Flawed Narrators

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vers
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Flawed Narrators

Postby vers » Thu Apr 02, 2009 2:27 pm UTC

I just came from a previous thread which had been discussing a certain preachy book which i happen to like (a little) and it prompted me to think:

Don't you hate the superhero narrator? The person giving you a story who can, we are to understand, do no wrong. The same goes for main characters. How can we maintain an interest in a story if we think the main character or narrator is so far above the realm of human concern that he or she has no flaw at all? This has become a significant problem in movies and some television shows as they play more and more to our baser desires.

So, if we can unite in this abomination of such a do-gooder character and their boring stories, can we have a reasonable discussion of the characters that break this mold with the most finesse? What makes them flawed, and why does it move you?

My recent favorite: Jack Burden from the classic All the King's Men. A man desperately trying to escape his effects on the world, because he can't bear to see the destruction and sadness that his actions working for a corrupt government have caused. He's a racist, a sexist, he has no motivation, and he destroys lives at his boss' bidding, but there's something about the novel, and something about Jack, that anyone can identify with. He's southern, but he's American, and he's human. And his story is about all three elements.

What are some of your favorite flawed narrators/main characters?

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby rat4000 » Thu Apr 02, 2009 4:07 pm UTC

The only place I've seen a really poorly executed first-person narration was Karl May's books.

I don't think I've come across any really good ones.

No, wait. Three Man in a Boat. The way he manages to give us the impression of egotism while at the same time being unbelievably self-ironic is awesome.

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby Orsa » Fri Apr 03, 2009 4:31 pm UTC

Tell-Tale Heart, mi rite?

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby vers » Fri Apr 03, 2009 6:52 pm UTC

Orsa wrote:Tell-Tale Heart, mi rite?


haha well thats about as flawed as a person gets!

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby lu6cifer » Mon Apr 06, 2009 3:07 am UTC

Holden Caulfield's way more flawed
And what about Humbert Humbert?
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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby 6453893 » Mon Apr 06, 2009 7:17 am UTC

Has there ever been such a thing as an unflawed narrator?

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby godonlyknows620 » Mon Apr 06, 2009 7:56 pm UTC

Good point, at least when we're talking about 1st person narrators. Because there is 3rd person omniscient.

Surprised no one mentioned Fight Club! I know it's kinda cult-mainstream now, but that's one of the best examples I can think of of "flawed narrators".

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby Sandry » Tue Apr 07, 2009 2:54 am UTC

Matt Ruff - Bad Monkeys. I don't want to discuss, because it'd probably all be spoilery and I want people to read Matt Ruff.

Also Matt Ruff - Set This House in Order, which is totally brilliant and I highly recommend it. The main character has split personalities, some of which are more and less reliable.

I do like it when people do unconventional things with the narrator, keeps me on my toes.
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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby Sir_Elderberry » Tue Apr 07, 2009 3:10 am UTC

Surely House of Leaves counts somehow. Hard to get more flawed than Tell-Tale Heart? Try being possibly nonexistent.
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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby Huginn » Tue Apr 07, 2009 11:22 am UTC

Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby is fantastic. His opinions shape the novel, while we try to figure what's really happened.

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby cephalopod9 » Mon Apr 13, 2009 7:08 am UTC

godonlyknows620 wrote:Good point, at least when we're talking about 1st person narrators. Because there is 3rd person omniscient.

Surprised no one mentioned Fight Club! I know it's kinda cult-mainstream now, but that's one of the best examples I can think of of "flawed narrators".

Ooh ooh, Invisible Monsters, in pretty much every sense of the word "flawed".
One of Neil Gaiman's short story collections was supposed to be all flawed/unreliable narrators, Smoke and Mirrors, I think.
A Clockwork Orange his thought process is all kinds of twisted, and the slang makes things kind of incomprehensible.
Stephen King does it well sometimes. Everything's Eventual, I think is the title of the story in the short story collection, comes to mind; flawed in the willfully ignorant sort of way.
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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby michaelandjimi » Wed Apr 15, 2009 11:06 am UTC

In Wuthering Heights, at least some of the narrators are flawed - Lockwood especially, as he completely misjudges the nature of Heathcliff's household.

