Undermining the Unreliable Narrator

[Originally posted on my blog.]


In my recent discussion of The Name of the Wind, one of the things that has come up is the way in which Kvothe is an unreliable narrator, and the text does or does not separate the character’s sexism out from the sexism of the story as a whole. This isn’t solely a problem that crops up with unreliable narrators — it can happen any time the protagonist holds objectionable views, or lives in a society with objectionable attitudes but you don’t want to make the protagonist a mouthpiece for modern opinions — but it’s especially key there. And since I brought it up in that discussion, I thought it might be worth making an additional post to talk about how one goes about differentiating between What the Protagonist Thinks (on the topic of gender, race, or any other problematic issue) and What the Author Thinks.

I don’t pretend to be a master of this particular craft. That kind of separation is tricky to pull off, and depends heavily on the reader to complete the process. The issue is one that’s been on my mind, though, because of the Lady Trent novels: Isabella is the product of a Victorianish society, and while my approach to the -isms there hasn’t been identical to that of real history, I’ve tried not to scrub them out entirely. Since the entire story is filtered through her perspective (which, while progressive for her time, is not always admirable by twenty-first century standards), I’ve had to put a lot of thought into ways I can divide her opinions from my own.

There are a variety of tactics. Because I think things go better with concrete data rather than vague generalities, I’m going to continue to use The Name of the Wind as an illustrative example.

1) Use the frame story.

Obviously this one only works when there is a frame story, as in the case of The Name of the Wind. If you have it, though, it’s a godsend, because that’s text where the author is addressing the real-world audience, rather than the narrator addressing the in-world audience. The split opens up space for contrast.

What do I mean by that? In the Kingkiller case, you could provide contrast by filling the frame story with the women Kvothe (as a sexist narrator) is excluding from the main text. It wouldn’t require a big stretch; he’s living in a village, i.e. an environment with a presumably normal distribution of gender, and there are half a dozen reasons why women might pass through the frame, without Kvothe being able to define their participation. This, I think, is part of what made The Name of the Wind register on me as so problematic, in ways an unreliable narrator couldn’t explain: the frame story actually excludes women more than Kvothe’s narration does (i.e. there are none in it at all). That tipped the scales pretty far in a bad direction. But if you want to signal that your narrator’s bias is meant to be separate from that of the author, this is a great place to do it.

(If the narrator is so biased that he completely drives off everybody from the disfavored group, that will be obvious in his other behavior — but it will become harder to show that the author does not agree. At that point, you’re probably better off choosing a different approach to your story than an unreliable narrator.)

2) Retrospection is your friend.

This is the best tool in my kit with the Memoirs of Lady Trent. Isabella is explicitly telling her story from a point years after the events she describes; this means she’s had some time to change as a person and think about her actions. I can, for example, show her younger self being dismissive of lower-class people, while her older self has more awareness of that shortcoming. She hasn’t become perfect, of course — but she doesn’t have to be, for this technique to work. In-text questioning of the narrator’s opinions encourages the reader to question those opinions outside of the text, too.

This does require, of course, that your narrator be consciously telling their tale from a point later in time. As such, it pretty much requires either first person or an omniscient third person narrator, and in the case of first person, it’s best if they’re explicitly telling their tale, rather than having the “camera” perch on their shoulder mid-story. You don’t need a frame story to make it viable, though. Even if we didn’t have actual scenes of Kvothe telling his tale to Chronicler — if it were just him speaking to the reader, saying “I’ve retired to live my life as a humble innkeeper, and here is my tale” — we could still get that retrospective effect. It shows up in phrases like “At the time I didn’t know X” or “Back then, I assumed” or “I used to think.” Anything that cues a change in the narrator’s perspective over time.

This is what I craved, and didn’t get, from Kvothe’s presentation of Denna. That entire section would have registered very differently had narrator!Kvothe said, “I have to describe her beauty because when I first met her, that was the only thing I could see.” Four pages of him attempting to replicate the overwhelming effect it had on his fifteen-year-old self would have had me rolling my eyes (because teenage boys, ye gods) — but I wouldn’t have been annoyed at the book. The separation between his youthful sexism and his more mature experience would have been apparent.

3) Your narrator does not control the entire world.

A biased narrator or viewpoint character will self-select their social environment according to their bias — but not everything is under their control. The places where circumstance brings them into contact with broader society offer more opportunity to show the discrepancy between narrator and author.

This sort of happens with Mola. Kvothe, being sexist, might gravitate toward a male doctor if he had the choice — but in this particular case, he doesn’t get to choose. Mola just gets assigned to him. She is information from beyond Kvothe’s selected frame, and in this case that information helps to counteract his bias. There are more opportunities in the story, though, that don’t get used: the Masters, for example, are exclusively male, when they didn’t have to be. Ditto the guys who run the Eolian; circumstance sends Kvothe there, separate from considerations of what gender he prefers to associate with. As such, they could show the world he ignores. He’s still telling the story, but the author can use the situation to present a different view to the reader, even if the narrator doesn’t consciously acknowledge it.

(I am presuming the narrator is not so unreliable that he would outright lie about facts. If you’re telling a story through a guy who will say Character X was male when she was actually female, or pretend Female Character X was not there at all . . . then you’re dealing with a degree of unreliability that is beyond my ability to compensate for.)

4) Other characters will not follow the script.

This is probably the biggest one, at least that I’m aware of. Fred Clark at Slacktivist talks about this some in his dissections of the Left Behind series: those books don’t have an unreliable narrator — just extremely sexist protagonists written by extremely sexist authors — but there are points at which he says he can see hints of the “real” characters peeking around the edges of the story as presented by the pov guys.

Here’s an exercise: try rewriting a scene, or at least reimagining it, from the viewpoint of a different character. What are they thinking during the conversation? What motive drives them? Do they actually admire the narrator, or are they humoring him and wishing he would shut up already?

With a biased narrator, it’s vital not to let the protagonist’s perspective dominate your own. Even if he evaluates every woman he meets as a potential sex object, they won’t all dress to attract his eye, respond favorably to his overtures, etc. Even if he thinks his non-white companion is his faithful servant, whose entire existence revolves around satisfying his master’s desires, odds are good the companion doesn’t actually see things that way — and there will be places where he goes off-script. Those people have opinions and agency, and they’ll continue to try to exercise both when and where they can, regardless of what the protagonist wants. This may surprise or confuse the narrator, or get brushed off with a justification . . . and all of those will be signs to the reader that the author sees things differently.