PDA

View Full Version : First Person always untrustworthy?



Ruv Draba
07-02-2008, 03:59 AM
First person narrative is often unreliable - meaning that story events show that the narrator is mistaken or deceitful. This often happens in because the narrating character generally has a stake in the story, and is usually not omniscient.

But even when first person narrative is not provably unrealiable, to what extent do you trust it?

I think that many authors want the reader to trust a first person narrative. Chandler, for instance, always treats his private eyes as the authoritative judge of character, events, culpability, causality. On the rare occasions when Marlowe is deluded, he cops to it by the end of the story.

Notwithstanding such examples though, do you trust first person narrators?

I find that increasingly, I don't - even when the author wants me to. Parts of first person narrative that I don't trust include:

Dialogue - because real witnesses never remember it correctly;
Internal thoughts - especially 'trains of thought'. Because people don't often have trains of thought, except in fiction - they have soups of thought;
Qualitative descriptions of anything - especially the use of adverbs;
Causality - because cause is often inferred rather than observed;As a writer I rather like first person narrative, even though that may be unfashionable. In real life, most stories can only be told authentically by the participants - anyone else (e.g. a reporter) is receiving the information second-hand. The untrustworthiness of first person narrative is self-evident but the authenticity is attractive -- and the only outstanding question I have is whether as an author I should seek to try to foster reader trust or not.

My current thinking is not. Whether the narrative is more or less reliable, don't try to build trust in the events related. Rather build empathy or sympathy and understanding for the narrator.

Your thoughts?

ColoradoGuy
07-02-2008, 08:04 PM
I see first person narrative as a literary technique no different from other kinds of literary artifice, and for that reason I don't regard it as more reliable. I think the author chooses that voice for a variety of reasons, one of which can be to deceive the reader in ways not possible using third person narrative.

mscelina
07-02-2008, 08:09 PM
First person is, understandably, restricted when compared to third person omniscient for example. However, it is designed to give the reader greater insight with the main character--their opinions, their prejudices, their beliefs, their first impressions. It doesn't make first person unreliable or deceitful; on the contrary, it permits a reader to occupy the same space in a story as the main character and breaks down the fourth wall between the character and his/her audience.

Cranky
07-02-2008, 08:09 PM
I certainly hope that first person isn't considered to be always untrustworthy. My WIP is written from that perspective. That said, I always accept that point of view as being biased and limited. I just try to use that to my advantage, is all. :)

Danger Jane
07-04-2008, 07:07 AM
I see where you're coming from. How do you feel about dialogue accuracy in first person present? That's one of my problems with first/past, too--remembering all those details, telling them in such pretty terms. Or unpretty.

I've been waging my own inner battle over stream of consciousness versus soup of consciousness for about two years now. I'm making a little headway, I think, though I can't exactly tell you which direction I'm going. My problem is that first person tends to be the most natural way for me to tell a story.

When I flesh out a narrator, I don't specifically set out to create a reliable or unreliable narrator. But I do try my best to manipulate their perspective and their biases. By its nature, this leads to a certain degree of unreliability. Maybe that's why I like to write "second takes" on existing myths and fairy tales, and why I like to write from two POVs.

I do agree that first person can be best used to explore a character, as well as the reader's (and writer's) ability to empathize with and understand someone who may be incredibly different from him.

blacbird
07-04-2008, 09:07 AM
I certainly hope that first person isn't considered to be always untrustworthy.

But that's the fun part. I'm currently working on a 1st person novel WIP in which the narrator is a 19th Century con-man. He has some openly admitted problems with veracity. Makes for interesting narrative, at least for me.

I have no illusions about it working that way for anybody else, of course.

caw

Kalyke
07-05-2008, 01:56 AM
I have actually never heard this until today. I thought an unreliable narrator was unreliable, and that it had nothing to do with the "person." Maybe you can site your source, I'd like to read the reasons the author said that.

Well the point is, it is the character's story, not a court case. Most stories are seen through filters. True that first person is less of a "shared event" and certain things you can't and shouldn't write in first person. I would not even dare to be the writer who attempts to do a first person Einstein thinking up the Special Theory of Relativity. I like it (but don't use it often) because it limits the narrator to experiences only he/she can know. Third though can be manipulated more to hide the fact that the writer doesn't know things. First person, strangely is often used by beginning authors, but it is actually the hardest person to write in unless the character is "you."

