Monday, January 4, 2010

The Unreliable Narrator

“The common idea is that there is a contrast between reliable narration (third-person omniscience) and unreliable narration (the unreliable first-person, who knows less about himself than the reader eventually does).” -- James Wood in How Fiction Works.
This is the first time someone explains the concept of the unreliable narrator in terms I understand. I interpret this as characters whose actions are contrary to their words. If I go back and reread some of my stories, I may find characters that meet this requirement. Can I claim to have created an unreliable narrator if I didn’t know I was doing it at the time?

Then I wonder if I tried to create such a character if I’d be successful. For the narrator to be real, his actions and words have to come out of who he is, not the author’s idea of who the character should be. Does that make sense? Mr. Wood mentions Humbert Humbert (Lolita) as an example of an unreliable first person narrator. I wonder if Nabakov began writing the character this way, or if Humbert’s unreliableness developed as the character evolved -- either on paper or in the author’s head before he began writing the story.

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