The Unreliable Narrator

There is a format of writing know as the unreliable narrator. This is where the character taking you through the story is lying to you, but you don’t know it. For example, they may talk about how wonderful person X is and can’t understand why someone would murder them, then the punch line of the story is that they are the one who murdered person X.

Generally this style annoys me (though when pulled off well it can be excellent), and the only way I can relate it back to real life is those friends (and we all have them) who exaggerate their stories and sometimes get confused about what they imagined and what actually happened. And let’s face it, we know they do this so we don’t put a lot of stock in their tales anyway.

But then I realised we do all have an unreliable narrator who we cannot trust; ourselves.

I recently wrote a story and tried to edit it within 24 hours of finishing due to a writing group deadline. The edit was a waste of time. The story looked like a mess to me. I couldn’t see enough good bits to exorcise the bad bits. Yesterday I edited it again. There were lots of good bits, yes there were also lots of opportunities for improvement, but it was not the total write-off that my first edit indicated.

Then I was talking to a friend who was saying how much she hated her novel right now, and instantly I went ‘oh, you’re up to that bit’ –because it is so common for writers to hate their story at some stage, usually closer to the end than the beginning. It is our unreliable narrator kicking in and telling us stuff is crap when it is not.

I’m sure this same narrator tells us we are stupid, fat, ugly etc. and we believe it. If only it was so easy to recognise our exaggerating, lying self in real life as it is when it comes to editing. I guess we do have the benefit of writers groups to tell us that it is not crap (and honestly tell us when it is), but our friends and family are probably a little less reliable when we check in with them about if we really are being stupid.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *