Wordy Wednesday: The Unreliable Narrator in Young Adult Fiction

I swear, someday I’ll begin posting Wordy Wednesdays before midnight again. (In my defense this week, I spent the entire day either in class or doing homework, then tonight friends came over and we all watched Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and ate funfetti cake Hannah had made in honor of the occasion, so I was kind of busy.)

Anyway. The past week’s been pretty uneventful. I walked a 5K Sunday with my parents, then spent Monday barely being able to move because I am actually SO OUT OF SHAPE that walking three miles in a row destroyed my muscles. (You don’t need to make fun of me. I did enough of it myself between winces as I walked to class.) Monday night, I turned in my final research paper for Oxford and very melodramatically drank Sainsbury’s peppermint tea out of my Magdalen mug while missing England.

Long story short: I’ve gone to a ton of classes and done a ton of homework and eaten a ton of cookies.

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post that takes form in an essay I turned in for my YA lit class recently, discussing the idea of the unreliable narrator. [Update: I got a very deserving B on this, primarily for a flawed representation of the unreliable narrator, due to not expounding enough on my argument, and the multitude of typos that occur when you finish a paper fifteen minutes before it’s due. So. Keep that in mind while you read. Hopefully I can do a post actually discussing the unreliable narrator from a writing perspective at some point, to clear up the issues posed by this essay. But in the meantime, enjoy!]

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The unreliable narrator is a trope that pops up again and again in fiction. It involves, most commonly, a protagonist written from a first person perspective that asserts one idea to be true when this idea is actually false. The idea directly relates to the narrator in some way, to the point of defining him or her. However, all narrators are unreliable to an extent, due to their age, position in the world, personal ideology, etc. Hazel in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars tells her story after the fact, which means readers will never know for sure who Augustus Waters was as a person, because what they only know him through Hazel’s eyes. What arguably makes a protagonist not just commonly unreliable, but definable as an unreliable narrator, is the fact that it is possible for him or her to understand, with effort, his or her idea to be false. Maybe he or she knew the truth at a time but chose to believe it wasn’t true or forget it, or has known the truth the entire time and simply chosen to knowingly lie. Which is to say, what makes a protagonist an unreliable narrator is his or her decision, whether conscious or not, to lie. Within fiction, a category the unreliable narrator is especially prevalent in is young adult. From the way teenagers often relate more easily to the unreliable narrator than other age groups do, to the way stories utilizing this type of perspective are more likely to be twisty and fast-paced, the unreliable narrator trope finds its home in young adult fiction.

The teenage years, as presented in young adult fiction, are generally spent sneaking around with boyfriends and pulling one over on authority figures. In E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, the title character spends the majority of her story lying to her friends and playing elaborate pranks on the administration of her elite boarding school. Even if teens don’t personally take part in these types of activities, they’re fun to read and demonstrate sentiments teens are likely to relate with: hating how adults and peers underestimate them; wanting to be special but feel normal at the same time; needing a wild adventure to stay sane amidst of midterms and soccer practice. While a story with a straightforward narration style and normal characters can accomplish these things, like in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, an unreliable narrator pulls them one step further. In the S.E. Hinton classic The Outsiders, narrator Ponyboy is an accessory to a murder, but after the friend who actually commits it dies, he can’t stand the idea of remembering his friend this way—as a murderer—so he chooses to believe he is the one who murdered, instead, so that at least in his mind, Johnny might still be alive. He knew “Johnny was dead [and knew] it all the time … [but] just thought that maybe if [he] played like Johnny wasn’t dead it wouldn’t hurt so much” (Hinton 177). This adds another layer to Ponyboy’s story and actions. Perhaps one of the reasons the unreliable narrator appears more frequently in young adult fiction than other categories is because teenagers connect more with the narrator who chooses to believe one thing when another might be true. After all, they’re figuring out what they believe and don’t believe too; sometimes they lie about things happening in order to make life easier to live too. Maybe for a teen reader the distraction is a lie about the state of her geometry grade, rather than about whether or not her friend is dead. But details don’t resonate as loudly as overall actions. As unreliable narrators allow themselves to grow and admit their truth, so do their readers about their own.

On top of this, the unreliable narrator automatically adds another layer to how interesting the story is and involves the reader more. Not only must the reader try to figure out what’s going to happen, but also how much of what has already and is currently happening to believe. Also, unreliable narrators lend themselves to the sorts of stories in which it would be more logical to have a character who cannot handle what’s going on around them. While The Fault in Our Stars’s Hazel can choose to direct the reader’s opinion in one way or another, the fairly ordinary circumstances of her life would make it difficult for to be believable as an unreliable narrator. Ponyboy, on the other hand, lives with the constant threat of getting “jumped by the Socs” (Hinton 2) or the authorities tearing his family apart. His best friend dies from injuries incurred in a fire after murdering a boy who attacked Ponyboy. These extreme circumstances merit the mind shutting the truth out. Stories like these, with an abundance of plot twists and action, tend to be shorter and snappier, which keep readers on the edges of their seats and are more likely to keep teens turning pages, rather than putting the book down to check Facebook. With the way young adult fiction itself generally runs shorter and more to the point that other categories of fiction, it has a reciprocal relationship with the unreliable narrator: the unreliable narrator helps the novel move along, and the novel has no choice but to move in such a way that backs the interest created by the unreliable narrator.

