Last week I talked about third person viewpoint and how to use free indirect style to get the reader up close and personal with your viewpoint character. But if you use first person viewpoint, you’re one step ahead already, right? Nothing drags you into the narrative like the first person, or the ‘I’ of fiction. But watch out, because all is not necessarily as it seems …

The Unreliable Narrator
I’d heard this term bandied around for years in writing classes and lit-crit, but I never really understood what it meant, or how it can be used to the author’s advantage in fiction. First of all, don’t take the unreliable bit to literally – it doesn’t mean your character won’t turn up for a date or pay back a loan! The unreliability comes from the truths, or otherwise, contained within the narrative story.

Example time: Your first person narrative character is describing a man she claims to know well. She tells the reader about his childhood, his hopes and fears, his motivations. But wait – how can she really know all this? Even if he had told her some of it, how could she see inside his mind? So the reader starts to pick up on the possibility that some of her account is made up. And maybe she wants to present herself in a good light to the reader, and present him in a bad light. But why? This could be part of the dramatic tension, building up to the reader finding out what really happened between them.

1st edition in book form (publ. Heinemann)
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This type of unreliable narrator is used, for example, in Nabokov’s Pnin (yes, OK, I did learn something from it). The first person narrative character is an acquaintance of Professor Pnin, and tells his story as though entirely factual. But when at the end he is revealed to be someone Pnin actively dislikes, the veracity of the narrator’s account of Pnin is called into question. Of course, it’s more complicated than this (it’s Nabokov, after all), but essentially this is one type of unreliable narrator in fiction.

So if one type of unreliable narrator is one who lies to the reader, the other type is where the narrator is lying to herself. I used this to some extent in Can’t Live Without. Stella tells her story in the first person, present tense, and I did this to make her account very immediate, with the reader feeling they are inside her mind, feeling her feelings and hearing her thoughts as they happen. But it soon becomes clear that Stella’s understanding of the world around her is flawed. She believes, for example, that her daughter is totally materialistic, but as her daughter changes and reassess her priorities, Stella doesn’t notice – or refuses to notice. So even though Stella’s story is told in the first person, the reader can see that sometimes she lies to herself, or at least is more flawed in reading the people she loves than she believes herself to be.

Why use this technique? In my case, it added to the arc of Stella’s development – she had to learn that her understanding was flawed, and put that right, before she could move on and find happiness. This was on top of the more overt challenges of rebuilding her burnt down house, and finding love, so it added another, more subtle layer to the plot. There are lots of examples in fiction of this kind of unreliable narrator, who appears to be aware of themselves and their motivations, while the reader can see all along that they are pretty wide of the mark.

So, next time you are writing in the first person, think about how you could use this technique. Are they telling the reader the absolute truth? Should they? And where might that take your story?