Bridge to Terabithia is a good example of another flawed narrator, as it is fairly difficult to tell what is real at all, beyond your discretion.
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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby Lemminkainen » Sat Apr 18, 2009 1:53 am UTC

Interestingly, I believe that I have encountered somewhat deceptive 3rd-person narration in at least one novel. The narrator of Marquez's "Love in the Time of Cholera," while we cannot be certain is lying, definitely intentionally misleads the reader on the personal attributes of at least one major character... The book is a trap.

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby Melchiades » Sun Apr 19, 2009 3:29 pm UTC

Yeah, as mentioned above, Palahniuk and Gaiman operate with narrations that aren't off-scale in their judgement. In Haunted, the whole story is told from a 'we/us' perspective, and then there's Hornby's Slam for a good afternoon read with the story told basically by a young man (remembering how was it when he was a kid).

If you want this twisted up, get on Kundera - he'll go on and ramble about how the thoughts of his characters are flawed, or where they come from, their motivations, and then it ends up in some sort of an essay before bulking back to the main storyline. Too much of him can get on your nerves though.

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby Internetmeme » Sun Apr 19, 2009 10:35 pm UTC

A Cask of Amontillado anyone?
Spoiler:

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby Clumpy » Mon Apr 20, 2009 1:15 am UTC

I read a story once where the narrator has been deliberately distorting facts to hide the information that he/she is the actual killer in the story. I've been looking for that story for years but don't remember anything else about it :(.

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby 6453893 » Mon Apr 20, 2009 3:21 am UTC

At my highschool, we put on a murder mystery play where the narrator follows the characters around describing the characters' back stories and inner thoughts. In the end, the narrator himself was the murderer. It's not great literature, but we liked it.

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby Melchiades » Mon Apr 20, 2009 10:37 am UTC

Oh, and let's not forget Christoper Priest's The Prestige. Two narrators!

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby la fée verte » Mon Apr 20, 2009 3:04 pm UTC

Clumpy wrote:I read a story once where the narrator has been deliberately distorting facts to hide the information that he/she is the actual killer in the story. I've been looking for that story for years but don't remember anything else about it :(.


Clumpy, it's been done a couple of times, but as far as I know the first person to do it was Agatha Christie in
Spoiler:
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

When I was studying detective fiction for uni I remember reading an essay about it, and how much controversy it caused when it was published. The impression I got was that Agatha Christie fans back in the the day were basically like the fans of a good sci-fi show now, in terms of how devoted they were and how hotly they debated each book as she published them. That book was a massive innovation and turning point for the genre, but at the time a lot of the fans got very angry because they felt like she had tricked them by not playing by the rules.
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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby Clumpy » Mon Apr 20, 2009 6:17 pm UTC

la fée verte wrote:
Clumpy wrote:I read a story once where the narrator has been deliberately distorting facts to hide the information that he/she is the actual killer in the story. I've been looking for that story for years but don't remember anything else about it :(.


Clumpy, it's been done a couple of times, but as far as I know the first person to do it was Agatha Christie in
Spoiler:
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

When I was studying detective fiction for uni I remember reading an essay about it, and how much controversy it caused when it was published. The impression I got was that Agatha Christie fans back in the the day were basically like the fans of a good sci-fi show now, in terms of how devoted they were and how hotly they debated each book as she published them. That book was a massive innovation and turning point for the genre, but at the time a lot of the fans got very angry because they felt like she had tricked them by not playing by the rules.


I haven't read that story, but the explanation seems very familiar. Maybe I heard a synopsis in Junior High and thought I'd read it.

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby la fée verte » Mon Apr 20, 2009 6:53 pm UTC

Clumpy wrote:I haven't read that story, but the explanation seems very familiar. Maybe I heard a synopsis in Junior High and thought I'd read it.


Haha I do that all the time! Anyway, like I said, I think that plot device has been done a few times. The way you described it just rang a bell for me with that Christie story and I thought I'd take a wild stab in the dark.

