Many of us are familiar with the term unreliable narrator—it is used to describe narrators of texts with personal biases or mental conditions that skew the point of view presented within a text. Some popular examples of unreliable narrators would be the narrator from Fight Club, “Chief” Bromden from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, and Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, just to name a few.
But unreliable narrators aren’t limited to authors who purposefully try to create them for the telling of their story. All narrators are, in fact, unreliable, and I’ll tell you why.
People’s perspectives are unreliable, and writers are people.
Did I just knock you off of your feet? Maybe? No? Well anyway, let me explain what I mean.
Our perspectives are made up of our unique experiences, and no two human experiences are alike. That means when a writer sits down and writes a text, they are doing so with their own perspective on reality in place. Their understanding of the world, built through these experiences, helps to create the rules within the text they are writing. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to keep your own perspective, opinions, thoughts, or biases out of your writing because, well, those are the things that make you you.
And what is true for you is not always true for other people, but rather is your own skewed interpretation of reality.
Let me give you an example that’s pretty prevalent in the dating world. You like someone. You think they are giving all the right signals that they like you back. You ask them out. They say no. What went wrong? From your perspective, their actions were a sign that they shared the same romantic interests as you, but from their perspective they were just being friendly. Does that mean one party was wrong? No. Each side had their own interpretation of what reality was taking place, and they didn’t line up.
Here’s another good example of realities not aligning—you loved a book because you could relate to the main character, while your friend hated the book because they were frustrated with the main character’s actions, or some other aspect of the book. Again, you were both approaching one item, but because of your personal experiences, you could and your friend couldn’t relate to the same text.
Being aware of these personal biases doesn’t compromise your writing. Instead, it allows you to take advantage of your awareness and consciously control what biases you can that leak into your work as well as construct specific biases for your narrator.
So be self-aware, realize all of our perspectives are unique, and have fun creating a narrator whose perspective is just as unreliable as a real person’s.