Characters who have psychological profiles, also have their own viewpoint – opinions, judgments and prejudices – concerning the world around them. The first person narrator that is a viewpoint character – such as Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby – freely gives his interpretation of other peoples thoughts and actions. F. Scott Fitzgerald provides a wealth of descriptive detail that wrap the reader in the senses of the narrator. Sometimes readers get sucked in to viewing the story from the lens of the viewpoint character and fail to see that not all is as it seems to be.
Recently a student who normally comprehends all the symbols and allusions in literature complained “I just don’t get The Great Gatsby.”
“What you’ve got to understand is that the characters are often lying to each other,” I explained. “As you read try to pick up on who is lying to whom. The narrator, Nick Carraway, is still something of an outsider among the wealthy easterners. You cannot necessarily trust what he thinks.”
Nick is a lovely example of an unreliable first person narrator. He’s a sympathetic character and the reader would never accuse him of intentionally lying. Instead he seems to factually report what he sees and hears, colored by his own views. Nick, is also becoming aware of the fabric of deceit woven into the lives of the uber-wealthy. He even voices his vague suspicions about the illusions of the society around him. What was it that made him a tad uneasy around Jordan, that delectable young woman who seems attracted to him? … He heard rumors that she cheated at golf.
Why does an author create a narrator whose words cannot be trusted? Because uncovering deceit is part of the plot. This occurs not only in traditional mysteries but in a wide range of fiction. The whole point of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is not an adventure story about surviving the interior of Africa, but discovering that the legendary Kurtz, and his whole philosophy on civilizing the indigenous people are not what they appear to be.
There are many ways to create an unreliable narrator, a child, an outsider, a person returning home after a long absence. Then, there is the character whose psychotic nature is revealed to the reader somewhere near the end of the story. This last is probably the most difficult to create. Despite the number of movies using this ploy, readers may question an author whose first person narrator fails to reveal questionable sanity soon enough. It appears as if the formerly sane, but now crazy character has just gone through a massive shift in personality because the author did not know how else to keep a plot going.