1. GrahamLewis

    GrahamLewis Seeking the bigger self Contributor Contest Winner 2022 Contest Winner 2024 Contest Winner 2023

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    Unreliable narrator

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by GrahamLewis, Oct 27, 2017.

    The book I'm writing is essentially the story of the unraveling of the MC, sliding if not into insanity at least into neurosis and self-deception. I'm writing in third person from his perspective, and I'm wondering how this will come across. I've seen those kind of stories told in the first-person, and in those cases the reader can justified in developing doubts about the narrator. But a third-person narrator, even limited to the perspective of the MC, seems inherently reliable. Is it okay to have that narrator follow his character down the rabbit hole without making it clear that's what's happening?

    I think it can and has been done, but I'm just wondering.

    I hope this question makes sense.
     
  2. newjerseyrunner

    newjerseyrunner Contributor Contributor Contest Winner 2022

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    I don't see any problem with this as long as it works. I can name a number of books where the narrator has slowly lost his mind and starts describing things that may or may not be real. That question about whether the narration is actually happening is one of the scarier aspects of stories like that actually. A great story may even have you questioning what really happened after you've even finished the book.

    For example: In The Amityville Horror, all of those things that George was, what were they? Why did some other people see them but others didn't? Or in The Shining, even after re-reading it many times, I'm still not entirely sure what happened in that hotel.

    It doesn't have to be horror either. I saw the movie A Beautiful Mind before I'd read the book, and I'd be embarrassed to tell you how long it took me to figure out the full extent of Dr Nash's illness. Throughout the entire story there are characters and plotlines that are quite central to the book that end up being nothing but a figment of his madness.
     
  3. xanadu

    xanadu Contributor Contributor

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    In close third, it's extremely common (and I'd argue heavily advised) to bias the narrative with the POV character's thoughts and views. Very similar to first person in that regard. Just make sure the narration reads as though it's coming from the character and not an objective narrator, and you should be fine.
     
  4. jannert

    jannert Retired Mod Supporter Contributor

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    I don't know. I can't think (off the top of my head) of an unreliable protagonist I've ever read about in third person. Which, in essence is what you're talking about here. I would be curious as to how this could be done. I've seen books where people begin to lose touch with reality, but if it's written in third person, it's usually obvious.

    Unreliable, in this sense, means the reader can't assume the truth about what a character says or does or thinks. A first-person narrator is just a 'person,' and we can see only what this person sees and know only what this person chooses to tell us. But if an author does this on behalf of a character, and deliberately withholds information? I don't know. We start out trusting a third person narration. Turning that trust IN THE AUTHOR on its head probably can be done, and probably has been done ...but it would be tricky.
     
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2017
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  5. archer88i

    archer88i Banned Contributor

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    It's not ok for a third person narrator to lie.

    It's ok to be wrong, like Harry Potter is in 103% of every book, because you can say, "Well, based on what the character knew at the time," etc., etc... Lying is off limits, because the reader will put that on you, not the character.
     
  6. xanadu

    xanadu Contributor Contributor

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    I don't think that's true if the POV is close enough.

    I agree if we're talking a more distant third or even omniscient. But the closer you get to the character, the closer you get to first person with different pronouns. It'd need to be as close as it's possible to get in third, but I don't see it being a problem at that point.
     
  7. The Dapper Hooligan

    The Dapper Hooligan (V) ( ;,,;) (v) Contributor

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    As said above, unreliable narration is done, as far as I can find, in first person. American Psycho and Fight Club come to mind. Slaughterhouse Five is in close third and contains unreliable narration, but it's also framed/prefixed ( I can't actually find my copy of it) by the narrator referring to himself as the author of the coming story. He even does a fourth wall break mid novel telling him where he, the author, is in the story. So technically it's a first person perspective of a person telling a story in close third. It's a complicated book, but might be worth a read because it's probably closest to what I think you're going for.
     
