Perspective Series: #2 Unreliable Narrator

Perspective Series: #2 Unreliable Narrator

In our previous article of the Perspective Series, we talk about the topic of the First-person Narrator. We know that the first-person narrator tells the story in their voice. They are not always aware of all the facts. But should we always believe the narrator and everything they say? This is the case of the Unreliable Narrator.

What is the Unreliable Narrator?

An unreliable narrator in literature, film, theatre, etc., deceives the reader by giving him a false perspective on the story. Thus, the readers remain trapped in this view of events until they gradually discover that the narrator is not credible. The unreliable perspective occurs mainly with the personal narrative method.

Wayne C. Booth coined this term in his book “The Rhetoric of Fiction“, explained how an unreliable narrator is. It has a narrative function, such as misleading the reader/viewer or putting the character in question in a negative light. Narrative characters can be unreliable if they have psychological flaws, show strong prejudices, lack experience, or even consciously mislead the audience.

Who is the Unreliable Narrator?

It is important to remember that the narrator is not the author. The narrator is directly involved in the story and is not always aware of the facts.

Generally, having a narrator who tells the story as it happens, with his emotions, has a particular goal. The readers are more involved because they know that the narrator does not know what will happen.

The narrative perspective of the Unreliable Narrator is often used in crime and thriller novels. However, it is a rather complex technique to use. The Unreliable Narrator is a narrator who does not report the facts as they happened.

The three actions of an Unreliable Narrator

Three actions define and make it clear that we are dealing with an unreliable narrator:

  • Omission
  • Alteration
  • Distortion

In the first situation, the Unreliable Narrator omits facts or causal links of fundamental importance. The omission of certain events prevents the reader from really understanding the situation and guessing how it will develop. The reader is thus left groping in the dark.

However, an Unreliable Narrator also alters the reality of the facts by reporting events inaccurately. In essence, the narrator presents their point of view to the reader without revealing that it does not correspond to reality.

Finally, the Unreliable Narrator applies the ‘distortion of judgment‘. This is the judgment alteration of themself and the other characters.

The Unreliable Narrator in books

A clear example of the Unreliable Narrator is Italo Svevo‘s Zeno’s Conscience.
Zeno Cosini is the unreliable narrator of this story. To appear better than he is in the eyes of Doctor S., Zeno distorts the facts of the past and constantly alters his judgments.

In the book’s first chapter, Doctor S. himself explains this characteristic very well. He decides, in revenge, to publish Zeno’s autobiography, warning the reader of the mountain of lies he will find written in it.

In addition, Agatha Christie used it extensively in her mystery books. In ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd‘, she did it where the reader finds out that the narrator is the story’s culprit.

“We commonly do not remember that it is … always the first person that is speaking.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Write your story with the Perspective of the Unreliable Narrator

As we have seen, the Unreliable Narrator Perspective confuses the reader. At a certain point, the readers undergo a twist, realizing that they have been dealing with an Unreliable Narrator.

bibisco and its novel planning software can help you figure out which perspective to give your narrator, depending on your writing story.

Perspective Series- Unrealiable Narrator- bibisco's project explorer - bibisco blog | useful resources by your novel writing software
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An Unreliable Narrator exalts himself and his ethics by blaming other characters for his own mistakes.

Why is this used? The primary function is providing the reader with a distorted view of the facts, told from the point of view of the unreliable narrator. This generates continuous uncertainty, which produces truly exciting twists and turns!

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