How Keeping a Reliable Narrator Makes You a Better Writer

Kimberly Nichols
Written by Kimberly Nichols

In one of my recent writing groups, my dramatic tale of a girl being drowned was sunk by pool noodles. Yes, that very device which is supposed to keep you afloat.

Here’s how it happened to me, and how you can stop it from happening to you.

The Story

Our first assignment was to write a short story based on a true event from our past, only fictionalized. I wrote a piece about an incident that took place in a swimming pool during a family barbecue, in which a little girl’s babysitter attempts to drown her.

The emotional aspects of the scene were vivid in my mind, but the background details of the day—the weather, the people, and small atmospheric cues—were not. My grandfather had been there, so I placed him in the swimming pool aloft on plastic noodles drinking a beer. My grandmother had been there, so I placed her on a lounge chair in her famous cat’s eyeglasses. My sister had been there, so I placed her at the top of the water slide about to scream joyously all the way down into the peanut shaped pool. Then I wrote the intense meat of my scene, which I recalled frame by frame from memory.

When the group reviewed my piece, I was shocked when one woman completely ignored the heavy traumatic notes of the story in lieu of saying, “Pool noodles didn’t exist in 1978.”

But she was right. My fierce, emotional tale was instantly deflated by the wrong set of pool toys.

That experience gave me a memorable lesson about the importance of the reliable narrator.

What is a Reliable Narrator?

A reliable narrator is able to tell a story in an impartial and accurate fashion. This requires him or her to have a breadth of knowledge about all the characters and events contained within.

If your narrator is speaking in the first person, you are letting us know that this character is intimately involved in the tale, and all thoughts and actions should ring authentically true from that perspective. The same goes, to a lesser degree, to a limited third-person point of view.

If your narrator is a removed third person talking to us about the lives and deeds of others, they should speak from a reasonable distance that provides a balanced portrayal of all other characters in the story.

How Does a Reliable Narrator Relate to Fiction

Fiction is its very nature asks a reader to suspend belief. We expect our readers to partake in the world of make believe we are creating for their entertainment, pleasure or discomfort.

But in our imaginary worlds, it is important that the reader can see and feel himself in the shoes of our narrator, as wild and wonderful as they may be. If at any moment they feel the need to stop the flow of words to question a line of dialogue, a peripheral fact, or a small piece of scene, we risk losing them all together.

Eight Important Considerations and Common Mistakes

1. Distance

Consider your narrator’s place within the story at large. Suppose your story is about a young group of teenagers who get into a vicious car accident that traumatizes a small town during Thanksgiving break. If your narrator is the grandmother of one of the teenagers, her rendition of events will be much more emotionally complex than, say, if the town mayor were the narrator.

2. Cultural References

If your story is about two widows finding love again in 1995, their first date will probably not take place at a screening of The Usual SuspectsThe Bridges of Madison County is much more believable and romantically scene-setting.

3. Technology

We didn’t have cell phones yet in 1982, so when your 45-year-old female character is recounting memories of a rape in junior high, don’t have her frantically calling her parents from the car. Make sure she runs to town and commandeers a payphone instead.

4. Geography and Environment

If your characters are picnicking under a blooming tree in summer in Salt Lake City, that tree better be a golden acacia or something else indigent to the area. Otherwise, just say they are in Utah. Same goes for the South, or Southern California, or the Midwest. Chances are one of your readers will be from the location in your tale and will be all too happy to call you out.

5. Age Appropriateness

Unless your twenty-year-old female narrator is an unrelenting hipster who scours vintage stores for 1990s classics, don’t place her in a dated IZOD shirt. Your retired senior citizen on the golf course would most likely not be clad in Indie rocker skinny jeans unless he’s positioned as one of those eccentric, midlife crisis males striving to hang on to a dissipating youth.

6. Lingo

Dialogue can be the biggest betrayer of truth in fiction. If speech doesn’t sound true, neither will your story.

Unless your gay male character is talking to readers from a gay bar patio pre-1990, he most assuredly is not still calling his friends “Mary.” Fifteen-year-olds in 2016 no longer say, “As if.” Girls stopped saying “Hella” in emotional outbursts to their friends the day Gwen Stefani ceased being a Harajuku girl and joined the panel of The Voice.

7. Cliché

Your female narrator may very well be a self-help guru with a Pollyanna personality, but simply saying so might produce more cringe than resonance. Show her stopping to smell the roses, but never ever let us hear her telling someone else to do so. This only sets her up as a cardboard character, whereas readers want to know what makes her unique, fresh and relevant.

There are plenty of pre-existing stories from which our maligned clichés initiate. The same goes for over-sentimentality. One person in any number of situations is more likely to run through a complex assortment of interplaying feelings during our glimpse into their fictional experiences rather than one-dimensional bouts of “happily ever after” and the like.

8. Writer Interruptus

One of the biggest instances of unreliable narration is the case of writer interruptus, when the reader can viscerally feel the writer’s intrusion upon the narrator. This occurs when a writer is writing a character from a space of judgment, revenge, or personal agenda that comes seething through on the page.

For example, your husband just had an affair so you attempt to process your anger by creating a floozy secretary who lures her boss into infidelity, but every time we see this character, it is clear that you are treating her with a battle-ax rather than as a cohesive and well-rounded person in tune with the overall story.

If you are writing a short story to work out your own demons, you might need a therapist, not an audience.

When is Unreliable Okay?

Of course, there are times when an unreliable narrator is called for in fiction:

  • Perhaps your narrator is a con man, sociopath or a pathological liar asking the reader to go along with his self-delusion as he deludes others.
  • From page one, your older character might exhibit signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease setting up a foundational expectation that his words and actions will not always make sense.
  • Maybe your narrator is a young child who you intuitively know couldn’t possibly be equipped with the emotional intelligence to fully parse the subtleties or mature inflections of the world around her.

In those cases, give us straightforward hints to let us know we are along for the ride, not skeptical passengers on a journey of disbelief.

About the author

Kimberly Nichols

Kimberly Nichols

Kimberly Nichols is a writer and artist living in Los Angeles. She has been published in many literary journals and publications over the years including the Los Angeles Times, Vice, Wine Enthusiast, Phantom Seed, Poet, Small Spiral Notebook and 3 AM Magazine and is the author of the book of short stories Mad Anatomy (Del Sol Press). She currently critiques art for Artdependence Magazine based out of the Netherlands. More work can be seen online at www.kimberlynicholsstudio.com

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