The Unreliable Narrator

It’s me, Rae! Or is it? The stories we tell are filtered through the narrator of the story. But what happens when that narrator’s viewpoint is compromised? This month’s #WritingwithRae explores the UNRELIABLE NARRATOR. Thanks to @akejones for the great topic suggestion.

I recently read THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 by Ruth Ware. Although I did find it particularly a great book, I really appreciated how Ware turned the idea of an unreliable narrator on its head. Instead of bring us to the conclusion our narrator isn’t telling the truth, we suspect her because everyone else suspects her. She has been the victim of a crime, drinks to excess, and has been battling anxiety since a teenager. Even she’s aware of how others view her, but is adamant she is telling the truth. Another recent read, NINE PERFECT STRANGERS  by Liane Moriarty, is filled with characters with questionable motives and suspicious accounts of the events unfolding. But do these novels count as examples of unreliable narrators? To answer this question, we need to examine the purpose and employment of this device.

The term “unreliable narrator” was first coined by Wayne C. Booth in his 1961 book THE RHETORIC OF FICTION, but authors have used the concept for many years prior. An unreliable narrator does not tell the truth & lacks credibility. They may be blatant liars, hide the truth, or misjudge their circumstances. While almost always done in first person, there are a variety of types and an assortment of ways in which an author reveals unreliability.

At times the unreliable narrator device is used to keep a reader turning the pages, as they do not know what to expect. Other times an unreliable narrator is used to draw the reader into making his or her own conclusions. Either way, when done well, an unreliable narrator is a puzzle the reader wants to decipher—the truth is a mystery waiting to be discovered. This is why this device is especially helpful in crime & mystery novels where the author reveals information in a precise & purposeful way. Horror & supernatural stories also do well with unreliable narrators, especially when an author needs to blur the lines between fantasy & reality.

Writers must take care when employing this type of narrator; it breaks the unspoken trust between reader & writer. Your unreliable narrator’s purpose will be clear to the reader and you will avoid burning that trust to the ground. To do so successfully, writers must provide moments within the story where the reader will second guess or question the narrator’s version and search the pages for the underlying truth.

There are several ways to categorize unreliable narrators and it’s important writers are aware of the major types. The first type are LIARS. One might even argue that by definition all unreliable narrators fall into this first category. This character may lie by omission, contradict him or herself throughout the story verbally or through actions, or admit to being a liar from the get-go.

Characters who are deliberately dishonest may be the most difficult to sustain throughout a novel. The character’s motivations are in question—they take no responsibility for their deception. They have your attention and can tell the story however they wish. It’s a challenge to get your reader to connect with a confessed liar; they probably won’t even like your narrator. The character’s nature is deceitful and they are incapable of telling their story objectively. This character is deliberately being tricky. But authors must provide either common ground with or a way for the reader to relate to the narrator—a reason to hear the character’s version of the story. An unreliable narrator that falls into this category must be compelling enough for the reader to stay throughout the entire book.

Some examples of the LIAR include Briony Tallis in ATONEMENT (McEwan), Alex in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (Burgess), Dr. Sheppard in THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD (Christie), Holden Caulfield in THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (Salinger), Paul Lohman in THE DINNER (Koch), Christopher Boone in THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME (Haddon), Rosemary in WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES (Fowler), Frank Cauldhame in THE WASP FACTORY (Banks), and John Dowell in THE GOOD SOLDIER (Dowell).

Our second category includes NAÏVE characters. This character is usually a child or a character who has experienced life in an unusual way than those currently around him or her. They may have little experience with the way of the world, lack understanding, or have an inability to cope with reality. This category can also include characters who have a learning disability, brain damage, or lower than average intelligence.

These narrators are not deliberately lying, but rather their account of events is unreliable due to innocence, simplicity, gullibility, or inexperience. Their interpretation of the events forces us to translate their tale from a more traditional perspective and follow the bread crumbs towards the truth of the matter.

Some examples of NAÏVE narrators include Jack in ROOM (Donoghue), Scout from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Lee), Huck from THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FYNN (Twain), Forrest in FORREST GUMP (Groom), the children in THE THREE (Lotz), Christopher in THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME (Haddon), Edward in BIG FISH (Wallace), Bartholomew in THE GOOD LUCK OF RIGHT NOW (Quick), and Piscine in THE LIFE OF PIE (Martel).

