Writers have a unique power that if not used for good can have everlasting consequences. Right now I have you hooked; you keep reading because you want me to tell you what I have to say. This is the power I speak of. You as the reader trust me. You've never met me. I could be an escaped goldfish from a mad scientist’s lab, but you think I’m a good person. You believe I have something important I need to say. You believe I won’t lead you astray. Readers go into a story with blind trust, the instinct to believe what the narrator is saying. This is a noble instinct. Something poetic could be said about the inherent good in people as seen by their immediate need to believe or trust in something or someone they’ve never met. Look at politics. We want to believe politicians all the time. Some of us do.
When a reader encounters an unreliable narrator, there is a fascination with being beguiled or lead to believe a very limited point of view. Perhaps right now you think of an unreliable narrator as a criminal or evil person. However, the truth is that everyone thinks they are the good guys despite what they do or say. Hitler thought he was doing everyone a favor. He was deluded and evil in his methodology and thinking, but the point is that unreliable narrators usually think they are on the right side of history. They honestly believe they are correct. This is what makes them so good at deceiving; they believe, so we then believe. We now have the perfect recipe for crafting an unreliable narrator: the trust of the reader and the narrator’s desire to be right. Stephen King writes that “the trust of the innocent is the liar’s most useful tool.” In this case, the writer creating the narrator is the liar and the innocent is the reader. This is also a limited view of what an unreliable narrator is, so let’s broaden the definition.
One of the most attractive qualities about the use of an unreliable narrator is that they are shape shifters. They come in many different forms. Imagine the Harry Potter novels rewritten through the point of view of a Death Eater or The Catcher in the Rye as told by Holden’s parents. We would see Harry as a vile creature who keeps trying to thwart Voldemort’s plan to bring harmony to the wizarding world, and Holden would just be a whiney child who hates life. Point of view is one of the most important parts of the story. The point of view shapes the lens through which we see the world of the story.
So, should a child be considered an unreliable narrator? Yes, because they have a limited worldview. Holden Caulfield is considered unreliable because he believes the world is out to get him and he hates everyone. In the novel Room by Emma Donoghue, the narrator is a five year-old named Jack who has been locked in one room with his mother for his entire life. His unreliability is unintentional, but he is unreliable nonetheless. Lolita is perhaps the most famous example and uses an unreliable narrator that tries to cloud the immoral and justify his actions. In Gone Girl the reader encounters two conflicting points of view without knowing which to believe. When the trustworthy perspective is eventually revealed, we can still see how the unreliable character feels his or her actions are completely justified. There are also instances of perception being altered by drugs and alcohol. These narrators aren’t intentionally unreliable, but they don’t know better because they are inebriated. This raises a larger question: can any narrator—particularly a first person narrator—be reliable?
Now, you have journeyed with me for almost 700 words and you want to trust what I’ve just told you. Could I have made everything up because I hit a deadline and needed something to write? Could I have copied everything I needed from Wikipedia and passed it along as my own? The truth is, you can’t know. But you want to believe me because why would a narrator lie to you?
Scott Rachesky is a first year MFA fiction candidate at FAU. Aside from singing Carmina Burana in community choir, being a photographer, solving imaginary murders, and raising Unipegs, he enjoys to write…go figure. His writerly influences include Chuck Palahniuk, Jennifer Egan, Lori Moore, and Joseph Heller. Some people have described his writing style as similar to F. Scott Fitzgerald, but he doesn’t believe those people and thinks they only make the connection because of the shared name of Scott.