In Defense of the Unreliable Narrator

As NaNoWriMo speeds along, I thought I’d write a few words about one of the most interesting tools in the fiction writer’s toolbox – the unreliable narrator. My current fictional reading of choice, Twig, features this front and center in the main character and the primary point of view from which the story is told.

Without spoiling too much, the main character, Sylvester, is used as an experiment to test the limits of a powerful mind enhancing drug. The main benefit of the drug is that it allows the user to prioritize cognitive abilities. In the same way that a video game might allow you to customize a character’s abilities (eg. SPECIAL in the Fallout series), this allows the user to ‘adjust’ their abilities in one direction or the other. The drug was invented and used by scientists to further their experiments and related academic cognitive abilities. Sylvester sacrificed much of his long term memory in favor of superior skills in social manipulation and other skills.

With exception of a few interludes, most of the story is told from his perspective. Chapter after chapter, we’re drawn into his point of view and get to know how he thinks. Even the characters that surround him and that he normally interacts with have their own oddities and abilities (to say the least without spoiling anything…), so it is rare that we get a true outside or ‘normal’ perspective. In the comments over on a recent chapter, more than a few people remind us about just exactly how unreliable our narrator is.

Sy was hilarious in this chapter, I do love it when I get to see how strange and scary he is to normal people.

wb protagonists are always awesome when we see what terrifying freaks they really are.

That moment when you mug a very, very dangerous monster, but have great trouble realizing just how monstrous the entire game is.

By spending so much time in the point of view of our charismatic unreliable narrator, the author is able to use the occasional ‘normal’ side character to bring us readers back to reality. Our main character is not a hero. He uses all the means and resources to accomplish his goals and the large wake of collateral damage is often not just inevitable consequence, but also part of the desired result. We’re reminded that as much as we like to cheer for the scrappy underdog fighting the evil and corrupt organizations that control his world, he is not even close to being a ‘lawful good’ aligned character.

Which Skywalker would you be cheering for if the core Star Wars trilogy (E4,E5,E6) was told from the point of view of Anakin rather than Luke?