I Don’t Rely on an Unreliable Narrator

I don’t know about this “unreliable narrator” thing.

It’s not illegitimate. This is a matter of my tastes as a writer and reader. I’m not so set in my ways that I’ll declare my tastes will never change. That being said,  so far in my writing and reading life, my tastes run quite counter to the unreliable narrator. There are several reasons for this.

To begin with, it seems a bit too much like a gimmick. Something injected into a book to buy some extra suspense. The words themselves can remain terrific writing, but the story to me seems somewhat crutched when we know you can’t believe a thing the narrator is saying. As with all such devices, expert use of the reliable narrator exists, and proves me wrong somewhere, I’m sure. Yet on the whole, it seems like something that one could overdose on with ease. Almost like the “it was all a dream!” ending that should never be employed anymore. Right now I tend to think that there is little difference between that and, “it was all a lie!”

Yet there are times when the unreliable narrator self-identifies as such, Holden Caulfield being the most often cited example. That’s a bit different, since he is a first person narrator, and everything first person is bound to be in the very least skewed in some sense. Yet if the first thing I get from a first-person narrator is, “I’m full of shit,” I am far less interested in hearing their side of anything, even their own story. Once more, as with any concept, if the word choice is exquisite, such a read would be worth the time for the poetry of the language in some cases, but for me that’s a high standard to meet.

In my head I can hear some of you reminding me that not all unreliable narrators intend to deceive. The character may be limited in some way, or under duress. That much is true, but even so the author is in fact attempting deception by use of such a “damaged goods” narrator. Surprises I don’t mind. In fact if a fiction can pull off surprising me without pissing me off, I’m quite happy. But wholesale deception is not a prerequisite to surprise in this case.

Anti-hero protagonists are fine. I’ve written a few myself. Some of them are even the narrators of my fiction. In the right hands, an amoral, or even immoral narrator could be fascinating, (more so if it’s in first-person.) Yet when I sit down to read a story, I want to know I’m getting the story, or at least a reasonable angle on said story. If the narrator is a killer, I want to at least know his story, and not something he made up just to bullshit me. If I’m reading the novel in the first place, that’s my willing entrance into a fiction. The vehicle by which this story is delivered to me need not be shiny, new, and sugar coated. There can by cracks in the windshield, and rust on the roof. It can reek of cigarette smoke or rattle a bit when it goes over 55 miles per hour. But I want to at least know it has enough gas and won’t fall apart on me while I take the elective journey that is reading a novel or story.

Now, let’s not be obtuse. Any perspective a character has, whether they are the narrator or not, will have a small sampling of inaccuracy at least. As in real life, if five normal characters in fiction witness something, there will be small, but forgivable variations in their stories, even if all of them are honest. Different perceptions, different memories and ways of revealing information. That’s human life. When you split that many hairs, you can say that everyone is unreliable. However, I think most will agree that there is a considerable difference between the normal divergence of interpretation between healthy people, and specific intention to hide information or deceive, or to be too damaged to know what one is talking about. The former allows us as people to muddle through in good shape in life. The latter constructs a world wherein we never trust anyone for any length of time about anything. The same is true in fiction, and I prefer the former.

Actually, in most of my own fiction I try to keep the narrator out of the way as much as possible. I take an over-the-shoulder approach about 80 per cent of the time, and that makes the unreliable narrator a non-issue for the most part. I want a reader to know what is happening as it happens, and be relatively secure that what they see is what they get. If I want to surprise or shock, my ideal is to do so through action or revelation inside a character’s mind, not by means of a narrator you cannot trust.

What do you think of the unreliable narrator? Any suggestions as to stories or novels that do it well, and might change my mind on the issue?


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