the Little Red Reviewer

First person POV, intent, trust, and unreliable narrators

Posted on: March 4, 2020

Before my next book review goes up,  let’s have a discussion about first person point of view,  how much knowledge the narrator has, the narrator’s perspective and intent, and trust.

 

Do you like first person point of view, or does it annoy you?

If you like it, what do you like about it?

What books have you read where the first person point of view was especially effective?

Ever had a narrator lie to you?  Were you ok with that?

Do you like unreliable narrators, or do they piss you off?

 

 

Some people really hate first person point of view, some people love it.  Me personally? I love it. My fave is getting the story from that character’s perspective – what excites them, what annoys them, what  is their internal monologue, how do they make decisions, how do they deal with/avoid the consequences of those decisions. I literally want to spend the story inside that person’s head. It feels intimate, like they are letting me in.

 

A thing with first person point of view, is that the reader only knows what the narrator knows. If the narrator doesn’t know who all is on the Orient Express, the reader isn’t going to know until the character meets everyone.  If the narrator doesn’t know why the train broke down or what the name of the cafe at the station is, you don’t know that info either.

 

One of the many fun things about first person, is the narrator  has full control over what the reader knows. If the narrator “forgets” to tell you where they were last night, I guess you’re never gonna know.  If the narrator truly doesn’t remember what happened last night because they passed out drunk, I guess you’re never gonna know. Instead of getting to learn everything about everything, your knowledge becomes severely limited.

 

The narrator is going to tell you what you need to know to stay interested in the story, and there might be some things they choose not to tell you. Could be because they themselves don’t think that piece of information is necessary or interesting,  could be they don’t want to have to answer awkward questions, could be the narrator isn’t as smart as they think (especially entertaining when the narrator is an animal), could be the narrator is purposely hiding information because they are an unreliable narrator.

 

Sometimes the narrator keeps information from you, and they have no ill intent.  Maybe they didn’t realize the information was important, or it wasn’t something they cared about, or they weren’t able to put all the pieces together. We can’t all be Sherlock Holmes brainiacs, you know.

 

So,  how do you know if you can trust a narrator?  Why do you trust a narrator right out of the gate?

 

As a reader,  how do you feel when you trust the narrator, and then find out they weren’t fully truthful with you? Yes, I am asking how you feel about unreliable narrators.

 

I’m a weirdo, I freakin’ love unreliable narrators.   Because if i’m suddenly questioning everything they told me. . .  is the story I just read maybe a completely different story? And I love it when that happens.

 

 

20 Responses to "First person POV, intent, trust, and unreliable narrators"

I’m very okay with first person point of view but I certainly hate unreliable narrators, hello Girl On The Train.

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I really wanted to like Girl on the Train. but. . . I didn’t.

I usually like unreliable narrators. but it totally didn’t work for Girl on the Train!

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I like both, I think it really boils down to how well the writer handles the narrative. But I love unreliable narrators too, I just read an amazing first person story that kept me guessing the whole time, because you don’t have anyone else’s POV.

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” because you don’t have anyone else’s POV.”
this exactly!! you don’t have anyone else telling you “yeah, it didn’t happen like that”, and if the author is really skilled, you don’t even question the narrator.

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I also love first person narrators AND unreliable narrators. I think both make the story more interesting, and those stories tend to be the ones that fool me…and that’s very hard to do.

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yes to all of this!! any favorites or especially memorable titles you can recommend?

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The Dinner by Herman Koch, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Elmet by Fiona Mozley, The Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski, The Secret History by Donna Tartt (my fave of hers), A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride. If I think of others, I’ll let you know. 🙂

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that sound you just heard was my TBR exploding, in a good way! any others you think of, please do let me know! 🙂

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Never Let Me Go and The Secret History – YEEESSSSSSSS!!! 🙂
(Sorry, lurking!)

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Glad you agree with these! I feel like I need to read The Secret History again soon.

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Hmm, trust a narrator? You make me realize that I never trust first person narrators. I’m always checking them out, observing what they choose to tell me, questioning the setup they present me with. Guess I’m conditioned to look at all narrators as unreliable, or rather human and interesting for what they reveal about themselves as they tell me the story. Thanks for this thoughtful post!

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thank you for this thoughtful reply! You managed to get my rambling 800 words wrapped up perfectly in a few sentences.

because absolutely yes, a narrator who chooses what to tell you, and what not to tell, that makes them a regular person, just like anyone (friend, co-worker, neighbor, etc) that you might start a relationship with. and like in any relationship, what each person says to other, that shapes the relationship.

when a narrator waits until they trust me, to me that makes them compelling.

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Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun must be the pinnacle of speculative fiction’s unreliable narrator books. It’s also one of my favorite reads ever.

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oh yes!! trying to figure out what all Severian isn’t telling us, that is some of the most fun parts of that series! The first time I read the first volume, I had no idea what was going on, I thought “oh, he’s just some dumb teenager”, and then, well, you learn what’s going on, and it makes you want to read the entire first book all over again to re-catch everything!

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I found Alex Rowland’s CONSPIRACY OF TRUTHS and A CHOIR OF LIES interesting because the second novel makes it clear just how untrustworthy the narrator in the first book really is, in retrospect.

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ooh!!! *adds both to TBR*

i imagine that after reading the 2nd book, the 1st one suddenly felt like a very different novel. is the 2nd book from a different character’s point of view?

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I guess I’m in the minority here. I don’t much like first person narrative if it’s told from the single viewpoint. I have no problem with getting inside the character’s head, but not exclusively.

Don’t even hint about giving me first person present tense! That, I just hate.

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I don’t think I’d enjoy reading an entire novel that is in present tense!

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I love the first person narrative. It’s like I’m along for the ride, that I’m being talked to, not talked at, if that makes any sense. It’s like sitting down with a great storyteller who is going to share something intimate with you, but you don’t get to interrupt and ask questions. It makes me think what filters and biases the narrator possesses. And how that storyteller not only perceives the world around them, but also how they perceive themselves (accurate or not).

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oh yes, this makes perfect sense to me! these are the exact reasons why I love first person!

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