The Tale of the Unreliable Narrator

Recently I’ve watched How I Met Your Mother, it wasn’t something that interested me before,  but I caught some clips on YouTube, and it looked fascinating. Turns out it was a lot more fascinating that I expected, for all it’s flaws, it told stories in a unique way for television, and it might be one of my favourite uses of an unreliable narrator.

Before we begin, let me explain what How I Met Your Mother is, in short it’s an American television sit-com about the lives and loves of a group of friends as they make their way in the world… well New York, it’s told in the style of the main character recounting the adventures from 2030 in a nostalgic fashion to his children.

The wonderful thing is, as he’s explaining it to his kids, there are very obvious obfuscations and biases at play, which telegraph clearly the unreliable nature of the narrator, things like smoking weed suddenly becomes having a sandwich, but because we know he’s editing the story for his audience as he tells it, it’s safe to assume there are less obvious revisions at work.

One of the main characters is Barney, played by Neil Patrick Harris, his a womaniser, a pick up artist, and the stories told like his sexual adventures are true and successful, I think in real life though, the success rate was probably less, and the more insane pick up strategies weren’t as extreme as presented, but it’s an exaggerated portrayal of a character. That’s just one example but you get the idea.

I’ve only once used a narrator in my stories, but it’s something I’d like to try my hand at again, see if I can get it right. Technically speaking every story written in the third person is in a sense narrated, but there’s a big difference between the writer telling the story, and the voice of the narrator character telling the story. It allows you to inject bias and passion into the story, you can paint characters in more extreme and clear lights, or obfuscate certain qualities of a character out of bias. Basically you aren’t trying to describes the facts of situations, you can be more subjective.

In essence the author is always the de facto narrator, but usually we aren’t involved in the story, we’re describing the events from a perspective of the all seeing, all knowing, our biases are choosing what we show, and what we hide for later in the plot. A narrator in essence is a character telling the story, either in the first or third person, they may or may not have been involved in the story being told themselves.

I think my favourite examples are probably noir thrillers, think of your stereotypical detective story with the hard boiled private eye or policeman telling you like it is… with lots of metaphors of course:

“It was raining; It was always raining, like god wanted to drown our the dirt and corruption from the city, except all it did was kill the beggar and vulnerable, the scum sat in their great towers, and grinning at god’s attempt at justice washing down their clean windows. I’d just arrived at the station, no sooner had I hung up my soaked mac, than some dame saddled over to my desk carrying a folder. I knew she was trouble of course, a woman in the precinct was always trouble my sergeant knew this, and that’s why he’d sent her over with a case… as always I was in the dog house with him, he probably blamed me for the rain too.”

I may have got carried away with that, it was fun – and for the record I don’t think dame’s anywhere are always going to be trouble, but the character does, I was picturing this in a 50’s police station somewhere in LA, or something like that.

I like the first person, the narrator only really knows his own thoughts and feelings, and if thoughts and feelings of others are described in the story, it’s his interpretation. As with all people, he doesn’t really know himself so through both his actions, and the biases he presents, you learn more about him as a character than he knows himself. “I” and “we” are the pronouns of the actions of the protagonist, the narrator tells you what he did, or felt.

In third person narration, usually it’s “He”, “she”, “they”, etc… describing the actions, the narrator is usually talking about someone other than them self after all. It’s a simpler way to narrate, and you have the option of revealing who the narrator is, maybe they’ve been lying to you, and they were one of the characters all along.

“James sat down at the head of the table, and wait a moment while the other attendees seated themselves, having waited on him. He cleared his throat, but didn’t say anything, around the table nervous glances were being shared, James had a habit of terrifying his lieutenants when things didn’t go well, and he rejoiced in the silent war waged, who would be volunteer to be first. James just waited, he always liked to be seen as patient, and to maintain the illusion, he wanted them to believe he would wait until hell froze over, his bluff was never called, his lieutenants always broke, and James would keep control.”

Not my best writing, but you get the idea, narration lets you have stories within stories,  you can bring details to life in an interesting way. I think with practice I could do it better,  it was hard switching from a first person narration, to a third person – which was surprising, but I didn’t want to google around to find a premade example. You can see the use of the protagonists name, and pronouns like “he,” and “they”, and there’s a subjective judgement of the character.

I think the best way to explore narration is two fold, I need to pick out a few classics to read, and write a couple of short stories exploring both methods. Ideally before November, so I can utilise one of them for NaNoWriMo, I need a challenge for this year, especially with making life easier through plotting.

Like always, it’s something I’m exploring, not something I’m an expert in, so would love to hear your thoughts, your examples, successes and failures.

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