An unreliable narrator can be first person or third person limited POV. (I’m going to call the narrator “he” from here on out, because “s/he” and “his/her” gets annoying for me to type, and you to read!) Something in the narrator's personality or psyche severely hinders his awareness as the story unfolds around him. His prejudice by race, class or gender may skew his observations. His perception could be distorted because his age differs greatly from that of the other characters, as in the case of a child interpreting an adult’s world. He could suffer from drug addiction or dementia. He may be a person of low intelligence or with mental impediments. The unreliable narrator may also be consciously deceiving, as in the case of a pathological liar or a narcissist.
Like all literary devices, the writer must craft an unreliable narrator with authenticity, presenting the narrator’s point of view in a way that convinces the reader to believe and to feel sympathetic. Technical writer, poet and blogger John Hewitt says:
“When done badly, a story written from [the unreliable narrator’s] point-of-view can be viewed as manipulative, misleading, confusing and pretentious. When successful, however, the results can be powerful and fascinating.” (Read Hewitt’s article here.)
Here are some celebrated books that use unreliable narrators:
To Kill a Mockingbird (child narrator)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (child narrator)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (dementia)
The Tell Tale Heart (deranged, paranoid narrator)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (drug-fueled hallucinations)
The Native Son (skewed societal views)
A Clockwork Orange (skewed societal views)
The Catcher in the Rye (narrator personality flaws)
Flowers for Algernon (mental impediments)
Fight Club (multiple personality disorder)
I experimented with the unreliable narrator when competing in a writing contest prompted by a picture. The digital image had obviously been photo-manipulated, because it depicted a man at the wheel of a car that had just missed a hairpin turn in the narrow road along the edge of a cliff. It was as if the photo had been snapped moments after the car had burst through the guard rails, as it hung suspended in the air seconds before plummeting. I’m not a big fan of stories that end with, “…and then the world went black,” so I decided to go with an unreliable narrator. It’s short, under a 1000 words. I’d love to know what you think!
After The Ice
Grady had one goal. Catch that car. It made him fearless, one-tracked, stupid. A mud crusted boot rammed the accelerator impelling his car forward, closing the gap. He could make out the silhouette of the driver ahead, inanimate and lifeless as a mannequin. Unlike Grady, who hunched and shifted his shoulders in a full-body attempt to steer the car with more than just the white knuckled hands gripping the wheel. The cars raced up the winding cliffside road following the precipice that skirted the edge of the world. Far below, unseen waves crashed against the base of the rocky shoreline. Almost gotcha. Grady's crazed grin cracked his face in half. He flicked his head sending a boomerang shaped lock of greasy hair into the air only to have it return and obscure again half of his field of vision.
Brake lights lit up the back end of the lead car. Grady didn't comprehend the car's slight deceleration. All he saw were two fiery eyes glaring at him. Blood red eyes that mocked him; dared him to continue the chase; threatened him with unspeakable agony if he gave it up. Grady punched the gas pedal to the floor at the same instant the car ahead sharply negotiated a hairpin turn. He never had a chance to change direction. Grady's car tore through the guard rails and left the earth, taking flight over the ocean.
He had the sensation of being on a rollercoaster, enduring the excruciating climb toward the track's zenith just before the breathtaking plummet into the abyss. Those last seconds before the fall hung suspended in time; his mind was bombarded with flashing thoughts and images.
... He saw himself as a nine year old boy, smashing the game winning homerun out of the park. His heart swelled with pride as he rounded the bases, soaking in the warm glow of success as the crowd cheered. His future was so full of promise....
... Next, he sat slouched on the back seat of his old man's Pontiac. Clad in high school graduation robes, he watched in humiliation through the front windshield as police handcuffed his father for driving while intoxicated. His father's slurred protests wafted through the open window, "Come on. A coupla drinks never hurt anyone."...
... There was his devoted Laura wearing her mother's oversize, lace wedding gown. Smiling, she floated down the aisle toward a lifetime with him...
... In the delivery room, sweet precious Hannah was born perfect in every way. He promised to try and do right by her; to buckle down at the factory and spend less time with the guys. Laura said she still believed in him...
... On Hannah's fifth birthday, he would have given her the world. Shame pierced his heart as she wrapped her tiny arms around his neck even though he hadn't been able to afford the dolly she really wanted...
... Moving into their first house together, a small clapboard that had suffered years of neglect but still had good ‘bones'. A fixer-upper to be sure, Grady had high hopes for the place. He scoffed when his friends said it'd cost a fortune to bring her up to code. Hell, he would rewire the place himself and save some money...
... Coming home late, (the guys insisted on buying one more round), to flashing lights and emergency vehicles. The house was engulfed in flames. He pushed through the crowd, frantically shouting for Laura and Hannah. A firefighter stopped him from going too close to the conflagration, not realizing he was the homeowner. Grady grabbed the man below the collar, pleading for news of his wife and daughter. His eyes told the truth, no victims were known to have left the house. Fear gave way to dread. Oh my God, oh my God!...
... Relentless rain fell the day of the double funeral, driving cold daggers through his heart forever. Afterward, when the guys drove him home, his buddies tried to help. "Here, take this. It'll ease your pain for a while."...........
Grady's eyes fluttered open. A far-away, resonant voice said, "He's coming around, Doctor."
Another voice, closer. "Sir, can you hear me? What is your name?"
He couldn't move his arms or legs. Even his head seemed locked in place. Grady's dilated eyes darted around. Bright lights. Tile. Unmistakable smell. Hospital.
The doctor's disjointed face floated into view above him. "Sir? What did you take? Can you tell me what you're on?"
"Accident," Grady whispered hoarsely. The doctor's face loomed closer, straining to hear. Grady mumbled, "Car.. off.. cliff.."
"Does anyone know what's he talking about?" The doctor's voice faded and his face got smaller. Without warning, he was back, shined a laser light into Grady's eye and straight into his brain. Grady's head wouldn't obey when he tried to turn away. Clenching his lids shut, he heard the doctor say, "Sir, there was no car accident." Grady's eyes snapped open. "You were found unconscious in a parking lot near the Lower City Bridge. Paramedics transported you here, to the emergency room at E.J. Noble Hospital. We are taking care of you, but I need you to confirm what narcotic you overdosed on. Sir, what did you take?"
The need to catch that car came creeping up from the pit of his belly, consuming his mind. His body trembled with a cold desire that defied control.
A female voice from behind rang out, "BP is up to150 over 90, Doctor. Temperature is still at eighty-seven degrees."
"Doc." The doctor leaned in to hear Grady's weak voice. "Help me. Need. I need. More ice."
Author's Note : Many readers have expressed interest in knowing what "ice" refers to in this story. "Ice" is a common street term for the drug crystal meth.
Have you ever exerimented with writing an unreliable narrator? Have you come across the device and thought the author was successful?