Child Narrators (1)

A narrator who is fallible is usually referred to as ‘an unreliable narrator’. The term often applies to child narrators but would not always be accurate.

The term ‘the inadequate narrator’ can be used to describe a narrator who is undeniably truthful, such as Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, who is entirely trustworthy, so much so that it makes for misunderstandings with other people. The term inadequate narrator is not an established critical term in spite of the fact that such voices appeared in fiction as long ago as Huckleberry Finn. The characters are often limited by their innocence or inarticulacy, as in The Colour Purple.

My WIP is a story told by a young girl about her parents’ volatile marriage and her friendship with an apparently rather odd uncle. The child is the narrator. At the moment I am undecided about her exact age. I need to establish a character whose innocence leads her to misunderstanding situations but whose interpretations and descriptions to readers leaves them in no doubt as to the parental emotions. This child also has to be brave enough to take bold steps to save her parents’ marriage.

I was uncomfortable labelling her an unreliable narrator because it is essential to the narrative that she is reliable in her observations if not in her interpretations. Readers will come to their own conclusions, as they do with Christopher.

So I was delighted when John Mullen offered me this alternative way of ‘seeing’ my narrator. A sensitive but wide-awake child, bright enough to take an interest in adult affairs but sensitive enough to worry about her mother and father. Hardly inadequate when she’s described like that but certainly not unreliable.

I award all credit for this knowledge to John Mullan’s book how novels work.

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