Our third category of unreliable narrators are what I call the MOONSTRUCK, and includes those characters with a variety of disorders, diseases, trauma, psychosis, etc. These are characters who may experience hallucinations, are under the influence, suffer flashbacks, amnesia, or PTSD. Their perspective is skewed due to mental illness or a personality disorder. Sometimes the lying is intentional, sometimes it’s not—it all depends on the specific way in which a character is written in the story.

Some examples of MOONSTRUCK narrators include Holden from CATCHER IN THE RYE (Salinger), Pat from THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (Quick), Charlie in THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (Chbosky), the unnamed narrator in FIGHT CLUB (Palahniuk), Rachel from THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (Hawkins), Lia from WINTERGIRLS (Anderson), Chief Bromden in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (Kesey), Raoul Duke in FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (Thompson), Barbara in NOTES ON A SCANDAL (Heller), Humbert from LOLITA (Nabokov), The narrator in THE TELL-TALE HEART (Poe), Patrick in AMERICAN PSYCHO (Ellis), John in A BEAUTIFUL MIND (Nasar), Barney in BARNEY’S VERSION (Richler), Portnoy from PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT (Roth), Teddy in SHUTTER ISLAND (Lehane),  and Charles in PALE FIRE (Nabokov).

Lastly, let’s consider the LAWLESS category of unreliable narrators. Lawless characters lie to cover up their crimes. They’re motivated by a need to justify their actions, blame other characters, exact revenge, set up another to take the fall, or any other way one attempts to save oneself from consequences. The Lawless narrator is being manipulative as an act of self-preservation, and may exaggerate or diminish what happened. They want you to understand a fabricated truth and deliberately steer readers away from certain information. Occasionally we find characters who are unaware of their distortions of the truth, and are doing so not so much as avoiding punishment, but more as a way of coping with the unbearable truth of what they have done.

Examples of LAWLESS unreliable narrators include Nick & Amy from GONE GIRL (Flynn), John in THE GOOD SOLDIER (Ford), Keyser Soze from THE USUAL SUSPECTS (Larson), Nina & Isobel in TALKING TO THE DEAD (Bingham), Charles in PALE FIRE (Nabokov), & the narrator in THE END OF ALICE (Homes).

There are some types of unreliable narrators that are more difficult to categorize. For instance, some characters do not know the whole truth or misinterprets the truth. One such example is the narrator in REBECCA (du Maurier). She is not deliberately being deceitful; she simple does not understand and is therefore misled to what the truth is.

Some narrators tell their version of the story based on prejudices. Whether they were raised to believe a certain way or adopted a belief as an adult, bias, discrimination, bigotry, etc. can slant the narrative. Nelly from WUTHERING HEIGHTS (Brontë) and Invisible Man from INVISIBLE MAN (Ellision) are examples of this type of unreliable narrator. The narrator in REBECCA (du Maurier) would also fall into this category.

Lastly, some narrators are “Other.” These may be ghosts or otherworldly beings. Screwtape from THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS (Lewis) and the ghost in THE TURN OF THE SCREW (James) are examples of unreliable narrators who fall into the “other.”

So what are a few things authors need to consider when deliberating the use of an unreliable narrator? The first aspect to ponder is whether you, as an author, are oversimplifying the definition of an unreliable narrator. These characters are more than just liars. After all, we have just examined a number of unreliable narrator types and determined these characters can hide facets of the truth, withhold information, or misjudge circumstances.

The author must determine how the narrator relates information. This will depend on their perception of reality. Narrators consider the “audience” to which they are telling their story—their assessment of their narrative audience. Imagine telling a raunchy story to your best friend how that story might change in the telling if the audience was suddenly your grandmother. To the narrator, audience matters.

So, instead of examining literary theory and introducing you to Peter J Rabinowitz , Tamar Yacobi, Ansgar Nünning, & Greta Olson, who provide criticism and insight into unreliable narrators, I will touch on the reader’s ability to believe or not believe the character.

Readers use certain cognitive strategies in determining a narrator’s reliability and it is those strategies authors can exploit. Suspecting a narrator as being unreliable goes beyond intuition. Readers come to the table with preexisting concepts of normalcy and it is this difference between the narrator’s norms that clue the reader into the narrator’s reliability. After all, if your worldview is similar to the narrator’s you may be less likely to suspect the narrator of not being trustworthy. If the opposite is true, then you may see warning signals far earlier in the story.

