Roundtable on Unreliable Narrators

Marie Brennan
I was just talking about this in a post for the RT blog, actually. There’s a sense in which every first-person narrator is unreliable, and (depending on how you handle it) so is every third-person limited narrator, too. Every shred of information you receive is coming through their filters, and that should mean that if we saw the scene from another person’s perspective, we’d get a different story.

Which is probably stretching the term “unreliable narrator” farther than it usually goes. Generally people use it to mean a narrator who is outright lying to the reader, rather than one who’s just biased like a normal human being. But I think it’s useful to recognize that kinship, rather than thinking of unreliability as a switch that can be flipped on or off.

Of course, all of this is complicated by the tendency of the reader to accept the POV character’s opinions as authoritative (unless the character in question is an obvious villain). In a third-person limited narrative, if the text says someone is ugly because X, readers will generally take that as Word From on High, that I think X is ugly. It’s hard for me to flag that as the opinion of the POV character in a way that readers will notice (unless I have a different pov character admire X). I think a first-person narrative gets a little more freedom in that regard — more readers will remember that the person speaking isn’t the author — but even then, we tend to swallow what we’re told hook, line, and sinker, without lots of signposts to remind us the narrator isn’t perfect.

Cecelia Holland
It’s all theater of the mind anyway.

Fabio Fernandes
I’m thinking here of Jonathan Carroll, who managed to surprise me at least once, in “After Silence”. I loved the way he led the reader in one direction, not to misguide her later, but to furnish a tiny but extremely powerful bit of information that makes you see the protagonist in quite a different light. I love unreliable narrators, and I’m writing a story now in which the narrator is a bit unreliable – but it’s still too early in the game for me to know if he will remain that way.

Russell Letson
Questionable narrators–or “authorial” voices–go back at least to Chaucer, who created a persona for himself among the Canterbury pilgrims and even wrote part of a tale as that drasty rimer. In fact, part of the appeal of the Tales is the way the various tales reflect the personalities of the tellers. I’m not sure that any earlier writer in the post-classical European tradition does this. (My classical chops aren’t strong enough to make the assertion about Greek and Latin lit.)

Point-of-view manipulation has been a major tool of “literary” writers at least since Henry James (Joyce and Faulkner and all the examples included in Fiction 101 anthologies–e.g., “I’m a Fool”), but there’s a bit less of it in popular forms outside of the spooky genres–Poe comes to mind as a major exemplar for the spooky writers who follow, and lots of Victorian-Edwardian supernatural fiction is concerned with strange states of mind–psychology projected as metaphysics, if you will. In SF, I think of quasi-stunts like “Fondly Farenheit” and the New-Wave-and-later application of modernist technique. (Silverberg did quite a lot of that starting in the 1960s.)

Cecelia Holland
I think you’re right about Chaucer. He and Dante had some inkling of the power of an inner life way back then, when the orthodoxy hadn’t even dreamed about it. You can contrast Gawain, or Beowulf.

After Shakespeare, though, character is clearly losing ground to personality, and this undermines the whole idea of reliable narration. In Tom Jones, say, or the Count of Monte Cristo, clearly Fielding and Dumas meant their considerably interfering voices to be providing necessary structure. By the time you get to Joyce that’s only getting in the way of the real thing, which is to recreate a personality for the reader to inhabit for the course of the book.

What about Hawthorne–Young Goodman Brown? There the narrator’s viewpoint is the whole object of everything–how it changes through the story. You could make the case that the very same thing is happening in Joyce’s “The Dead”, the greatest short story ever.

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