My Unreliable Narrator Is a Praying Mantis — What’s Yours?
A waking dream attacked me at 2 AM, so now I'm giving you some writing advice based on it.
I often find myself drawn to unreliable narrators. There's something so fascinating about a character whose perspective is distorted, whether it's due to their own flawed perceptions or a deliberate attempt to mislead the reader. It reminds me of the way that I see the world: subjective. As a writer, it's a challenge to craft a story from this perspective, but the payoff can be huge.
Recently, I was reminded of just how unreliable our own perceptions can be. I woke up being attacked by a praying mantis. I saw it before it happened; it hopped in through my window, bee-lined (mantis-lined?) for my pothos, and then came straight for my head, poised to attack. When I noticed it, I shot up from a deep sleep and scrambled away. From the bottom of the bed, I squinted at it. It glowered at me from my pillow, the very picture of dominion reigned.
My husband woke up and looked at me groggily. "You alright?" He said. A valid question when you see your wife staring into the darkness from the opposite end of the bed at 2 AM.
"Am I fucking crazy," I began, "or is there a praying mantis on my pillow?"
He groaned and, using his phone as a flashlight (I had forgotten mine in my mad scramble for safety), illuminated the pillow. "Those things are mutually exclusive but, no. No mantis," he affirmed.
I could still see it, but gradually the light massaged away the shadows of my attacker. It had looked and felt so real, but it was just a hypnopompic hallucination. The experience was wholly destabilizing. I couldn't trust my own brain, so I decided that was it — time to get the day started. And thus, I sat down to write this.
This experience was a reminder that even our own perceptions can be untrustworthy. Whether we’re writing a story or living one, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that we are paragons of objective truth; our version is the right version. But that’s simply not true. Reality as we perceive it is just one version of events, filtered through our own experiences and biases.
When writing from the perspective of an objective narrator, you can suggest that your readers reexamine their biases by making the narrator’s flawed perspective clear from the outset. This can be done through the use of specific language or clues in the story that reference the narrator's unreliability.
Sometimes it’s more fun to take a less obtuse approach. In the instance of my dream, I did not know I was an unreliable narrator. (And, if you ask me, there’s a 99.9% chance that mantis was there and it just dove off the bed before my husband could see it.) Forcing your character into a situation where their flawed perspective or intentional lie unravels before them can be just as interesting as letting the readers subtly pick up on it. My favorite unreliable narrators employ this method — they’re simply not aware that they’re unreliable narrators, and one of the main themes of the story is that they never come to terms with it.
In Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, the narrator Humbert Humbert's biases and pedophilic desires influence his portrayal of the events and characters in the story. Similarly, in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, the narrator Billy Pilgrim's experiences of time travel and abduction by aliens challenge the reader's understanding of the events being depicted. While very, very different spectrums of insanity, both narrators are driven by their inability to see the truth of themselves and their circumstances, and this flaw leads them further into madness.
This failure to reconcile objective truth with perceived truth permeates their psychoses. In Lolita, Humbert Humbert's distorted perceptions of his relationship with Dolores Haze are a result of his own twisted desires and justifications. In Slaughterhouse Five, Billy Pilgrim's inability to distinguish between reality and his own subjective experiences calls into question the reliability of his perspective. While I find myself far toward the Billy Pilgrim end of the spectrum with the praying mantis experience, I’m intrigued by the ways in which subjective realities can be further explored through writing.
It would be interesting to take the concept a step further. How do these subjective realities inform our understanding of interpersonal conflict, cultural representation, and political policies? It would not be a stretch to say that social media is a prime example of an unreliable narrator that dictates all of our lives. When viewing the world through hundreds, or even thousands of individual’s subjective lenses, do we land closer to objective truth or some amalgamation of it? I’m inclined to believe the latter.
As you tell your own stories, whether in writing or life, remember to be mindful of the ways in which your own perceptions and experiences can color your account. And if you ever find yourself staring down a praying mantis on your pillow at 2 AM, well, it might just be a hallucination. But hey, at least you’ll probably get a good blog post out of it.