The unreliable narrator
A narrative can really carry you along. From the outset a reader trusts a storyteller, feeling in the mood to be entertained, to be moved, to have her/his emotions piqued. But what happens when a narrator doesn’t fulfil the required anticipation? Disappointment! But in the case of the use of the writing technique called ‘unreliable narrator’, a lack in fulfilling the trust that a reader has imbued in a narrator is quite deliberate and can lead to a different type of fulfilment. Horror, or humour, for instance.
The term ‘unreliable narrator’ was coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction. It’s not that the technique had never been used before – just that it had never been given a name. While unreliable narrators are almost always first-person narrators, there’s debate over the effectiveness of unreliable second-person and third-person narrators.
Generally a narrator begins a story using a credible voice, but as the story progresses doubts are raised in the reader’s mind. Perhaps the narrator is too dogmatic, perhaps he/she begins to sound a little mad, perhaps absolute fabrications begin to become obvious, or at odds with what the narrator earlier maintained. The exposure of the unreliability of the narrator seeps out along the way, or comes as an explosive shock towards the end of the story. Either method can be used, although the increasing sense of discomfort by the reader over the plausibility of the narrator is the most common approach.
The technique is most often employed in the novel, or even the short story genre. In memoir or autobiography too much exaggeration or dissimulation is generally recognised as egotistical chutzpah, lack of self-awareness or simple lying and causes a reader to throw the book away – unless it is used as a comic device.
Examples of classic stories told by unreliable narrators include Agatha Christie’s novels The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Endless Night. Modern writers using the technique include Alistair MacLean in The Golden Rendezvous, Ken Kesey in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and John Grisham in The Racketeer.
Members of our Sydney Writers Circle creative meetup groups took a different slant in trying to uncover differences between the narrator and the self. Here are some ideas that four of our writers came up with:
The narrator and the self – 3 views
1. It is Written
by Helen Ameisen
As I am writing a memoir, my narrator is my 26 year old self in 1981, encountering my destiny as it unfolds and taking my readers with me, so that everything transpires for them as it does for me – immediate, fresh surprising, challenging, exalting, ever-changing, and not told from an older, knowing self.
It is not told from today’s perspective, looking back through the lenses of my present life. With the aid of diaries, letters (written by me and to me), telexes, postcards and multitudes of photographs, the written words are felt and spoken by my younger self, collapsing history, following the past but still resonant and relevant for today.
By building this sense of immediacy, you are there … in the moment at the place that becomes the stage upon which this life story is played.
2. Finding my voice
by Meg Mooney
Lately I’ve become aware of a certain familiarity in my writer’s voice which does on occasion irritate, even frustrate, me and which can stop me from trying new ways to write. I find myself wondering why I allow these feelings to interfere with my writing. Where do they come from and how can I best to tackle the problem if there is one? Is it because I want to throw off the chains of gender that seem to bind me to a certain way of writing? I sometimes get the urge to try new ways to create a more imaginative, varied voice which will gratify me as well as the reader. Am I being too hard on myself perhaps, looking for too many clues, too many answers when there are none and stopping myself from just enjoying the writing process?
I’m encouraged when I read about such great writers as Virginia Woolf whose novels, short stories and essays are striking examples of her internalisation of her lived experiences – of what it is like to move through the world as a woman. It didn’t stop her from writing but instead propelled her forward with a transformative energy. Others such as Daphne du Maurier created a male alter ego which she used so effectively in her novel My Cousin Rachel written entirely in first person from the point of view of a young man, Philip, whose life is intertwined with the two central characters Ambrose and Rachel.
Perhaps I should take heart from all writers of all ages who have wrestled with similar feelings of self-doubt and learn to trust my deeper self. Just like with a meditation practice: begin with a beginner’s mind, not judging, not standing in the way, but open to all ideas and possibilities.
3. Who is the self, who is the narrator?
by Deirdre Keenaghan
To write as a narrator surely must be easier than being the self, because as a narrator you have a task, a job, to do. Narrators must tell the story. They are lucky as they can take any standpoint, any view. The narrator can leave the story at any time and hand over to a second or third person.
The self … well, the self is more attached, more engrossed. He or she is stuck with himself or herself; there is no escaping. That must be the point of difference. The narrator must consider how to maintain the reader’s eye while writing. The narrator needs to focus and engage the reader, even if the words are borrowed.
The story … the story is the commonality that they are both battling over. The self must often feel defeated by too much subjectivity. So in steps the objective carefree narrator. Blah, blah, blah – the narrator is spurting out works like a loom spinning a yarn.
But the self really has the story, the self owns it a little more than the narrator. He or she has the copyright … well, the original copyright. The narrator needs the self, so it’s almost symbiotic. If the self can become its own narrator, that might be the best outcome.
3. The author vs the narrator
by Marjorie Banks
The narrator is my chattel
My storytelling slave
He’ll have the thoughts I give him
And he’ll always behave
He’ll say the things that I want to
And be opinionated
While my authorial distance
Will be praised and celebrated
His speeches can be shocking
His utterings outrageous
But being only on the page
Controversy’s not contagious
If anyone objects to him
And finds his views too free
It’s simple for me to disclaim
That he is actually me