Friday, February 4, 2011

Unreliable Narrators

Today, I'm pleased to present a guest blog entry by Suspense/Mystery/F/SF author Rebecca Bates:

The unreliable narrator is a fascinating character. As a writer I'm drawn to them because of their complexities and also because they fit well with one of my favorite themes: what is reality?

Using the unreliable narrator in fiction is one of the many tools in the writer's toolbox that Stephen King (among others) describes in On Writing.

What does this mean? Googling "unreliable narrator," you will find countless entries from sources ranging from Wikipedia to the Guardian. I have my own ideas, though, and an example from my work.

First off, the narrator is the character telling the story in his or her own voice. This character is not necessarily the protagonist. We readers want to believe what that character says and thinks. Why? John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction that it's because of a "fundamental contract...that the writer will deal honestly and responsibly with the reader." After all, it's the narrator's story. But what if that character has an agenda that works counter to his or her world, the world of our story? This is the unreliable narrator.

I used this tool in my short story, "The Seventh Sleeve of Tombaugh" in the anthology Alien Aberrations, currently released from Grand Mal Press. The reader knows from the beginning that the narrator--Noah--has come to Pluto because he wants to escape the burgeoning spread of population. Humanity's hope lies with the stars, and this dream of potential achievement is skewed through the misanthrope's eyes. And then things go horribly wrong. Noah fixes the problem as he sees it. His solution creates another layer of implied but untold story, which the reader sees but Noah does not. Because the narrator is blind to the "real" problem, there is added impact for the reader.

Noah isn't necessarily an unlikable character. He has his own worldview. He doesn't think of himself as a bad person, even though others may think ill of him. He's just a tool who shows the reader that reality may not be what we think it is. Using an unreliable narrator can be a useful technique for any kind of writer, across all levels of genre writing.

Thanks, Rebecca!


  1. Very informative. I might give it a try, although I tend to give narration a wiiiiiiiiiide berth.


  2. Thanks, Misha! Narration can be a useful device, too, in the right places, but what I mean by the narrator is simply the viewpoint character, and how his/her story comes across. Narration could be used but doesn't have to be.

  3. Thanks for the nice blog post, Rebecca.
    Thanks for the comment Misha.
    I'm off to think about unreliable narrators...