Tag Archives: Point of view

Should Your Story Be Told by an Unreliable Narrator?

26 Sep

by Julie Eshbaugh


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.


Point of View – First Person, Third Person, or Objective?

20 Dec

by Julie Eshbaugh


There are few decisions a writer can make that will have a stronger influence on their story than the choice of point of view.  The point of view (POV) from which a story is told answers more than the simple question, “Who tells the story?”  It determines “How much is the narrator allowed to know?” and “To what extent can the narrator perceive the characters’ thoughts and emotions and share them with the reader?”

There are four basic choices when it comes to POV:

1.)    Third person omniscient

2.)   Third person limited

3.)   First person

4.)   Objective

THIRD PERSON OMNISCIENT may appear to a writer as the simplest means of telling a story, because the reader can know the thoughts of all the characters and therefore the writer can take the reader to any scene in the story and reveal as much – or as little – of the story as needed.  Unlike third person limited or first person, the writer isn’t tied to what a single character sees or experiences.

Here’s an example of a scene from the classic story Hansel and Gretel told in third person omniscient POV.  Italics are used to show the places the narrator conveys knowledge of a character’s thoughts or feelings:

“Hansel walked ahead of Gretel; after all, he knew he belonged in the front because Gretel was just a girl. Gretel dropped breadcrumbs behind her as she went, knowing that her bumbling brother couldn’t be counted on to find his way home from the outhouse, let alone from the middle of the woods.

Ahead of them, an old witch waited, her stomach rumbling at the thought of what a delicious dinner the two plump children would make.”

In this example, the writer is fairly liberal with her knowledge of all the characters.  However, this doesn’t necessarily need to be the case.  Some narrators may reveal the thoughts of all the characters but one, which raises the mystery and significance of the “unknown” character.  Other times, a story might be told by a narrator that confines his observations to only one character at a time.  This happens in the short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” by Richard Connell, where the POV shifts from Rainsford to Zaroff near the end of the story.

Third person omniscient gives the writer the most flexibility, and, when used well, it can enable a story to capture both depth and breadth.  However, there are certain inherent dangers to omniscient POV.  For one, the writer may come between her reader and her story by offering too many interpretations of events.  The reader may become confused by an apparent inconsistency from shifting points of view, and the story may lose its realism by revealing so much more than what is experienced by the reader “in real life.”

THIRD PERSON LIMITED is similar to omniscient, except the writer can only access the thoughts and feelings of one character.  The writer stays by the side of this character, so the story is limited to this one person’s experiences, and the narrator tells the story through this one character’s eyes and mind.  Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is told in third person limited, with Elizabeth Bennet serving as the point of view character.  By putting limitations on what the reader is able to know, suspense and mystery become much more available to the writer.  Also, the narrator often takes on the attitudes of the point of view character, assuming that the character’s beliefs about the events of the story are true.  This brings the focus in on this one select character and makes the story much more personal.

Here’s our Hansel and Gretel example, but from third person limited, with Gretel as the point of view character:

“Hansel walked ahead of Gretel.  Gretel dropped breadcrumbs behind her as she went, knowing that her bumbling brother couldn’t be counted on to find his way home from the outhouse, let alone from the middle of the woods.

Notice that the mention of the witch is gone, since Gretel has no knowledge of her at this point.

FIRST PERSON POINT OF VIEW takes the narration and moves it completely into the interior of one character.  At first it may seem that the flexibility and limits of third person limited and first person would be the same, and they are very similar, but there a few key differences.  Since in first person, the story is told by the character directly, the author as intervening narrator is completely eliminated, adding a bit of extra immediacy to the story and making the character’s “voice” much more discernible.  However, the author who chooses first person over third person limited sacrifices the ability to interpret the character in any way that the character is not personally aware.  Whereas third person limited allows the writer the opportunity to tell the reader things about the point of view character of which he or she may be only dimly aware, first person is limited entirely to what the narrating character asserts he or she sees.  This makes the point of view very subjective, and if the first person narrator has a limited outlook, the reader will receive all the events filtered through the narrator’s limited ability to interpret his or her surroundings.  One great example of a first person narrator who filters the story’s events before telling them to the reader is Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s CATCHER IN THE RYE.  Holden isn’t the most objective narrator, so the reader is left to figure out the story’s events and their meanings while simultaneously figuring out the particular quirks of Holden’s personality.

Here’s our Hansel and Gretel example, but from first person, with Gretel as the point of view character:

Hansel walked ahead of me.  I made sure I dropped breadcrumbs behind me as I went, since my bumbling brother couldn’t be counted on to find his way home from the outhouse, let alone from the middle of the woods.

Notice that the entire passage is italicized, because all of it is Gretel’s thoughts.

OBJECTIVE POINT OF VIEW is often referred to as Dramatic point of view, because the story is narrated by the author as if he is a mere spectator of events.  Objective point of view contains no references to thoughts or feelings; it only reports what can be seen and heard.  One way to imagine this POV would be to think of the narrator as a roving movie camera.

Objective POV has its own advantages and disadvantages.  Of all the points of view available to an author, it could be argued that it offers the most speed and the most action.  However, it doesn’t allow the writer any room to interpret events at all.  This works well when writing stories with serious themes, because it removes the danger of the narrator coming across as “preachy.”  Objective POV allows the reader to form his or her own opinions.  It puts a lot of pressure on the writer, therefore, to convey all that needs to be conveyed with action and dialogue.  A classic example of objective POV used to perfect effect is the short story “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson.

Here’s our Hansel and Gretel example, but from the objective POV:

“Hansel walked ahead of Gretel. Gretel dropped breadcrumbs behind her as she went.

Ahead of them, an old witch waited.”

Notice that none of the passage is italicized, because all of it is action, and no thoughts or feelings are included at all.

So which do you like the best?  Have you ever attempted objective POV, or do you stick to a more standard approach?  Do you always write in the same POV, or do you like to mix it up, depending on the project?  I hope you’ll share your attitudes toward POV in the comments!


Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.  She is also a freelance editor. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.


Filter Words and Distancing Point of View

6 Dec

by Susan Dennard



This post has been UPDATED

and re-posted on

Pub(lishing) Crawl!


Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, The Spirit-Hunters, will be available from HarperCollins in 2012. You can learn more about her writing process, crazy life-thoughts, and crippling cookie-addiction on her blog or twitter.