Unreliable Narrators

September 16, 2011

On his new blog, David Sanders quotes from J. T. Bushnell’s recent article in Poets & Writers on unreliable narrators. According to Bushnell, even a third-person narrator can be unreliable if the point of view is limited, and he offers this advice:

“you have to know not only who your characters are, but also who they pretend to be, not only what they care about but also what they say they care about, not only what ideas they live by but also how those ideas are false. You have to figure out why your characters are blind, and how they’ve managed to maintain their blindness. And you have to signal these disparities to the reader without revealing them to the character, or straining credibility by making the characters too blind. This creates other dynamics that are necessary in good storytelling, for example, character limitation and unrecognized truth, and moving between the former and the latter helps shape a story’s meaning, or theme.”

I prefer to call a non-personified, third-person narrator a “narrative voice,” and when that voice limits itself to the perspective of a given character, much of what the reader hears can be untrustworthy. However, it’s the character, not the narrative voice, that is unreliable. That’s a trivial distinction, probably—and Bushnell’s summary of what the writer needs to know about each character is certainly a good one.

In a similar vein, Robin Black recently mentioned that the art of writing conversation includes knowing what the people are deliberately not saying. We might add that it also helps to know what the interlocutors are refraining from doing, such as yawning, giving the other person a dope-slap, scratching a devastating itch, and so forth. It’s all in the subtext.

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