Unreliable narrators

From Dostoyevsky’s unnamed narrator in Notes from Underground to Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert in Lolita, the unreliable narrator is one of the greatest additions to modern literature.It’s difficult to properly categorize a narrator as being unreliable. That certain narrator not only does he not tell the truth, but he withholds information on purpose, and at the same time is taunting the reader to see through his facade, to find the truth.

I’ve been intrigued by unreliable narrators for years. I read a lot of great stories, and I’ve tried to understand the mechanism that makes this style of storytelling appealing. In the process I’ve understood that unless the narrator has a certain voice, an uniqueness of character, then the story should be told in third person. There’s no need for first person narratives unless the narrator has a trait that makes him endearing.

But unreliable narrators are not simple first person narratives. As I said earlier, the appeal stands in the facts they omit certain details – after all, the most important parts of a story are the ones that take place “off-camera.” There are narrators who suffer from a mental condition, those who are simply naive or immature, narrators who exaggerate the tales that they tell, and many more.

What’s more intriguing is that existentialism seems to have kickstarted this whole thing with unreliable narrators. Dostoyevsky is a good example, but I would also recommend Jean Paul Sartre, especially one of his short stories, Herostratus , part of his collection The Wall – you can clearly see that the story couldn’t have been written in the third person. The pangs of the narrator, the struggles, the interior drama, all that unfolds in the most direct manner possible. When there’s a lot of introspection, it’s probably best to use first person.

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One thought on “Unreliable narrators

  1. This is timely for me because I’m just revising notes for my work-in-progress to reflect the fact that the MC is an unreliable narrator. I’m also trying to read a lot of books that are supposed to have unreliable narrators. I’m not sure I agree with everything here about 1st person narrative and unreliability (I’m reading Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” right now which is also on the list of unreliable narrator books and it’s told in 3rd person and I can totally see how the book fits into the UN category, so it is possible to write a UN book in 3rd person – not that I’m doing that). But there are some interesting ideas here.

    Tam May
    http://www.tammayauthor.com

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