Thoughts on the Unreliable Narrator

Dana is the main character in my book, The Pocket Wife. She is bipolar and off her medication; she’s also going through lots of “stuff,” and this toxic mixture is beginning to bring on a manic episode. In Chapter One, Dana is poised for flight. Still, she is quite lucid. In fact, except for a few oddities–reading a novel in two hours, feeling the “offness” of things in the air– she is a fairly normal housewife, bored, missing her son who has recently left for college, and annoyed with her workaholic husband.

Many stories told from the unreliable narrator’s point of view are written in first person. The Pocket Wife is told in third person, so Dana isn’t speaking directly to the reader. Nonetheless, we are often in her head and privy to her thoughts and conversations.

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Column by Susan Crawford, author of the March 2015 debut novel,
THE POCKET WIFE (Morrow-Harper Collins; Faber & Faber in England).
Booklist describes The Pocket Wife as “a gripping, character-driven mystery.”
Susan grew up in Miami, then lived in New York City and Boston before
settling in Atlanta to raise three amazing daughters and to teach in various
adult education settings. A member of The Atlanta Writers Club and The
Village Writers, Susa lives with her husband and a trio of rescue cats,
where she enjoys reading books, writing books, rainy days, and spending
time with the people she loves. Connect with Susan on Facebook or Twitter.

I think it’s important not to open a story or novel with the unreliable narrator already obviously a bit wonky because then the reader is less apt to really invest in him, or, for the sake of simplicity and because Dana is a woman, in her. If she’s too bizarre right off the bat, we’re far less likely to relate to her, and relating to a character, at least for me, is necessary if I’m going to climb inside her life for the next 300 or so pages. For me, this has very little to do with age or race or gender. E.T. was one of the most popular movies of all time. Its main protagonist, for whom the film was named, is a very short, mud-colored alien. But we can relate to him! The poor little guy is homesick. He yearns for something. Pines for it. It doesn’t matter that in E.T.’s case it happens to be a galaxy we’ve never seen; we relate to that feeling, that yearning. When he has to leave his new best friend, we feel his pain. It’s these raw emotions – the nostalgia, the hope, the loss, and his unflagging humor – that make us gladly sniffle along for the ride.

That initial bonding is incredibly important. If we like a character, we want her to be right. We want to believe her; we’re loyal to her. If we relate to the narrator, we’ll give her quite a bit of leeway. Maybe the lamp with the broken bulb really is coming on and off intermittently. Maybe the dead mother really is sitting in the back seat of the car. Even if it’s clear that the main character is going off the deep end, we’re willing to go along with her because we know this woman. We understand her. We identify with her. When things go badly for her we’re right there next to her. We’re rooting for her. And if she’s dead drunk, or crazy, or she suddenly develops amnesia after knocking herself in the head with a cupboard door, we’ll make allowances for her. We’ll enable her with everything we’ve got because we understand her. She’s like us. She’s one of us.

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It can be very interesting to write from the point of view of someone on the fringes of society, and, as such, a less reliable narrator. The lost and misbegotten might have far more fascinating things to say than characters who never miss a step, who never question their lives. Perfect people in fiction as in life can be unnerving and, really, a little boring unless or until they run up against a problem that throws them off track. Bad characters sprinkled with a little goodness and good characters who occasionally fall hard off their pedestals are much more realistic and, again, relatable, if unreliable, narrators.

Truly, no narrators are completely trustworthy in my opinion. Even the most balanced protagonist has had life experiences that color her perceptions and that give her a slight bias, as has the author who creates her. And that’s okay. That’s good. The character is sharing a glimpse of her life, of her honest and unfiltered essence. She allows herself to be vulnerable; she reveals her secrets to the reader. Perhaps there is a direct correlation between how deeply and on what level we, as readers, know the protagonist and how deeply we invest in her or in her story, and, ultimately, the outcome of her journey.

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