I don't know about how unreliable the actual person is. Narrators can be unreliable. If lies are placed, then the author should be aware of it. All writers of fiction are feeding you some kind of a lie, so the whole lie problem is resolved. Building trust is up to the skill of the writer, but when you open or start to read a fiction book, you should know that it might be nothing but lies.

They then supposedly tell you true things using the lies. Sort of like Gonzo journalism is about showing reality through the use of fiction.

I personally like third person limited, because I want to be able to hide things from the reader. If I show thoughts I would give things away. Especially in the 3 books I am writing now & over the next few years, I am dealing with people (in the MC at least) who have secrets, are hard to get to know, and are somewhat anti-social, as well as evasive. They may not tell lies-- In fact I think they are very truthful, but they certainly "omit" parts.

Also-- come to think of it, if you are writing 1st person, would you do it "limited" like the reader couldn't go into the character's head? Otherwise, if the character is also telling lies to him/herself, then that might be a truly "unreliable" character.

Or maybe narcissism: One half of the character is lying to the other half (in the case of traumatic events some people lie to themselves, so I can't totally say it is not true).

Interesting post idea

Cranky
07-05-2008, 02:02 AM
But that's the fun part. I'm currently working on a 1st person novel WIP in which the narrator is a 19th Century con-man. He has some openly admitted problems with veracity. Makes for interesting narrative, at least for me.

I have no illusions about it working that way for anybody else, of course.

caw

Heh. That's sort of what I meant when I said I try to use that to my advantage. :D

My character isn't a con-man, but he is verrrrry different from most people, and has a different way of looking at the world. I want readers to get into his head, to see the world as he does, and empathize with him. Hence the first person, I suppose. Plus, such a different, and limited POV, means the readers will know only what I want them to know. Which is okay. I'm not trying to mislead the reader, necessarily, because they hopefully understand that he's both biased and limited in his P.O.V. He's the one who will be questioning things, and so will the readers, through him. :D

The fact that he is "unreliable" works to my advantage for the plot, too. :D So, it's very fun for me. I want them to believe what he believes, though. It's sorta necessary.

Medievalist
07-07-2008, 09:23 AM
An unreliable narrator is a specific literary device. Said narrator may, or may not be first person.

Not all first person narratives are unreliable.

AMCrenshaw
07-09-2008, 01:12 AM
I trust them entirely! It's just a book, after all. If facts aren't lining up, or if the same character has two different names at two different points in the narrative, then I might start to say, "hey what's really going on here." Otherwise, I go for the ride.

However, we should always be aware that no novel can contain All Things, and all novels are contained in a POV, a perspective of one point or another, whether or not it's the first person... All this is to say that I don't believe everything a novel tells me anyway, just about what's going on, and when the narrator lies, shame on him or her.

And shame on the author, too.

AMC

t0neg0d
07-09-2008, 08:16 AM
An unreliable narrator is a specific literary device.

And becoming incredibly cliche... /sigh

t0neg0d
07-09-2008, 12:03 PM
However, we should always be aware that no novel can contain All Things

O.o Is this a challenge?? I say it is! And I should know... I've started a few!

Current WIP: ALL THINGS!

Later that evening...

Dear [Agent],

I have recently finished my latest novel: ALL THINGS.

In the beginning, before there was all things, there was no-thing. But, nothing was boring, so things were created--big things, small things, short things, tall things, round things, square things, hairy things and ALL THINGS.

You may ask, 'Why do you feel you are qualified to discuss ALL THINGS?'--a fair question, to be sure, and one that warrants an answer!

As far back as I can remember, I have always been an owner of things. Over the years I have observed things, heard things, smelled things, touched things, played with things, ate things, been fond of things and even hated things at times. At this point in my life I feel I have really connected with things. Even when things seem bleak, I see past these things to the things to come.

I look forward to discussing these and other things with you further.

Sincerely,

Me

AMCrenshaw
07-09-2008, 06:10 PM
*AMC dies laughing. happy ending.

Ruv Draba
07-10-2008, 03:22 PM
An unreliable narrator is a specific literary device. It is, and it's not necessarily related to trust.

Reliability: the degree to which you the reader can rely on what the narrator tells you - something you can only tell in retrospect after you've fully digested the story.

