notes from the thunderground

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The Paradox of the ‘Unreliable’ Narrator

(This is a thought exercise for me. Struggling with the kind of hero and narrator I want for my long gestating story, and realizing that my own shortcomings as the narrator of my life keeps getting in my way…)

If you know writing and story telling, you know the role of the “unreliable narrator”. The story you are being told may or may not be accurate, because we see the plot unfold through the eyes of someone we have no choice but to trust. Except that we can’t. The plot of Catcher in the Rye changes dramatically when you discover that Holden’s version of the narrative cannot be fully trusted. Usually, the term “unreliable narrator” means that the narrator is attempting to give us the best version of their projected self. They are rarely- if ever- the villain. Everyone is the hero of their own story. This is why there has been a surge of anti-hero characters and sympathetic villains and antagonists who are more attractive for the consumer than the story’s actual protagonist.

But what if the opposite was true? What if there was a narrator who thought that he was the villain, when he was- in fact- the hero? What if the “best version” of the character was the one that we aren’t seeing. And it’s not that he’s trying to be the villain- it’s just that his own self deception leads him to think that he’s far less than the sum of his parts. What if he was an introverted personality but believes himself to be an extrovert, and despite his narrative he is constantly at odds with his own behavior? Or, he only sees the negative outcome of his actions, but never finds the good in his own behavior? In a way- this makes the ‘hero’ protagonist his own antagonist. And not in a multiple personality kind of way. It’s beyond ‘self sabotage’ as it wanders into negative self deception.


There are two narrators in my story, The Intersect. Both of them are unreliable- but for two very different reasons. Jakob- narrator #1- doesn’t believe he’s anything more than the sum of his surroundings: a desert rock of a planet at the center of an ever turning machine where his existence is entirely unimportant. He is, in fact, the hero at the center of a long gestating story he is completely unaware of. His mentor- narrator #2 (who I’m still having trouble finding a name for)- is a man broken by the cogs of the Grey Guild- an outwardly “neutral” watchdog group/peacekeeping force that has long been anything but neutral. The central conflict of the story isn’t so much about how The Grey Guild is ‘evil’ or ‘bad’, but how people that are important to the narrative of their own story have long been told that they have no place in their own universe. The ‘unreliable’ nature of their narrative has less to do with their dishonesty, and more to do with their perceived roles in their own stories. They aren’t just cogs in the machine: they are fully functioning machines- the engines of their own stories.


Most of us are unreliable narrators. But I struggle with deceptive narration. I am a good Dad, a good husband, a decent artist… but I am continually getting in my own way. I mostly tell myself I’m “not good enough!”, when I really just have a few areas of improvement- the biggest being I need to stop lying to myself. I’m tired of being unreliable. Time to start telling myself the actual story of what’s happening. Time to start trusting the narrative that I’ve been handed. It’s not about being “the hero”; it’s about learning to trust myself…

Filed under story writing unreliable narrator paradox jesse nussbaum

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Joshua Dudley Greer - Somewhere Along the Line

Artist’s statement:

"Early settlers imagined the New World as a pristine, uninhabited wilderness – a landscape of unparalleled beauty, magnitude and possibility. Yet the driving impulse of expansion was rarely to commune with nature, but more often a desire to carve a garden from these wilds and create a new civilization, unique from all others. Lines began to be drawn, initially through agriculture and settlements, then railways and cities, and eventually the road.

Today, the American landscape is carved up by nearly 4,000,000 miles of roadways that lead us to just about anywhere we need or want to be. The Interstate Highway System in particular has permanently altered the way we experience the landscape and in turn, each other.

The ideas of mobility, prosperity, community and growth, cornerstones of the American Dream, still motivate many of us to strike out on the road in search of something beyond what our daily lives provide. For some it may be a job or a lifestyle, for others an escape. Whatever the motivation may be, we are all visitors somewhere.”

(via slowocean)