To stay on-topic; I don't think anyone's mentioned Phillip K Dick yet, have they? He takes the unreliable narrator to sublime/ridiculous levels. His protagonists are generally paranoid, mentally ill, drugged to the eyeballs, in the middle of a divine revelation or all of the above.

Wikipedia wrote:"All of his work starts with the basic assumption that there cannot be one, single, objective reality," writes science fiction author Charles Platt. "Everything is a matter of perception. The ground is liable to shift under your feet. A protagonist may find himself living out another person's dream, or he may enter a drug-induced state that actually makes better sense than the real world, or he may cross into a different universe completely."

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby Internetmeme » Mon Apr 20, 2009 7:52 pm UTC

In terms of writing, don't you just hate when at the end of the book, things just "fall apart" and happen as if the author just wanted to get done and got tired of the story?
I'm looking at you, Green Man.
Spoiler:

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby Sir_Elderberry » Tue Apr 21, 2009 1:08 am UTC

la fée verte wrote:When I was studying detective fiction for uni I remember reading an essay about it, and how much controversy it caused when it was published. The impression I got was that Agatha Christie fans back in the the day were basically like the fans of a good sci-fi show now, in terms of how devoted they were and how hotly they debated each book as she published them.

How ironic that she was on Doctor Who.
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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby la fée verte » Tue Apr 21, 2009 1:58 am UTC

Sir_Elderberry wrote:
la fée verte wrote:When I was studying detective fiction for uni I remember reading an essay about it, and how much controversy it caused when it was published. The impression I got was that Agatha Christie fans back in the the day were basically like the fans of a good sci-fi show now, in terms of how devoted they were and how hotly they debated each book as she published them.

How ironic that she was on Doctor Who.


:o

How could I have forgotten that?!

In fact, did I get that idea from Doctor Who rather than from the detective fiction module? Sir_Elderberry, have you seen that episode recently? Did I actually just plagiarise it horribly?

*is worried and ashamed, damn university and its pronouncements of doom and brimstone for plagiarists, even accidental ones*
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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby Rachel! » Tue Apr 21, 2009 2:23 am UTC

American Psycho, unreliable narrator. it's a book and a movie.

And Ginny's diary entries in HP 2.

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby jeffk » Tue Apr 21, 2009 2:53 pm UTC

la fée verte wrote:When I was studying detective fiction for uni I remember reading an essay about it, and how much controversy it caused when it was published. The impression I got was that Agatha Christie fans back in the the day were basically like the fans of a good sci-fi show now, in terms of how devoted they were and how hotly they debated each book as she published them. That book was a massive innovation and turning point for the genre, but at the time a lot of the fans got very angry because they felt like she had tricked them by not playing by the rules.

Not just Agatha Christie fans, but detective fiction fans of that time. Complete with attempts to develop guidelines--partially to "play fair" with the reader, and partially to avoid then-current (and a few still-current) cliches. I particularly like the Van Dine rules because he gives his justification for most of his rules.

At the end of the book in question, Christie gives her own justification for breaking The Rules while still playing fair.
Spoiler:
Actually, Dr. Sheppard does, where he quotes an earlier chapter to prove he'd lampshaded the critical 10-minute gap in his original story.
Of course, it's not the only time Christie exploited loopholes in The Rules....

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby Cronqvist » Thu Apr 23, 2009 2:35 am UTC

Uhh... The Screwtape Letters?

I'm pretty sure a demon that doesn't even have the cool kind of evil counts as pretty flawed.

It's an epistolary novel, so I'm not sure whether that's the kind of narrator you want.

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby philly13 » Thu Apr 23, 2009 6:46 am UTC

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time's narrator is autistic. He tells the story by what he sees and understands, leaving the reader to figure out what's actually happening and what we aren't being told.

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby folkhero » Thu Apr 23, 2009 8:53 am UTC

"Notes From Underground" by Dostoevsky. From what I've read so far, it's the narrator alternating between talking about how flawed he is and making up excuses for why he isn't doing anything with his life.
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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby 6453893 » Fri Apr 24, 2009 10:15 am UTC

I loved Curious Incident.

I also loved the narrator's incredibly broken english in Everything Is Illuminated. There was a real sense that he was trying so hard, and still getting it hilariously wrong.