From the way teens are more likely to be able to relate to a story featuring an unreliable narrator, due to the circumstances of the period of life they’re in, to how the unreliable narrator supports the form of the young adult novel and leads to stories with more inherent interest in them, this literary trope finds its home in young adult fiction. Together, as Ponyboy’s friend Johnny would say, they “[s]tay gold” (Hinton 148).

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Thanks for reading! (Now: Off to sleep. SO TIRED.)

 

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday (“Types of First Person POV”)

Look who’s back! I’m currently sitting all nice and snuggly at my desk in my dorm room, heater turned all the way up with a mountain of snow out my window and not a soul in sight. (Because Michigan right now = really freaking cold.)

Today was my first day of class, but I’m magically done already (I’m supposed to have a discussion section Wednesdays, but since we obviously don’t have anything to discuss yet, it’s not meeting until next week). While it’s not as nice as having NO classes on Wednesdays like last semester, only having two still bodes well for not stabbing myself over the stress of finding the time to post each week. So that’s good.

During my social media hiatus, my family escaped the cold by going down to Florida (primarily the Everglades and Keys), which was super nice and warm and wonderful for ruining me for the negative five billion degree temps we’ve got going here in the midwest now. But seriously: The Florida Keys are gorgeous. I’ll do more of a trip recap post sometime later this week, but for now, behold the beauty of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where we stopped on our way home.

Another post that should be coming sometime later this week: NEWS. I’ve got so much news to share with you. A lot’s been happening the past few weeks, to the point that I just haven’t had a chance to post about any of it individually, so  I figure I’ll do a nice big collective post for it all, and I am SO EXCITED to tell you about stuff! (So. Excited.)

And now, without further ado, this week’s Wordy Wednesday! The winning category was Writing Process, so I figured I’d talk about a stylistic choice I discovered recently in first person narratives.

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Everyone’s heard of the POVs: third person, second person, first person. Most stories are written in either third or first, and they allow varying degrees of connectivity to the reader. Third person narratives are generally the more storyteller-y ones (think Harry Potter) whereas first person is more likely to have a lot of focus on the voice and central viewpoint of your MC (think Hunger Games).

I nearly always write in first person, and I’ve never completed a novel in third. I naturally fall into writing in first person, present tense, and have for as long as I can remember, even back before it was popular to do so. Third person I can generally manage for a short story, then my brain just sort of shuts down and goes, “Nope. Sorry. Back to first.”

But within first person, there are sort of “sub” ways of writing. And today I’m going to discuss those.

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Telling the Story

This, I feel, is the most common type of first person narrative. In this type, the narrator speaks directly to the reader. It’s like the voice-over in a movie. The narrator might refer to “you” every once in a while in an ambiguous nod to the audience she knows is there, or say something like, “But that’s a story for another time,” etc. This is the narrator who has chosen to tell her story to the reader; she invites the reader into her thoughts and life.

However, that doesn’t mean the narrator necessarily is aware of the fact that her story is written. A lot of the time it really is just like a movie voice-over. Then, sometimes the character is writing her story in a diary, or telling it out loud to a friend, at which point the “you” type things stop being a nod to the audience as much as just a stylistic device in which the narrator refers to whoever or whatever, within her life, she is telling the story to.

Unreliable, Cognizant Narrator

This is sort of the frenemy narrator: the one who’s so aware of the reader–fourth wall completely smashed to pieces–that she picks and chooses what information to give, sometimes outright lying within her narrative. The term “unreliable narrator” itself generally refers to more just a narrator who has a very skewed viewpoint of a situation, but make that narrator cognizant of both their situation and audience, and suddenly you’ve got someone who knows she can lie through her teeth and the reader will have no choice but to believe her, up until the twist ending.

I’ve separated this one from the regular “telling the story” narration-style above, because this goes beyond that. Rather than simply getting the MC’s perspective on the events, you get the even more slanted perspective that she chooses to give you. It’s like how you might tell the story differently based on whether you were confiding in a co-conspirator vs. pleading your case before a judge. The co-conspirator would likely get a much more straightforward version of the story, whereas the judge would get information only in such a way that would bring him around to your side.

Stream-of-Conscious

In this case, the narrator isn’t narrating the events of the story, per say, as much as just talking to herself. What you’re reading is explicitly that character’s thoughts and observations, with the intended audience simply being herself–like how you talk to yourself in your own mind. So instead writing, I wonder if he’s the killer, she’d simply say, He might be the killer. Because of course, you’re not going to say “I wonder” when you’re in the middle of thinking, now are you?

I’ve found that you actually allow the reader to connect with your character and story more by placing them directly in your narrator’s shoes, rather than having the narrator tell the story to them. This was a bit of a recent epiphany, as I’ve been working to find ways to make my narrators easier to connect to, and it’s because you take down that glass barrier: instead of making your reader a second-hand observer of the situation, you bring them directly into the fold. They’re no longer reading the character’s account of the events, but rather watching the events happen through the character’s eyes.

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So, those are the different types of first person narrations that I’ve noticed. Do you know any others? Let me know in the comments.

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Be on the lookout for more posts coming soon!

 

~Julia