Have you ever had a conversation with someone and walked away thinking one thing about what the person said, only to discover later that they meant something completely different?
When I was in secondary school, I had a history teacher who I thought hated me. She always asked me the tough questions, filled my assignments with comments and challenged me in, what I interpreted as, a contentious way. I was surprised, therefore, when my mother returned from my parent teacher meeting and said that my history teacher considered me her best student. She didn’t stop singing my praises. How had I read the situation so wrong?
In fiction writing, an unreliable narrator is when a story is told – usually in first person – by a character who can’t be trusted. It is usually a way to surprise, or trick, the reader into making false assumptions so that they will be surprised by a revelation at the end of the book. A famous example of this is the book ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ by Agatha Christie.
An unreliable narrator can be fun to read, but it can also turn into a M. Night Shyamalan movie in book form, relying on the twist ending to entertain.
There is another literary device, which I am going to call unreliable narrator, which, rather than trying to trick the reader into making assumptions, is about how our human preconceptions influence how we see the world and interpret interactions with others. We only know the world through our own eyes, and it is easy to come to the conclusion that our interpretation of things is the only, or even true, one. While this might often be the case, life experience, negative beliefs about our self or high emotion can all be factors to colour our perception of a conversation or another’s motivation.
I first came across this version of unreliable narration in Orson Scott Card’s novel ‘Ender’s Shadow’. This story is about Bean, a highly intelligent child who literally raises himself on the streets. Bean’s intelligence means he can see many situations much more clearly than others, and he can work out solutions to problems that others can barely comprehend. However, his lack of interaction with humans means he often misjudges their behaviour, or misinterprets it, without even knowing that he is doing it.
I love ‘Ender’s Shadow’ because it was the first time I had read a novel that spoke about something I had experienced my entire life. The disconnect between my interior world and what is actually going on. Finally I had found a highly intelligent, well meaning character who often horribly misreads situations and is likewise horrible misread by the other characters in the novel. It showed how, despite our best efforts, communication is often hard, and even though other people don’t seem to get you, it’s not because they aren’t trying.
I started writing as a way to explain to others that I saw things differently to them. It was an effort to share and be understood. Fiction writing allows the author, and the reader, to have a glimpse of what it could be like to be God. We get to see the whole picture. The truth of one character, the truth of another character, and the truth of their situation. We get to feel for them and hope that they can work out their problems to reach true communication.
Unfortunately in life we don’t have that same power, but perhaps reading stories that put us into others minds, enable us to see how they think, can lead us to better understanding that life doesn’t always mean what we think it means.
Do you have an experience from real life or fiction where what happened was very different to what you thought happened? Has this experience changed you in any way? I look forward to hearing from you in the comments.