Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Unreliable Narrators

The topic of the unreliable narrator comes up quite frequently in college writing classes. We'll read a novel or a short story - always of the 'literary' variety, of course - and in class, the professor will ask if we can fully trust the narrator and there will be a strange mixture of quiet nods and quiet headshaking, with no one or very few people wanting to actually answer the question. The answer is usually no, as over the past month or so of digging quite deeply into literary fiction I've decided that one of its defining features is extreme closeness to the protagonist*, so by nature of that the reader cannot believe everything that is said. If everything is seen solely through the lens of one character's perspective (sometimes two), not everything that that character thinks or feels will be the truth.

But what about a character who deliberately misleads the reader? Someone who lies all the time, perhaps, or someone who has a lot to hide.

I played with this idea a little bit in Letters to Oliver, but although individual characters did not necessarily have the whole story, the reader did, because the reader was privy to all of Emily's letters and could see what things she was concealing from which people. That's my favorite part about the epistolary format, and something I've talked at great length about in my historical fiction class - when we view a character through what they write down to send to another character, what they conceal, from whom, and why says even more about them than what they do say.

But I'm in a bit of a predicament now. I need to start working on my final project for historical fiction (which I think will also become my next novel project, if it goes well), and the main character, Maire, might possibly be a pathological liar. However, I have no idea how to pull this off in third person format. (Or regular first person narration, really, but that's less of a problem because I hate writing in first person that isn't epistolary.)

Do you guys have any suggestions? Recommendations for books or stories I could look at? Stern comments telling me that I am out of my mind and should drop the idea altogether? Anything you have to say would be most welcome.

Also, a related question: how do you feel about unreliable narrators in fiction? Do you like them? Hate them? What's your preferred format - a narrator who is unreliable to the characters around them but not to the reader, or a narrator who obscures everything for everyone involved? Have you ever written such a character?

All right, I think that's quite enough questions for your Tuesday. Have a lovely day!

*The point of this post is not to discuss literary vs. genre fiction. That is a can of worms I have to open on a near-daily basis in class and would rather leave quite alone.

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