Trustworthiness: the degree to which you the reader are willing to rely on what the narrator tells you - something you decide from the beginning of the story and may adjust throughout.

A first person narrator may or may not be reliable, but I don't generally trust them.

kuwisdelu
07-14-2008, 04:32 AM
Humans, by our very nature, are untrustworthy to come extent. We all see things from our own perspectives, and no two people will tell something in exactly the same way. It's just our nature as humans that our interpretation of what we see and hear will be skewed by through the lens of our perspective.

Since first-person narrators are often humans, all first-person narrators are--to some extent--unreliable.

Of course, an unreliable narrator by the definition of the literary technique is less reliable than the one who witnesses most of the events in a straightforward way, interprets them more or less correctly, and doesn't intentionally skew anything. I'm just saying humans, by their very nature, are always unreliable to some extent.

SPMiller
07-15-2008, 02:35 PM
First person is, understandably, restricted when compared to third person omniscient for example. However, it is designed to give the reader greater insight with the main character--their opinions, their prejudices, their beliefs, their first impressions. It doesn't make first person unreliable or deceitful; on the contrary, it permits a reader to occupy the same space in a story as the main character and breaks down the fourth wall between the character and his/her audience.In my opinion, the fourth wall is only broken when the narrator "looks at the camera" and addresses the actual human reader holding the book, thereby calling attention to the artificiality of the narrative. Other narrators address a stand-in listener, the generic "you" to whom they're telling the story in the context of the narrative's fictionality.

SPMiller
07-15-2008, 02:38 PM
Regarding Ruv's original question, I have a natural tendency to trust that all narrators are telling me the truth to the best of their ability--I've found that lying narrators are very rare. However, this says nothing about whether what they're actually telling me is reliable or not. The narrator's own perception of events isn't necessarily correct.

Ruv Draba
07-17-2008, 04:20 AM
Humans, by our very nature, are untrustworthy to come extent. We all see things from our own perspectives, and no two people will tell something in exactly the same way.That's certainly true, but I think there's also more to it than that.

In real life, people who tell you stories of their past typically edit and rehearse them before the telling. They've excised bits, reshaded bits - whether to entertain, to make themselves look better or someone else look worse. It's extremely rare (and hard to credit) that the story someone tells you is the whole truth, much less the unbiased truth - especially when it's about important matters. Whether the deception is visible or not, we're wise to assume that it's there.

In practice though, many authors present their 1P narrators' reflections as though their memories are perfect, unbiased and scrupulously honest. This gives us the 'feel' of an impartial narrator who happens to also be a character - but it's not really a credible 1P narrator.

In present tense, 1P seems a lot more credible to me but even there, the narrative is hampered. We don't feel only one sensation at a time, or think only one thought, or think them in order. Yet the text requires the narrative to present the character's experience as though it is so - and this again creates for me, a sense of distrust.

For me, 1P narrative creates a mild reintroduction of disbelief. Perhaps I'm more comfortable when 1P narrators do address the reader directly and are visibly unreliable at times - because that's my general experience of people narrating their own stories. :)

Tx-Thinman
08-03-2008, 07:14 AM
1st person is a strong voice - always subjective - and I trust it. Case in point: Hunter S. Thompson - [I]Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas -

Do you think they'll be reading Hunter S. Thompson 100 years from now?
I do. Unless somebody comes along that can write in first person better that HST.

jkcates
08-05-2008, 07:01 AM
Of course the real question might be, why do we trust a 3rd person narrator any more than a first person? Do we have more reason to trust an omnipotent narrator than we do a first person?
Personally, I think first person can be reliable or unreliable, depending on how you build the narrator. For instance, if the narrator is frequently mistaken about people and situations, then we wont belive them. Conversely, if, through the action, the narrator seems "spot on" with their analysis, then we will probably trust them.
There are many 'tricks' to creating a trustworthy narrator. I dont think one is by nature more reliable than another, its just the convention that we have come to accept.

Just my 2 or 3 cents worth

Ruv Draba
08-16-2008, 05:02 AM
Of course the real question might be, why do we trust a 3rd person narrator any more than a first person? Do we have more reason to trust an omnipotent narrator than we do a first person?Well, I do - though whether it's a legitimate reason I can't say. :)

A third person narrator who has no character (i.e. the disembodied third person) ideally does no interpretation, but just selects information deemed to be pertinent and presents it. They work much like the best journalists do - they're almost transparent to the events.

