Write Now: Is A Narrator Always Believable?

Have you started to read a novel, and found the narrator unreliable?

You are not alone.

I’ll let you in on a secret. It was intentional.

An unreliable narrator is a technique sometimes used by authors to gain the attention of their readers.

You are reading, but the information you obtain about other characters seems a bit out of place. And it comes from a character that you probably don’t think is a character — the narrator.

Yes, although the narrator fills in details along the way, the narrator is still considered a character. In this case, at least, an unreliable character.

Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

According to purdue.edu, an “unreliable narrator is a narrator that is not trustworthy, and, whose rendition of events must be taken with a grain of salt. We tend to see such narrators especially in first-person narration, since that form of narration tends to underline the motives behind the transmission of a given story.”

If written with style and grace, the unreliable narrator can be a great tool for telling tales. The reader doesn’t know whether to believe or not to believe what he has learned.

And the reader may figure out the narrator is unreliable at the beginning, middle or end, depending how the novel is written. The reader knows exactly what the narrator knows.

An unreliable narrator can be a great tool when teaching writing. First it will get students to express their thoughts with a written word by using a writing utensil (pen or pencil) or second, by typing their words onto a virtual page by using a software program. Either way, the students are learning to communicate through the written word. In John O’Connor’s article, “Truth in Fiction: Teaching Unreliable Narrators,” O’Connor argues that by dramatizing the narrator in the classroom, students can learn to transfer the new learned skill to connect literature to their own lives. “We cannot hope to teach the truth of a narrative without a close examination of the narrator. Teaching students to reconstruct the meaning of unreliable narrators is one of the most valuable skills toward this aim.”

There are several books in literature that have unreliable narrators.

Here are some examples:

“The Turn of The Screw,” by Henry James

“The Great Gatsby,” By F. Scott Fitzgerald

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee

“The Catcher In The Rye,” by J.D. Salinger

In “The Great Gatsby,” the story is told through Nick Carraway who is the next door neighbor of Jay Gatsby. At the end of Chapter Three, Carraway asserts, “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”

That kind of statement should have the reader question Carraway’s intentions through the rest of the novel. How does the reader know if Carraway is telling the truth or pushing the reader down some slippery slope.

Well, Fitzgerald did a perfect job at characterizing Carraway. So go in fact, the reader has to read the end in order to make up his mind.

In “Catcher In The Rye,” some readers may view Holden Caulfield as unreliable because of how he talks, and his perceived arrogance. But again, maybe that’s how Salinger wanted Caulfield to be viewed.

In “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Scout (Jean Louise) Finch is a young tomboy ready to take on the world as she gets into fistfights as she stands up for herself. At that young age, she isn’t afraid to fight a boy to teach him a thing or two. But because she is so young, her story may change as she gets older, so she may be viewed as a unreliable narrator.

But nonetheless, a reader can connect with Scout, Holden, and Nick because the reader can see some of himself in them.

So the next time you start reading a novel, and a narrator seems sketchy, don’t be afraid to believe him or not.

The author doesn’t mind because either way, the author’s intention of getting you to read has been completed. He did his job.