by Quentin Long
©2007 Quentin Long
When I was short, I believed Thomas Edison lived in California.
And not just anywhere in the Golden State; I was convinced that Edison had resided in the San Francisco Bay Area, not far at all from my home town of Los Altos. Practically a neighbor, really. You see, all the books Id read about Edison made a point of referring to him as the Wizard of Menlo Park, and any Los Altan with half a brain knows where Menlo Park is: You get on the Bayshore Freeway, drive North about 10 miles, and there you are!
At that time, it never even occured to me that there might be another city, somewhere else in the US, named Menlo Park
which brings us neatly to the topic of this essay: Unreliable narrators. Okay, show of hands: How many of you know any human beings who are absolutely never in error about anything? Me, neither. Which makes sense, since we are all of us fallible mortals. We can be wrong about all kinds of things, for all kinds of reasons.
So why shouldnt a storys narrator screw up sometimes? They're only human, after all!
Then again, the narrator is the authors mouthpiece, the character who feeds all the descriptions and so on to the reader. If the narrator is lying to the reader, whats the point of reading that story at all? The answer is that unreliable is not a synonym for dishonest. As long as your narrator is only guilty of being wrong, and doesn't actually lie to the reader, youd be surprised what the reader will let you get away with.
How can a narrator be wrong without being a liar? Let me count (some of) the ways