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  8. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    Yeah, I've got to go with the others who say an unreliable narrator really doesn't work unless the story is written in first person. In first person, we learn that the narrator who is a character isn't one to be trusted at face value and we learn this by the way the story is told because it's the unreliable narrator telling the story. In third (even close third) the MC isn't telling the story in his or her words. Even if we have our doubts about the MC, it doesn't have to be done through an unreliable narrator. And honestly, the idea of an unreliable narrator in third person seems like it could just make things more confusing and I imagine hard to follow, and that sure won't set you up for the best chance of publishing this story. However, I don't think you need an unreliable narrator to tell the story you are trying to tell. Your MC isn't the one telling the story in third person of any kind. Sure, it's his story, but it's not his words. I would suggest rethinking this before you spend to much time trying to make an unreliable narrator in third person.
     
  9. xanadu

    xanadu Contributor Contributor

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    So maybe it's just a matter of semantics. But given a simple example:

    Jill sat down at her desk and reached for her pen. It was gone. Fantastic. She grumbled and glanced over at Jack. He always took her pens. This time was no different.

    He always took her pens. This time was no different.

    How does the reader actually read those lines? As biased character voice? Or objective narration? I, as a reader, would say the former. It's narration, but it's completely influenced by the character's subjective opinion. Even if Jack has never stolen a pen in his life, the narration reflects Jill's conviction that he did.

    Maybe that doesn't fit the textbook definition of "unreliable narrator." But it's still narration that's unreliable, and I don't know if the exact term really matters. Jill could be alleging that the walls are bleeding green blood. Writing it, I'd still state it as if it were objective fact through Jill's POV, because to her it would be, even if she's batshit crazy.

    Meh. In the end, I'd just say write it and see what betas say.
     
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  10. GrahamLewis

    GrahamLewis Seeking the bigger self Contributor Contest Winner 2022 Contest Winner 2024 Contest Winner 2023

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    Xanadu, you described, far more articulately, exactly what i was trying to say.thanks. And thanks for the other responses.
     
  11. deadrats

    deadrats Contributor Contributor

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    @xanadu -- "Objective fact," really? Facts aren't objective unless you work for the White House.
     
  12. The Dapper Hooligan

    The Dapper Hooligan (V) ( ;,,;) (v) Contributor

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    How many times have you read this in 3rd person and it's turned out he's never taken a pen of hers in her life. First person is subjective, but 3rd person is always in an authors voice. Characters are allowed to lie and be gravely mistaken, the author isn't. If you start lying to your readers, they'll have no reason to stay through with you until you finish your story. You're allowed to distract your readers, withhold information and cheat their expectations, but lying is a big no no.
     
  13. archer88i

    archer88i Banned Contributor

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    It doesn't. "Unreliable narrator" means "fucking lying to the reader's face." Examples include The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro, and, if I remember correctly, Heart of Darkness, by Big Joe Conrad. Being wrong about something, or having a character who is delusional, is not the same as having a narrator who deliberately misleads the audience.
     
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  14. xanadu

    xanadu Contributor Contributor

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    Honestly, I have no idea. But I don't think it's so outrageous to think the narration could be biased--I don't agree that 3rd is always the author's voice. Isn't that the whole point of distance? What else separates close 3rd from distant 3rd if not how much of the character's voice bleeds into the narration?

    Fair enough.
     
  15. archer88i

    archer88i Banned Contributor

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    It isn't. Narration often comes in the form of free indirect discourse, which is in fact in the character's voice. It is often wrong and almost always biased, but it is also honest. The reason for this is that such discourse is intended to represent the character's own stream of consciousness. Their thoughts. Why would their thoughts be lies?
     
  16. big soft moose

    big soft moose An Admoostrator Admin Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    In dirty story by Eric Ambler the 1st person narrator is essentially lying to himself
     
  17. LazyBear

    LazyBear Banned

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    Third person is mostly okay as long as you don't make a real life story about yourself. Some fake diaries were caught that way when the author jumped to third person by mistake.
     
