Exploring the Possibilities of an Unreliable Narrator

Writers aren’t necessarily eccentric. Writers are secretly voyeurs to some extent. To me, the human mind and experience is complex, profound, mysterious, and fascinating. I’m surrounded by people of all walks of life. I encountered interesting people. I’m an observer. As a writer, it’s important to not get into a self-righteous attitude when perceiving something. I don’t have to like what I see or hear. I don’t have to agree with someone. I should have no qualms being bold about it. In fact, I sometimes can’t stand my protagonist of my novel-in-progress. If my protagonist was a real person, we will certainly not be friends. In fact, we’d beat each other up, maybe if we were mean middle school girls or rival sorority girls. My protagonist does not appear to be a likeable character. However, the narrator knows something and reveals the story in such a way that the reader sees through the protagonist’s tough, cold shell. My narrator helps the reader see the protagonist as a heroine on a journey rather than a cold-hearted bitch.

Having a narrator with a unique voice is vital to story telling—and we all know that. But, an unreliable narrator spices things up and makes it interesting.

Being fascinated with human life is what helps me create a character. Fiction writing is not my personal memoir posing as “fiction.” It may be true that my life experiences may influence the story. For example, my protagonist’s father is not my father, even though both are alcoholics. My real-life father has his own story. My protagonist’s father has his own story. The protagonist’s father lived in a different place, faced other situations that were not experienced by my dad, even though some similarities exist. Not every person reacts the same way to a situation. I create my character through a combination of personal and collective experiences. Collective experiences are from stories I hear whether through talk, conversations, news stories, and so on. Then, there’s psychology. My basic college psychology classes helped me with characterization. I put all these together to create a character. Putting the different pieces together to create a character with a voice and mind of its own is like exploring different colors when painting.

Narrators can help shape the story. I enjoy unreliable narrators because of the many possibilities they bring to the story. I love how an unrealiable narrator can create irony and overall tone. As for me, I tend to have a strong personality and voice. I’m not afraid to say what I really feel. So, sometimes the first draft of my story can come across as “preachy.” An English woman, who was critiquing my writing, mentioned that. She said that both our cultures tend to have that straightforward type of communication style. That can unintentionally carry over to our fiction writing. I’m glad she pointed it out. I thought it was  interesting because I always thought the British were not at all straightforward. Maybe someone who knows more than me can chime in about the communication patterns and culture of the British people.

To this day, I remember what my English classmate told me. I catch the parts where the narration turns “preachy” when I revise, but I wasn’t sure where that tendency came from. To avoid that preachy tone, I like to use an unreliable narrator as a tool of irony to criticize our mad world. An unreliable narrator is characterized by a unique way of seeing the world.

There are different types of unreliable narrators to explore:

  • The Clueless, Ingenue, or Otherwise Unaware Character. Clueless wouldn’t be the same if Cher’s good-natured, sweet but popular, valley girl character was replaced with another character. This is a technique used for a subtle satire of society, particularly customs and values of a group. The reader can be aware of the situation, but the narrator remains unaware. Another example from the movies is Forrest Gump. His simpleton, naive voice tells the beautiful story of redemption as he encounters the historical events of the time. Or, how about a Shakespearean fool type of character telling the story? In Shakespeare’s plays, the fool ends up being the wisest person and even a forth teller revealing the futures without realizing it. That’s a technique to play with. The clueless ingenue seems to work well with comedies, social criticism, or satirical type of story.
  • The Troubled Narrator. The list from literature is Holden Caufield of Catcher in the Rye, Esther from The Bell Jar, Manfred from Lord Byron’s Manfred, Jack of Room, Humbert of Lolita. The main character (and narrator) of The Black Swan brings us into her world and inner descent into madness. The purpose of a troubled narrator is to bring us into a complex, intricate world of the mind. We are all voyeurs and have a morbid fascination into the minds of others. However, I will warn against romanticizing real conditions and mental illnesses. It is off-putting, irresponsible, and unethical. People with struggles are not side-show freaks or objects of voyeurism. They are real people just like us—whether you like to admit it or not. Please, have some empathy, mutual respect, and understand that all of us have our shortcomings, skeletons in the closet, and “thorn in the flesh.” We all have baggage. Some may be more flamboyant than others;

As a wiseman and college classmate, Jonathan Stark, once said, “Wisdom is not about knowledge alone; it is how much empathy you have for your fellow humans.”The narrator of my novel falls into this category. She is a young woman facing PTSD and sexual addiction. She battled the demons of her past—an alcoholic, abusive father, codependent immature mother, and the nomadic lifestyle of an expat/immigrant. I want to portray the lack of connection between parts of her life as if the parts of her life were broken shards of memories. For some people with PTSD, there is a lack of continuity when recalling events. Then, there are certain moments when her thoughts freeze like the deer frozen at the sight of bright headlights. I promise that the novel is not 300 pages of depressing shit. There is redemption and humor.

  • The Outsider. This narrator is a foreigner, explorer, newcomer to the world of characters. I have rarely used this technique. But this is an idea if the novel is a bildungsroman or coming-of-age plot or the story of . An example would be Joanna (Nicole Kidman) coming into a town to find the women being simply too perfectly hyper-domestic to the point of creepiness. I can also think of Kady of Mean Girls, a third culture kid who is perplexed by the cliques of an American high school in the suburbs. Kady narration assumed the satirical role of a cultural anthropologist. An outsider has many possibilities. In one of my stories, an Indian-American woman returns to India with her new American husband. Both feel out of place while trying to settle in Bangalore, India’s silicon valley. One day, she meets an eccentric Australian lady dressed like a hippie who not only has a better grasp of Kannada and Hindi than her but seems to be more at home. This scene was used to poke fun of identities.

I’m sure there are other possibilities. These are the few archetypes I experimented with. Here are some writing exercises or suggestions to spice up the story through exploring the unreliable character. First, pick a scene or part of your writing, and then:

  1. Change the voice of the narrator using one of the archetypes listed above or adding your own. See what happens.
  2. Imagine one of your minor characters swapped bodies with the narrator. Rewrite from that perspective.
  3. Your character has a past that shaped him or her. What is the narrator’s reaction to hearing that? The narrator’s new attitude changes (for the better or worse). Rewrite the scene with the narrator’s new attitude towards the protagonist.

Happy Writing.

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