I’m sure we can all remember the first time we came across an unreliable narrator in a novel. That moment your jaw dropped as you realised everything you’d read so far may not have been as unbiased as you first assumed, that the narrator had motives of their own, and they’d been twisting you around their little finger from the very first word.
It’s an age-old literary device, and one that (when used well!) can transform our novels, keeping our readers transfixed to the page. So we thought we’d ask bestselling author, The Novelry writing coach and queen of the unreliable narrator, Amanda Reynolds, to offer her best advice on mastering the technique.
Amanda explains the ‘What’, ‘Why’ and ‘How’ of using unreliable narrators in our fiction, giving us plenty of examples from books we love, before sharing her three golden rules for writing our own unreliable narrators.
The unreliable narrator in fiction
One of the fundamental building blocks of great storytelling is a brilliant narrator, but what if that narrator twists and warps the story to suit their own needs? How does their untrustworthy account affect our reading experience, and how do we, as authors, craft an authentic but unreliable narrator – and why would we want to?
I am here to argue that an unreliable narrator can provide not only a great read, but also be delicious fun to write!
There are many reasons why your narrator might be unreliable, but let’s start by looking at what an unreliable narrator might be. Because, in many ways, it’s all of us!
What is an unreliable narrator?
Think of a room in your home and describe it, without being in it. Now ask someone else to do the same, and note all the inaccuracies and omissions between the two accounts. We humans are notoriously unreliable witnesses. We might even add in a vase or a rug that isn’t there! Not on purpose or because we are pathological liars, but because we misremember.
And what about witnessing an event? Something fast-paced and dramatic. When emotions are heightened it’s much trickier to recall every detail, which is why it’s so hard to get accurate witness testimony to a crime. We are all fallible and make mistakes, missing out important facts and embroidering the truth.
Some of these inaccuracies can be explained by our natural bias, something we as writers can use to our advantage to show a lot about our characters. How they see the world through their unique perspective is a brilliant tool to show not tell. Do your characters notice what other people wear or is that unimportant to them? What do they remark upon and care about? Do they worry how they come across, or are they more focussed on others?
By filtering everything through the lens of the character’s interest and self-interest, highlighting their conscious and unconscious bias, you can imbue even the simplest of descriptions with a character’s unique perspective, and their unreliability. Showing what matters to them, and what doesn’t.
But what if our narrator tells an outright lie?
There are many reasons we lie: kindness or unkindness, self-preservation or self-gain. Lying can be for good or evil, but what about a character who continually lies? Does that make them dislikable?
There’s much made of dislikable characters in fiction. We are told we must root for our characters or we won’t be invested in the story. Throw the guy off the cliff! I don’t know him, see if I care! But likability isn’t always the only reason we are invested in characters, unreliable narrators included. They can be intriguing, frustrating, flawed and mysterious. In short, they are a puzzle, and we all love a puzzle!
Why use an unreliable narrator?
So why use an unreliable narrator in your writing?
To answer that question, and see the effect this unreliable point of view can have on your story and the reader’s experience of it, let’s look at some examples.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Rachel in The Girl on the Train is a drunk who blacks out, leaving huge gaps in her recollections. She lies to cover up what she feels is her failure at life, love and career. But dig deeper and there is more to her drinking, and more to those gaps. We need to know what’s happened in her past, as does she. She has a question that must be answered, a quest we go on with her.
Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller
In Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller we meet Barbara Covett – a creepy, claustrophobic ‘friend’ to Sheba, our fallen hero. From the opening paragraph, Barbara’s voice is imbued with a sinister undertone of coercion. The dissonance between her seemingly caring attitude and supportive deeds towards Sheba draw us straight into her twisted world. One that’s endlessly fascinating as her delusion unravels, and yet Barbara is a victim too, caught up in the carelessness of others.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
In Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, we peek behind the curtain to hear from a husband and wife at war. Their opposing accounts are at odds with one another and the truth, showing there are at least two sides to every story, and both may well be unreliable in the extreme.
What all these thrillers provide us with, as well as an unreliable narrator (or two!) is a question to be answered – and that resolution will only be found once the truth emerges. Because it’s there, if our narrator can somehow get to it. They may be frustrated by any number of factors, including their own shortcomings, but we all love a trier!
How to use an unreliable narrator in your own novel
Now let’s look at the ‘how’ of writing a gloriously unreliable narrator with a list of my three golden rules.
1. The lie needs to have a purpose
There must be a purpose to the unreliability, a reason for it, and the subsequent fallout.
In my debut thriller, Close To Me, which was developed for TV, my unreliable narrator is Jo Harding; unreliable because at the start of the book she falls – or was she pushed? – down the stairs and loses a year of memories due to a head injury.
The premise came to me after I wondered, what if that year were a pivotal one for Jo, the year in which her life fell apart? And what if, instead of helping her recover her memory, those she loves and trusts the most are keeping a secret from her?
In my latest book, The Assistant, we meet a very different kind of unreliable narrator. Gail Frost is untrustworthy not because of memory loss, like Jo, but because she has an axe to grind, perceiving herself as unfairly treated. This quest for an ‘evening up’, as she calls it, drives all of Gail’s choices because to her the means more than justifies the end. She has a right to what her employer has, more than a right!
Both these women believe very much in their cause: Jo to find her true self, even if that means she’s not the wife and mother she thought she was; and Gail, to have what’s rightfully hers, by whatever means – or lies – are necessary.
2. The unreliable narrator’s ‘truth’ is their primary motivation
A character’s motivation colours everything they do. Once you’ve worked out what they want and how far they are prepared to go to get it, the dominoes begin to fall. Any dissonance between the facts and a character’s interpretation is revealed as the reader makes those leaps in understanding.
The unreliable narrator’s unshakeable certainty drives them, their goal clear from the outset.
Truth is something different to us all and our unreliable narrator often fully believes their version of the truth and sticks to it, even in the face of irrefutable evidence.
A conscious decision to choose a particular belief or history can become a way of being, the skewed view fed by every piece of information and adding to the belief, whether it’s considered by the majority of society to be right or even moral.
Unreliable narrators often have absolute faith in their own truth, and don’t consider themselves to be deluded or liars. To them, it makes sense.
Take a classic whodunnit, where the suspects are lined up and the reader is as much of a detective as Miss Marple or Poirot. Looking for clues, by way of lies, is part of the process, and again, comes back to character motivation. If we understand why they lie, we may forgive, or alternately store away the information knowing it will be important when the ‘facts’ emerge.
3. Whatever the reason, they have no choice!
The deluded, the dangerous, the dogged, even the inept? Whatever the type of unreliable narrator, they most likely find themselves caught up in lies that grow, one leading to another, until the truth finally comes out, as it must. A domino fall that, once begun, cannot be reversed.
In Yellowface by Rebecca F Kuang, our unreliable narrator resets her moral compass with each bad deed, until the lie is so huge that there is no choice but to go with it, adding more and more lies. We may well not agree with her stealing a manuscript and passing it off as her own, but oh how we delight in watching the carnage unfold from behind our splayed fingers, knowing there will be a reckoning.
Unreliable narrators may mislead or deceive us, or themselves. They may take us by the hand and reveal plot twists when they come to the truth of their situation at last, or their voice can provide us with insight into a unique view of the world as a literary device. They can provoke us into acting as detective, either with them or against them, searching for clues… or drive us crazy with their delusion and justifications.
Personally, I enjoy spending time in their company, but only on the page. I’m not sure I’d invite an unreliable narrator round for dinner, although they would make for some lively conversation!