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby Miro » Sat Apr 25, 2009 4:52 pm UTC

The second I read the thread title I thought "Only Revolutions" by Mark Z. Danielewski, the same guy who did House of Leaves. Its a dual person narritive that uses Stream of Consciousness to convey the story. It has two main characters, you read the book one way to get the boy's story and interpretation of the events, then you flip the book over and read the girls story and interpretation of events.

It was fairly difficult to get through, but I enjoyed it.

Trivia note: there are exactly 180 words on every page so you make a 180 twist to read both sides of the story.

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby whitelightwhiteheat » Thu May 28, 2009 9:17 pm UTC

And the Ass saw the Angel by Nick Cave

great book though

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby Chuff » Sun Jun 14, 2009 5:32 am UTC

Huginn wrote:Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby is fantastic. His opinions shape the novel, while we try to figure what's really happened.

I just finished reading Great Gatsby and came here to say that. I agree wholeheartedly. Nick was probably my favorite part of the book.
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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby Felstaff » Tue Oct 27, 2009 12:27 am UTC

Eva Khatchadourian in We Need to Talk About Kevin is completely flawed and unreliable, and she's trying to tell the truth throughout the whole thing. (Why would she lie?)

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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby KallistiEngel » Tue Oct 27, 2009 4:33 am UTC

godonlyknows620 wrote:Surprised no one mentioned Fight Club! I know it's kinda cult-mainstream now, but that's one of the best examples I can think of of "flawed narrators".

I was just about to say that. Actually just about all of Pahlaniuk's narrators are. Same goes for E.A. Poe in a lot of cases.
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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby BlueNight » Fri Oct 30, 2009 12:57 am UTC

Eric Garcia, author of Matchstick Men and Anonymous Rex, has been working on another book since 1997. Reposession Mambo is narrated by an artificial organ reposession man on the run from his peers. What he doesn't say ends up being as important as what he does say.

Eric Garcia also pulls off a trick I have never seen done well before. Spoiler tag, because if you read this next bit, you'll be looking for it while you read it, even though it's not all that important.

Spoiler:
The repo man's name does not appear in the book until the essay at the end.


A movie starring Jude Law, based on the novel, is coming out soon. A lot of people think it's a ripoff of Repo! The Genetic Opera, but Eric Garcia was working on the concept a year earlier than the writers of Repo!. (Amazingly, though they were independent takes on the same concept, the movies were filmed on the same lot, on neighboring soundstages!)
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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby TheChewanater » Sat Oct 31, 2009 5:01 am UTC

Nom Anor is pretty flawed. His only motivation is power for himself, and he kills and deceives tons of people, including the followers of the many false religions he starts, to get it. He's not even really loyal to his own side, except for himself. Worse than any Poe stuff, though a lot of the others I've never heard of.
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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby mmmcannibalism » Sun Nov 01, 2009 6:01 am UTC

The fireman in fahrenheit 451(name escaping me)

There was something fascinating about the writing style matching the feel the narrator was having an emotional meltdown.
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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby KallistiEngel » Sun Nov 01, 2009 9:41 am UTC

mmmcannibalism wrote:The fireman in fahrenheit 451(name escaping me)

There was something fascinating about the writing style matching the feel the narrator was having an emotional meltdown.

Guy Montag. And I loved the fuck out of that book.
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Re: Flawed Narrators

Postby JayDee » Mon Nov 02, 2009 2:55 pm UTC

cephalopod9 wrote:One of Neil Gaiman's short story collections was supposed to be all flawed/unreliable narrators, Smoke and Mirrors, I think.
I could be wrong, but wasn't that the original idea behind Fragile Things? (which I haven't read more than the introduction, but I've read Smoke and Mirrors and don't remember it having a cohesive theme.)

I read Donna Tartt's The Secret History recently. For half the book I was thinking that the social environment being described was perfect, almost exactly how I wish my life was, but in the later stages of the novel the narrator began to admit they probably weren't depicting things as they really were, and giving alternate interpretations. That was a very powerful example of an unreliable narrator for me - it's so easy to relate to remembering things in the most positive of lights.
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