The first novel I read which was told by an unreliable narrator was Pale Fire.
I’d never come across one before – or if I had, I’d failed to notice, and taken what I was reading at face value.
Anyway, Pale Fire was a revelation to me. I loved the way the main character would describe a situation, and his take on what was happening would be completely different to my own.
I subsequently came across more unreliable narrators – Oskar in The Tin Drum, Deputy Sherriff Lou Ford in The Killer Inside Me, and Amy in Gone Girl, among others. I found the unreliable narrator (or UN for short) compelling.
It was inevitable that sooner or later I’d try my hand at using the device myself.
If you’ve ever written a novel, you’ll know it’s not an easy undertaking.
And if you’ve written in the first person, you’ll also know that creating a convincing narrative is a difficult task, even when you’re not striving for the added complication of setting your protagonist up to be a dissembler, hypocrite, and liar.
It’d be all too easy to come unstuck on such an enterprise. If the lying, hypocrisy, and dissembling were to be clumsily done, the result would be embarrassing, rather than entertaining.
I had to ask myself: how do you go about creating a UN without being ham-fisted?
For me, the way forward was to put together a set of circumstances that’d make the narrator feel bad about himself, forcing him to put a spin on them to make him look good.
When I wondered what those circumstances might be, it occurred to me that when siblings are young, the older one has an advantage.
Age alone makes the elder brother more capable, in every way, than the younger.
It’s an advantage that doesn’t last. Sooner or later they grow up and get to be on an even footing.
Then, oftentimes, the younger proves to be more capable than the older.
When this happens, there is no problem if the older brother is well-balanced. But if he’s insecure, being overtaken by his younger sibling is disastrous for his self-esteem.
That was my starting point.
In order to set this situation up, I created two brothers, Brad and Brian Sharpe.
Brad is the older of the two.
He’s in late middle-age, short, overweight, and conspicuously unfit. He frets about his failing physical prowess and the fact that he’s on the verge of old age.
A journalist by trade, he admits, in a rare moment of candour, that all the stories he’s ever worked on are small-time and uninspiring.
Brian, his younger brother, is tall, handsome, muscular, virile, and a published poet. In other words, everything Brad would like to be.
To make matters worse, Brad’s wife finds Brian attractive.
Little wonder that Brad finds his younger brother insufferable and doesn’t have a good word for him, or his poetry.
Once I’d set this situation up, I had a lot of fun with the way Brad tells his story.
Whenever he gets the chance, he accuses Brian of some iniquity; and when he does, there is scant evidence of it. Sometimes there’s evidence Brad is lying, and other times that he’s being hypocritical.
Brad describes Brian’s poetry as doggerel. Then a major publisher brings out an anthology of Brian’s work, proving that, contrary to what Brad has said, Brian’s poems are outstanding.
Brad writes a book of his own. But when he wants to impress a female colleague, it is Brian’s book he gives her, not his own, tacitly admitting that, deep down, he knows that Brian’s book is better than his.
When in a pub, Brad laments the fact that he’s rubbing shoulders with “the worst that society has to offer”. Most readers will conclude at this point that Brad himself is the worst that society has to offer, and that Brian, in addition to being the better writer, is also be the better man.
Have I succeeded in my aim of creating an entertaining and convincing unreliable narrator? If you want to find out, get my latest novel Manchester ViceHERE.
Before you do, I should warn you it contains graphic violence and scenes that some would call explicit.
I should add that although I’ve given away some of the plot, I’ve kept an awful lot more of it to myself.
If you’d like a free taster of my wares, you can get my book of short stories – Dirty Noir – on Kobo right HERE.
Dirty Noir has no explicit sex scenes but does contain some graphic violence.
4 thoughts on “The Unreliable Narrator and Manchester Vice – Guest Post by Jack Strange…”
Reblogged this on Die Erste Eslarner Zeitung – Aus und über Eslarn, sowie die bayerisch-tschechische Region!.
This is fascinating. I’ve not written a novel in first person but have been considering it. Great post!
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Great post, I enjoyed it very much (and I am being reliable with this comment!).
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