  18. The Dapper Hooligan

    The Dapper Hooligan (V) ( ;,,;) (v) Contributor

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    Yes, you're allowed to have bias, but your still not allowed to lie unless you establish that the narrator is unreliable.

    He always took her pens. This time was no different.
    "You took my pen, you bastard"
    "No I didn't. Did you check your other pocket?"
    "Oh, I don't understand, if I had it all along, then why did the narrator say you took it?"
    "I dunno, probably to manufacture some cheap and easy tension between us."
    "Lazy, bastard."
    "I agree. It probably would have been better if instead of telling us I took it, to show why you believed I took it."
    "Like saying you I saw you snooping in my bag earlier."
    "Exactly! But really I was just planting drugs on you."
    "Bastard!, wanna go get high?"
    "And how!"
     
  19. GrahamLewis

    GrahamLewis Seeking the bigger self Contributor Contest Winner 2022 Contest Winner 2024 Contest Winner 2023

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    Deadrats,

    I tend to agree with your apparent political view, but and I agree with the general idea that "Facts is facts," but. . . . .

    In this context I take "objective facts" to mean facts that are in fact facts, things the reader can take as undoubtedly true.

    "Subjective facts" would be observations that are based on the speaker's perspective and are therefore subject to error.

    I used to practice law and I hated the term "true facts" or "actual facts" or some variation of that, but sometimes it's necessary, e.g, to distinguish them from "alleged facts" or "legally-adjudicated facts."
     
  20. GrahamLewis

    GrahamLewis Seeking the bigger self Contributor Contest Winner 2022 Contest Winner 2024 Contest Winner 2023

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    Should be "and I agree" in the first line above.
     
  21. ChickenFreak

    ChickenFreak Contributor Contributor

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    I disagree. Close third person is also subjective. The entity being mistaken in the example is Jill, not the narrator.
     
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  22. archer88i

    archer88i Banned Contributor

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    I talked about this earlier. The difference between lying and being mistaken is critical. You have to ask yourself why, in your character's own thoughts, to herself, she is lying. It doesn't make sense, and it pisses off readers.
     
  23. big soft moose

    big soft moose An Admoostrator Admin Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    As i said about Dirty story people lie to themselves on a regular basis - self justification whether on a minor scale "If i have this cake I'll do another ten minutes on the bike tonight" ... no you won't and you know it, up to the more serious stuff like "I'm a man, I have needs" as a justification for cheating on their wife

    In Dirty Story, Arthur is a real spiv and a deeply unlikable character, but he doesn't see himself like that so hes constantly self justfying "I saw the passports lying there and took them to keep them safe" no you didn't you stole them you just can't admit it to yourself
     
  24. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    I don't think unreliable narrators are often outright lying - I think they're often fooling themselves, or struggling with reality, or whatever.

    Huck Finn is sometimes cited as a unreliable narrator - he's a child, and he misinterprets what's going on, but he's not deliberately lying (at least not to readers). One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is narrated by someone struggling with mental illness who sometimes clearly lacks a connection to reality, but isn't deliberately lying.

    So, if the unreliability doesn't have to come from lying, I don't really see why first/third narration would make a difference.
     
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  25. The Dapper Hooligan

    The Dapper Hooligan (V) ( ;,,;) (v) Contributor

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    I haven't read it, but I'm assuming that fairly early on, his character is established enough for readers to know that he is actually lying, or could at least possibly be lying. Characters are allowed to lie, but the author has to provide enough information to the reader for them to realize that's a possibility. With non-character narrators, there's kind of an implicit trust between the reader and the narrator that what they say is true. If your narrator lies, they have to have a motivation for doing that otherwise your readers are just going to be all, 'WTF, mate.' Even in unreliable narration stories, there are clues along the way for you to realize where the unreliability is coming in. First read through you probably won't catch them, but on another go through, you can pick up on it and realize that the ending where the tiger in the boat is really just a metaphor for human cannibalism really shouldn't have come as such a surprise. Outright lying to your readers without any motive or justification is not cool and is a straight up betrayal to your readers.
     
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