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Keeping It Reliable…or Not!

by Jim Mathews, Fiction Editor

In many workshops I’ve taught, we often touch on the concept of reliable vs. unreliable first-person narration. Most first-person narrators are reliable because of the advantages it affords in gaining the trust of readers.  Being open and not hiding any personality warts can play to the reader’s engagement and sympathy because they know they’re not going to get a punchline ending or some other form of surprise manipulation – also known as a “shaggy-dog story” or “After-all-I’m-really-just-a-cat” story.

The break in reliability and trust can also occur when the writer attempts to inject his/her own agenda into the narration – also known as a “message story”. Nothing turns a reader off quicker than a writer trying to deliver a message via a story’s narrator or characters – even if the reader happens to agree with it. Richard Bausch put it best when he said that if your main character delivers a speech, you (the writer) better not believe a word of it.

Of course, the above example is unreliability by accident or bad writing. Less common these days but still a valid technique is the intentional unreliable first-person narrator. Here the narrator is clearly withholding information, either because he/she is lying or has convinced his/herself otherwise. This technique is used not to trick the reader but rather to include the reader in the narrator’s delusion – a delusion that ultimately part of the story. A classic example is the narrator in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” When he attempts to convince the reader that his insanity has actually made him smarter, we know he’s deluding himself – an effect that adds credibility and pulls us deeper into the story.

Eudora Welty uses an unreliable narrator in her classic (and wonderful) short story “Why I Live at the P.O”, this time for humorous effect. Note the immediate establishment of the narrator’s defensive and self-serving tone. By the end of the first paragraph, we know that we’re only getting one side of the story…which ultimately becomes a key element of the story.

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