In the midst of the end-of-year-moving-to-Denver chaos, I’m finishing Gillian Flynn’s excellent thriller, Gone Girl. Not only is it a great read, it also presents one of those hard to pull off characters – the unreliable narrator – which also got me thinking about the elements that go into developing this successfully – something I have never tried to do (out of fear, I suspect…)
So how does an author present a voice that is compelling as well as unnerving, sympathetic and yet suspicious? How does an author walk the fine line between belief and disbelief so that a reader is both intrigued as well as unsure whether to believe the narrator or not?
I think the key elements are:
- A strong unique voice from the outset – any form of narrator needs this for a first-person novel to succeed – but with an unreliable narrator I think this is even more important. A reader needs to be intrigued and disquieted but not totally put off (which is why I think there has to be a degree of sympathy, even when the character in question maybe pretty unlikeable.)
- The clues to the truth must be sown carefully, cleverly and slowly throughout the novel so that when the reader eventually comes to the necessary realization or revelation all the pieces fall into place… which leads to the next element and that is…
- Don’t cheat the reader – a reader needs to feel satisfied at the end of the book that they could have guessed the truth or read the signs as to what was really going on. Nobody wants to feel cheated or miffed that key clues had been deliberately excluded or misrepresented in such a way that the reader couldn’t have possibly guessed the truth.
- Make sure the inconsistencies or ‘grey areas’ are mapped out so they eventually help round out the narrator’s character in a way that feels authentic as well as compelling. An unreliable narrator is a tricky character to develop so you need to make sure it is a fully-formed, well-rounded character that ultimately feels real to the reader.
So what about you, fellow TKZers, have you ever attempted to write a first-person thriller with an ‘unreliable narrator’ at its heart? What do you think are the necessary elements to successfully pulling this off?