Ultimately authors must contemplate on how a reader reconciles discrepancies in the narrator’s account. There is a scale that shifts back and forth as the reader follows the narration–trustworthy on one end and unreliable on the other. A crafty author learns how to signal to the reader where and when to move the slider on that scale. A signal may include a character contradicting him or herself, having spotty memory, or lying to another character. Another signal may involve the narrator challenging the reader’s understanding of the world or confirming an impossibility (i.e. “I see dead people.”). Having awareness of how the reader interprets the narration is key to having a successful unreliable narrator.

Another consideration is the reader’s comprehension of literary devices, genres, stock characters, and conventions and how these can affect a reader’s strategy in determining a narrator’s reliability. A reader who is aware of the author’s employment of the braggart soldier character may identify that character’s contradictions faster than a reader who does not. A writer cannot know an individual reader’s awareness, but nevertheless should keep such things in mind.

There are several tips writers can engage to give their unreliable narrator purpose realization. The first is understanding that every narrator is, in essence, unreliable to some degree. It’s been called the Rashomon Effect. Memory is faulty and subjective, situations can be misconstrued, and perspectives are skewed. Each narrator relates a different version, even though the story is the same. Some aspects of each account are true and some are false.

Second is knowing our characters are reflections of real life. As we are flawed, so are they. Characters should be layered with blind spots, individual opinions, & insights, giving them a unique “voice.” Partial unreliability adds to those layers & portrays a narrator as “human.” However, when an author uses the device of an unreliable narrator, the unreliability does more than add a layer to making a believable character. It has purpose and justification, driving the plot forward. When using this device, the writer’s job is to place the question in the reader’s mind: who is this narrator really? When done correctly, readers continue to turn the page to find the answer. They need to find know.

Third, writers must consider the reader’s connection to the character. The reader is giving the writer unearned trust. It’s called the Suspension of Disbelief—the reader stays his or her doubt or criticism for the sake of the story’s enjoyment. If an author is not deliberate in the use of an unreliable narrator, if the author goes too far and too fast, that trust has not been respected and the reader’s connection with the character is broken. Poorly crafted unreliable narrator can feel manipulative, confusing, or pretentious. The trick is to give just enough doubt for the reader to suspect something is amiss.

A fourth tip writers can utilize is creating a narrator whose motives are unclear. When your narrator’s drives differ from or mindset conflicts with other characters, readers begin to question the reliability of the narrator’s version of the story. Nora from THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS (Messud) is a great example of how this can be done successfully.

Sometimes writers can paint their narrator as innocent or the victim of some wrong doing. It is only later when the narrator’s duplicity is revealed. When done with precision, readers can easily recall all the clues left by the author throughout the story & experience a dual feeling of respect & revulsion for the cunning character. We were fooled by their veil of virtue, when all the while it was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Nick and Amy from GONE GIRL (Flynn) and the narrators of WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE (Semple) are great example of how authors can surprise a reader with sly unreliable narrators.

Authors can drop hints as to the unreliability of their character in a variety of other ways. For example, using secondary characters to catch your narrator in a lie (as in Koch’s THE DINNER with the character Serge). One may also have a predictable narrator suddenly do something so far off from what is expected your reader’s head is liable to spin (as in Fowler’s WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES with the character Nora).

What’s important is that the reader believes it. Having your narrator be a sociopath like Patrick in AMERICAN PSYCHO (Ellis) is all well and good, but when readers sympathize with a complex character who is revealed to be unreliable, it’s gold.

Whether they are trying to protect others or themselves, an unreliable narrator’s justifications are relatable. The reader is left asking, “Would I do the same in their shoes? Independent to when the unreliable narrator is revealed (straight away, gradually, plot twist), the use of the device should leave the readers questioning their interpretation of the story & reexamining the trustworthiness of the character’s version of events.

For a deeper study into unreliable narrators, I highly recommend an examination of Eva Khatchadourian in WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (Shriver). This highly complicated unreliable narrator fits into several categories. Here we find a mother tackling both grief and shame after her son’s act of violence. As difficult as it is to answer why is also the question of how much responsibility does Eva bear? Closure is not conceivable without knowing the answer and she is consumed and tortured by her search and need for…what? Absolution? Pity? Or punishment?

Who is your favorite unreliable narrators or authors who frequently uses this device? What is the last novel you read where an author kept you guessing the narrator’s reliability to the end?

I appreciate you being a part of Writing with Rae this month and I hope you found some helpful information to take your writing a step further. If you would like to learn more about a specific writing topic or technique, drop me a suggestion in the comments for future  #WritingwithRae Twitter threads (beginning every third Saturday of the month). See you next month!

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