Narrative Voice: What is an Unreliable Narrator?

 
By: 
J. M. Frey
January 22, 2021

Now that we’ve established what a point-of-view (POV) and a Narrative Voice are, let’s talk about Unreliable Narrators. These are narrators who, either because of the way they interpret the world, omissions in their story, or outright falsehoods and manipulation, lie to the reader.

In the first part of this series, I talked about the narrator as the driver of a story, the perpective through which each moment and emotion is filtered and distilled. It is from this cup of filtered experience that the reader drinks in your story. Most of the time, the experience that the reader consumes can be assumed to be a genuine and honest reporting of what happened, and how the narrator actually feels, thinks, or behaves.

However, there can be value in choosing a character who either does not, or cannot, filter those experiences accurately to present your story. In this case, the reader cannot trust the narrator to be reliable.

To explain what I mean, I want to talk about my favourite Unreliable Narrator of all time: Anne Shirley from L.M. Montgomery's classic Anne of Green Gables

“What?” I can hear you shouting. “The precocious, imaginative, sunny-eyed, spunky Canadian Orphan of our childhoods? No!”

Yes.

See, here’s the thing that a lot of people miss when they’re reading the books: Anne is deeply, deeply effed up when she arrives at Green Gables. Everything she reports—and we as readers, swallow whole-heartedly—as charming quirks of her own personality, are actually indicators of d coping mechanisms as a result of childhood trauma. For example:

  • She spends hours imagining her life a Princess Cordelia? Disassociation.
  • She reads everything she can get her hands on? Could be indicative of OCD or depression, or a desperate desire to escape reality and a defence against a harmful living situation.
  • Her best friend is the personified version of her own reflection? Lack of socialization.
  • Her temper? Lashing out and anger management/emotional regulation issues.
  • The way she clings to Diana right away? Attachment issues.

But since Anne is the narrator of her own tales, obviously she doesn’t want to dwell on the dark parts of why she does what she does. So she doesn’t talk about those things. As readers, if we accept what she’s telling us at the surface and don’t read critically, we see her only as a sunny, quirky, big-hearted kid and do her the disservice of missing the incredible character arc of Anne overcoming the traumas of her life before Green Gables. Like with Cinderella, it is hard to have a hard life and still grow up loving and kind. So reading Anne as an Unreliable Narrator makes her so much more powerful, and makes ending so much more satisfying.

Take into account that author Montgomery was a mental health advocate and died by suicide when her own mental health issues became too unbearable, and we can guess that while Anne was always meant to be embraced as the kind and loving character she is (for the moral of all of the Anne books are that everyone deserves love and respect, no matter their background), it is also becomes a powerful story about what state-sponsored abuse can do to children, whether Montgomery intended it or not.

When you consider Anne unreliable, the book is, in my opinion, better.

So now that you have handle on how powerful using an Unreliable Narrator can be, let’s move onto making one of your own.

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Narrative Voice: What is an Unreliable Narrator is the fourth post in a nine part series.

Also in this series:

Part 1: Who Is Telling Your Story

Part 2: Using More Than One Narrator

Part 3: Creating a Narrative Voice

Part 4: What is an Unreliable Narrator

Part 5: Creating Your Unreliable Narrator

Part 6: Narrative Voice: Point of View and Tenses

Part 7: Narrative Voice: Vocabulary Choice and Tone (Part One)