Weekly Write: The Unreliable Narrator

WW GeneralThe concept of the unreliable narrator gained prominence in the eighteenth century due to the development of the modern novel as a literary genre. This narrative mode was an innovation which distinguished author from narrator and narrator from administrative authority over the plot’s eventual disclosure. Such clandestine means of narration forces the reader to consider the text objectively when our sense of narrative subjectivity is skewed. Subsequently, the rise of the unreliable narrator defied the preceding convention of narrative omniscience encouraging the reader to observe inconsistencies within the text in revelation of plot; for example, observed juxtaposition of character dialogue with narrative consciousness or the presence of contrived and obvious mistakes expressed by narrative character.

Typically, unreliable narrators are written in first person since it is the mode which is ‘always at least potentially unreliable, in that the narrator, with these human limitations of perception and memory and assessment , may easily have missed, forgotten, or misconstrued certain incidents, words, or motives’, as William Riggan explains.

In his book on the subject, ‘Pícaros, Madmen, Naīfs, and Clowns: The Unreliable First-person Narrator’, Riggan identifies four classifications of unreliable narrator as evidenced in first person.  Unsurprisingly, the classifications he established were Pícaros, Madmen, Naīfs, and Clowns. This week, I’d like you to try and come up with four short narrative passages exploring each of these classifications from a first-person perspective.

1. Pícaro


. . . a rogue or vagabond

Famous literary example: Humbert Humbert (Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov)

The narrative Pícaro is defined by a tone of boastfulness and exaggeration as exemplified in the character of Humbert Humbert who confidently and unashamedly articulates his story without excuse for his overt paedophilia. His educated and often beautiful manner of speech is enchanting to the reader but our awareness of his immoral activity negates our narrative trust when we realise that his confidence is misplaced.

Write a short passage (roughly 250 words) from the perspective of a narrative Pícaro of your own devise.

2. Madman

American Psycho

. . . a person who is or behaves as if insane; lunatic; maniac.

Famous literary example: Patrick Bateman (American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis)

Unlike the Pícaro, the narrative Madman suffers from a mental affliction which necessarily obscures his view of reality. Although Bateman consciously acknowledges his differences in the way he thinks to that of other people, it is this distinction which renders him unreliable. Even though he has the ability to assimilate within society, his instinctive blood lust directs him to narrative avenues that we cannot foresee.

Write a short passage (roughly 250 words) from the perspective of a narrative Madman of your own devise.

3. Naïf


. . . a naive or inexperienced person.

Famous literary example: Huckleberry Finn (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain)

The narrative Naïf is characterised by limited and often immature perception. The narrative style of Huckleberry Finn exemplifies this, twofold, in that he is inherently immature due to his age as well as being characteristically inhibited by religious restrictions. For example, Huck’s decision to help Jim escape slavery is objectively noble, yet is subjectively described as a reprehensible act due to his religious conditioning.

Write a short passage (roughly 250 words) from the perspective of a narrative Naïf of your own devise.

4. Clown


. . . one who jokes and plays tricks.

Famous literary example: Tristram Shandy (The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemanby Laurence Sterne)

The narrative clown is characterised a playfulness of narration that undermines its own authority in light of its jovial treatment of the text. Much of the humour in the novel arrives from this narrative mode as opposed to the content articulated. One of the central jokes of the novel is that he cannot explain anything simply, that he must make explanatory diversions to add context and colour to his tale. This self-asserted distortion of events is a less common use of an unreliable narrator but it is nonetheless effective as a mode capable of deceiving the reader.

Write a short passage (roughly 250 words) from the perspective of a narrative Clown of your own devise.


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