A 1P or 3P narrator who is a character in the story should be interpreting and slanting the story - because that's what real people do.

Ms Hollands
08-16-2008, 12:58 PM
I'm afraid I'm far too trusting in real life, and that spills over when I read books: I'm the gullible reader in most situations (unless it's plainly obvious through bad authoring that something else is going on). I like the surprise value. It makes it more entertaining if you accept blindly :O)

Priene
08-16-2008, 07:23 PM
A great example of the unreliable narrator is Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier. The protagonist's recollection of events is so self-contradictory that the reader is forced to make a judgement about what is likely to have happened.

(I'd finished off with a "I heart Ford Madox Ford" right here if I had a heart gif.)

aruna
08-25-2008, 07:08 PM
In my latest work, I used 1st person narrator who is not so much unreliable as just plain opinionated, and had great fun with it. She is a young girl talking about the drama going on with her mother and grandmother, and is extremely critical of both. At the same time, I have a third person story set n the past, telling the story of said mother and grandmother, which tells the reader the truth. So the reader knows that the 1st person girl is quite off the track, just seeing everything through her own biased, immature eyes, not knowing the past. I actually want the reader to dislike her at first; but through the course of the story she learns how she was completely wrong in her opinions, quite arrogant, becomes humble and grows.

I've done first person before, but always reliable.

Using an unreliable voice, I found, gave the story an added dimension, and allowed me to play with the reader somewhat. AT first, most readers would agree with the narrator, then slowly come around to what I want them to think. It is pure manipulation.

Lady Ice
11-22-2010, 12:45 AM
But that's the fun part. I'm currently working on a 1st person novel WIP in which the narrator is a 19th Century con-man. He has some openly admitted problems with veracity. Makes for interesting narrative, at least for me.

I have no illusions about it working that way for anybody else, of course.

caw


I love unreliable narrators.

In first person, you pretty much always know that this is how one character viewed and experienced the events. Unless you have a reason not to trust them, you go along with their version.

Kate Monster
02-21-2011, 09:55 AM
I love unreliable narrators, but until I'm given a reason not to trust first-person narration, I usually do.

justkay
08-05-2011, 12:12 AM
I started my current manuscript in first person (actually, I had a voice in my head and I started typing.)

I wrote almost 120,000 words in first person - Lydia's voice and it was a good experience. It allowed me to get to know her, how she thinks, what her motivations and secret longings are, but eventually I realized there were disadvantages to writing in her voice.

First person is untrustworthy because it's one perspective and because we as humans are so good at lying to ourselves - about ourselves. We have our 'perceived' self - our self image and it takes an awful lot to shake us from that image.

Lydia is a tough-as-nails, smart ass - that's just who she is - but that type of person isn't going to give the reader important information like her dependence on Lee, the father figure.

If asked, Lydia will tell you he's an okay guy who she enjoys working with, but the truth is she desperately needs his paternal, guiding influence to get through the day. Not that she'll ever admit that - to herself or anyone else!

Another example is that in this manuscript, Lydia is headed for an emotional meltdown, but she's in denial about that. That's a big part of the problem - not the meltdown, but her denial. I found it impossible in the first person, to convey to the reader that Lydia was in denial - because of course she was in denial!

So I eventually switched to third person, but something amazing happened when I did. Suddenly, the other characters had a voice too. It turns out Lee is a much more powerful force in Lydia's world than I orignially realized and he has given me very valuable insights into her character.

Maxie16
05-16-2012, 11:52 PM
If I can go back to the original -- now very old -- question: I agree with the implication. A first person narrator is always biased. Some confide in us in a way that allows us to trust them in the end, while others -- the clearly unreliable ones -- manipulate us so that we feel cheated. It goes with the premise of the form, though, that a first-person narrator is subject. He (or she) is his own subject, and the form reminds us that real objectivity is an illusion.

Someone here asks whether we trust third-person narrators more than first person. I think that misses the point; of course it's as easy for a writer to manipulate a reader in one perspective as the other. It's just that first person, bu its nature, implies that there are other ways to see something. It's part of the bargain we make as readers that we'll take a first-person narrator seriously, but one of the subtle pleasures of reading is the nagging sense that "our friend the narrator" may be hedging things in his or her favor.