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