (@JulieEshbaugh) September 26, 2011 at 12:08 PM #

      Hey Rowenna,
      Thanks for your comment! I’ve never used a truly unreliable character as my narrator, either. Like you, I think some day I’ll need to play around with it. 🙂

  2. Asia Morela September 26, 2011 at 9:49 AM #

    I’m not entirely sure what your point was here, since it seems completely different to me to accept that everybody’s got a specific perspective, and to assume that they are “not telling the truth”. First, what is the truth? All we ever have in life is perspectives. There’s no such thing as THE truth somebody might possess over somebody else (which doesn’t mean that there is no lying, since lying is related to honesty, ie intention, not truth, ie facts).

    It would be equally wrong to assume that third-person narrators are objective, truthful or reliable. Even third-person narrations are told from somebody’s perspective, be it at the very least that of the author. There’s always something told and something untold, and if that primitive, necessary action of storytelling isn’t perspective and bias in its most basic, most universal form, then I sure wonder what it is.

    Telling a story, from whomever’s point of view, always implies choosing, and as you choose you create meaning. There’s no such thing as a preexisting meaning out there for us all to see; there’s only what we make of what we know.

    • Julie Eshbaugh (@JulieEshbaugh) September 26, 2011 at 12:05 PM #

      Hi Asia! I can tell by your discussion about “truth” that we are not connecting here. “Unreliable Narrator” is a well-known technique in fiction writing, (it is not my own invention) so perhaps I just didn’t explain it as thoroughly as I should have. As for the “truth,” what I am referring to is the “truth” according to the “implied author,” which is a topic for another post 😉 but would perhaps best be described as that “preexisting meaning” that you refer to at the end of your comment. There may not be a universal truth for all of us, but there is generally a “truth” within the world of a story, (the truth according to that “implied author,”) even if it differs from the truth of our own belief system. Thanks for commenting!

  3. savannahjfoley September 26, 2011 at 9:53 AM #

    Of course, we can’t forget the greatest unreliable narrator of all time… Jack from FIGHT CLUB!!

    Great post, Julie! I love unreliable narrator twists at the end of stories.

    • Julie Eshbaugh (@JulieEshbaugh) September 26, 2011 at 12:06 PM #

      Hey Savannah! I should have included Jack, especially since you are such a fan of that book. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

    • Jason Runnels September 26, 2011 at 11:58 PM #

      YES! Totally agree, Jack from Fight Club. I love those stories that make you want to go back and reread everything.

      Another one that does this is Some of Your Blood by Theodore Sturgeon.

  4. Jason Black September 26, 2011 at 12:49 PM #

    While I agree that the concept of unreliable narrators doesn’t get discussed and dissected as much as it perhaps ought to, I do have to disagree with your analysis of Lolita.

    Humbert Humbert is not, to my reading, what I’d call an unreliable narrator. Consider his two great crimes: murder and rape. At no point does he attempt to deny that he’s guilty of either one. At no point does he attempt to convey that he wasn’t responsible for both.

    He knows that what he has done is horrible and wrong, and at many points he explicitly loathes himself for it.

    This is not an unreliable narrator. This is an unflinchingly _honest_ narrator. This is a narrator who knows just how far over the line he has gone. He is not seeking acquittal from the jury. All he wants is _understanding_. And we get that. By the end, we understand what led him to do all the things he did. We don’t forgive him for it–nor should we, nor do I think he expects that. But we do understand him.

    • Julie Eshbaugh September 26, 2011 at 8:10 PM #

      Hi Jason, Thanks for the comment! I think it’s a matter of debate, but I strongly believe that Humbert is, in fact, telling a skewed version of the “facts.” As I see it, his myopic self-delusion contributes to his misunderstanding of their relationship. For instance, he claims Lolita seduced him and that she was in complete control of the relationship. When she occasionally recoils at his touch, he views her behavior as evidence of her fickleness, rather than the obvious repulsion a child would feel when faced with sexual advances from an adult. In my opinion, Humbert is self-delusional, and cannot be trusted to convey the story objectively.
      The following link might interest you, as it contains a video of a fantastic interview with Nabokov, filmed for TV: http://theguiridispatches.wordpress.com/2010/02/17/reading-list-unreliable-narrators-humbert-humbert/
      Thanks again for commenting.

      • savannahjfoley September 28, 2011 at 9:15 AM #

        I recently read a memoir called Tiger, Tiger, about a little girl growing up in the clutches of a neighboring pedophile. He was her ‘secret boyfriend’, and it’s sick to see how he manipulated her into believing this was true love, and how she both wanted to protect his secrets with her life and shout to the world that she needed help. Nabokov totally nailed the back and forth between Lolita’s adoration and revulsion, which of course Humbert interpreted as the whims of a heathen goddess. However, Lolita was not an adult toying with his affections, but a little girl who no longer knew what was right and appropriate.

        • Julie Eshbaugh October 1, 2011 at 6:53 PM #

          Wow, Tiger Tiger sounds like an awesome memoir. *makes note to self to add to TBR list* Thanks for the recommendation, Savannah!

  5. Beka September 26, 2011 at 1:37 PM #

    Awesome post! The character of Eugenides from Megan Whalen Turner’s “The Thief” is one of my favourite examples of an unreliable narrator.

    I think not being able to trust the main character is one of the best (and most fun) reasons to write in first person, or to read books in that perspective. It really gets you involved in the story, and adds a layer of mystery, surprise and suspense; I think it also creates great opportunities to delve into the main character’s past, as readers wonder why the narrator might be lying. At least, that’s what I’m doing with my present character — she acts one way, thinks another, but never really gives a reason why. Instead, as her internal defenses break down, that’s when the reader learns more about her — the truth, anyways, that she can no longer hide, even from herself.

    Anyways, just thought I’d chip in and say I love unreliable narrators!

    • Julie Eshbaugh September 26, 2011 at 8:15 PM #

      Wow, Beka, your character sounds so interesting! You have such a great grasp of her psyche. I definitely think we all have secrets, and so our characters need secrets, too. I love the fact that the reader will learn the truth along with your character. Thanks for commenting!

  6. Kate Larkindale September 26, 2011 at 2:02 PM #

    I love an unreliable narrator, but up until now I haven’t had the confidence as a writer to write one. But for my next book, I think that’s the road I’m going down….

    • Julie Eshbaugh September 26, 2011 at 8:12 PM #

      Hi Kate! I’m a bit reluctant to take on the challenge, myself! Good luck with your next book, and I hope you do choose to create an unreliable narrator. 🙂

  7. kaye September 26, 2011 at 9:48 PM #

    Great post! I love unreliable narrators! I wonder if this is in part because I love crazy/unstable characters too. They’re just more interesting, I think. (Plus I heart Holden big time).

    I hadn’t thought about it a ton till now, but the MC of my WIP could definitely be called an unreliable narrator. She’s definitely a liar, too the point where it’s almost compulsive. She went through a really difficult time a while ago, and rather than dealing with it, right now she mostly pretends none of it happened/lies about it. A lot of untrue things she says aren’t really cleared up until much later.

    I think all good 1st person is at least a little unreliable, or at least biased, because real people are that way.

    ps. love the picture of you reading Lolita 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 1, 2011 at 6:58 PM #

      Hi Kaye! Thanks for your comment. Your MC sounds so authentic. I agree that real people are all at least a little unreliable!
      PS Glad you like that pic! It’s from our “banned books” series. We all posted a pic with our favorite banned book. 🙂

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