Unreliable Narrators

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

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? 

11 thoughts on “Unreliable Narrators

  1. Interesting topic, Clare. I’ve never thought about trying that type of narrator. But I would think the two keys are what you mentioned: first, a strong voice from the first line on (really the key to any 1st P, right?); and second, playing fair with the reader. There’s a default setting in readers to trust the narrator, so we can’t cheat them.

    Now I’ll think about it. After all, what better unreliable narrator than a lawyer protagonist?

  2. I’m with your Clare…the unreliable narrator is something to be admired from afar. πŸ™‚

    I did a lot of research on the subject a couple years ago when I wrote an essay for the MWA Poe anthology. Poe was maybe the original unreliable narrator writer and we’re still taking our cues from him.


    One of my fave unreliable narrators is Teddy in Lehane’s “Shutter Island.” I was mightily impressed with Lehane’s ability to pull that one off.

  3. GONE GIRL was an amazing book for just the reasons you state. I’m going to read it a second time so I can study what Flynn did with her narrators.

    Seems to me the unreliable narrator’s strong voice has to include utter conviction that what they’re stating is truth, and it also has to seem reasonable. One of the main traits of great unreliable narrators is that they’re persuasive–like great sales people.

    Also, doesn’t hurt if they’re sociopaths. πŸ™‚

    The closest I’ve come to writing an unreliable narrator was in close-in third. That was challenging enough!

  4. This book sounds disturbingly like it’s based on the disappearance of Susan Powell a few years ago, and her husband insisted he was innocent, right up until he killed himself and his two kids, who were beginning to talk about how daddy had taken mommy off into the woods and came back without her. http://www.cnn.com/2012/02/05/us/washington-powell-explosion/index.html

    Unreliable narrators are REALLY interesting. I don’t know if I could pull one off, myself. Hexwood by Diana Wynne Jones is like that. It starts off with a girl sick in bed, watching cars disappear into the manor’s grounds across the street and never come out. Then you go on to learn that not only is she not what she seems, neither is anything else–the manor, her family, or the creepy guy who crawls out of a coffin and offers her lunch.

  5. I find unreliable narrators a challenging proposition viewed with the same awe as scaling mount Everest! That’s what makes Gone Girl all the more impressive and now I have a few other books to add to the list too! Thanks!

  6. Speaking of Gone Girl…

    I devoured this during my stay in Paris, couldn’t put it down. Sure, it was the quality of the writing but it was also, now that you have mentioned it, the way Flynn played with the prisms of truth from the two main characters. I am not sure the woman in Gone Girl is a true unreliable narrator. I just think Flynn did a magnificent job of laying out her narrative that we truly didn’t realize until quite late what was really happening. It was a bravura performance…by character and author.

  7. Whew!…for a moment I thought you were talking about me Clair, then I read and realized “Oh, that kind of narrator, whew!”

    And in answer to your question, I’ve never done a first person and don’t know that I will. But if ever I do it would have to be really scripted and note takened first because I definitely do not think I can seat-of-the-pants a first person narrative.

  8. I agree, voice is so extremely important when reading a book and makes or breaks it for a book. I have read some really horrible books where the voice was 1st person, when it should have been 2nd or 3rd. I have also read some great ones that are just right. George Makris’s latest historical fiction novel/thriller, “Quest for the Lost Name” is a great example of a good one.


  9. I think it was the narratives that kept me going through the story. However, I think Gillian really dropped the ball in two points where she didn’t deliver the payoff. First, was the two nitwits at the motel. Second, was her “secret” admirer. Me? I’da chopped ’em up in little pieces and feet ’em to da fishes. So why did Gillian have Amy back off of that?

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