Unreliable Narrators

I just finished a great suspense book, All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda, on a flight back from New York and it got me thinking about the whole ‘unreliable narrator’ trope that seems to have picked up steam, especially with recent female dominated thrillers like Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Although almost every first person narrator is going to have some degree of unreliability,  when a writer deliberately chooses to have their story told by a character whose credibility is compromised, then the stakes (and risks) involved in successfully navigating that story are much higher.

I have to admit, I’ve always avoided utilizing a deliberate ‘unreliable narrator’ as I think it’s extremely hard to pull off. Even in Gone Girl I started to feel manipulated by the use of the device by the end (nonetheless I was gripped by the novel from start to finish!). In The Girl on the Train, it is obvious from the start that the narrator is one a reader should treat with caution but I had no problem with the unreliability of her narrative, except that a lot of the doubt/mystery came from her inability to remember events (which at times I found a little trite). But writing a mystery is hard (!) and I have nothing but admiration for writers who manage to successfully pull off their deliberate choice to have an unreliable narrator tell the story. In All the Missing Girls, I thought the author not only pulled off this device well but also managed to use another literary device, telling the mystery backwards, with skill. However, I would caution most writers to think long and hard before trying to employ either device…

Like in Gone Girl, The Girl on a Train and All the Missing Girls, the fact that the person telling the story isn’t entirely to be trusted or whose motives may be compromised, makes for a compelling POV. Despite my quibbles, all three books had me reading compulsively for hours. There is definitely an allure to characters whose flaws, lies, or ‘voice’ makes us question them and their role in the crime. A well constructed unreliable narrator has a reader turning the pages. The risks, however can be huge:

  • The reader can feel cheated by the fact that the narrator has lied, omitted key information or deliberately misled the reader.
  • The reader may grow tired of the narrator if they lose credibility. Sometimes the literary device of the unreliable narrator overwhelms the narrative or starts to interfere and distract from story.
  • In the hands of a less adept writer, the unreliable narrator may become a hinderance to the story – confusing the reader or (worst) putting them off continuing to read out of frustration. It’s a tricky device and, if not executed well, it can be an obvious one that irritates the reader.

So TKZers, do any of your current WIPs have a deliberately unreliable narrator? How do you tackle the device? What advice would you give to anyone considering using an unreliable narrator in their work? Have you ever thrown a book at the wall because this device annoyed or frustrated you?



25 thoughts on “Unreliable Narrators

  1. Good morning, Clare. You piqued my interest in wanting to try a story based on an unreliable narrator. I love a challenge. But you are absolutely correct, the device is very tricky and could backfire.

    Joseph Finder’s PARANOIA was an interesting example of this device. I swear, after reading that novel, I was convinced Joe wrote it backwards.

  2. My latest, “She’s Not There” has an unreliable protag. Her grasp on events and hence her narration is compromised by amnesia. (I wrote about this here a while back at length). I agree with each of the risks you cited, Clare. It IS tricky to pull off, especially if your protag is not only unreliable but perhaps unsympathetic (as in “Gone Girl.”) The one caution I would add to your list for anyone wanting to try this device is that it is for you, the writer, very wearying. You have to walk a fine line between the larger reality of the “true” story and the “perceived” reality of your compromised protag. In a sense, you are thinking about your plot always from these two vantage points, which are at odds with each other but must each satisfy the reader. (Does that even make sense? :)) It was one of most difficult books I ever tried. Challenging and fun, but hard. I was tired when it was finished and had to take off more time than usual.

    • I love how you describe walking the fine line between the protagonist’s ‘perceived reality’ and the ‘true story’ – a great, succinct statement of the challenge involved in creating and maintaining an unreliable narrator. No wonder it was tiring!

  3. Marina Keyes does the unreliable protagonist very well in Rachel’s Holiday. You see, Rachel is a drug addict who is telling her own story about how she vacations at a health spa. Only it’s not a spa and she’s not on vacation. Her parents enrolled her in a rehabilitation center for addicts. It’s a hilarious story and wouldn’t be the same if told by any other character. 🙂

  4. Oddly enough, despite all these years of writing, I either hadn’t heard the term ‘unreliable narrator’ before or perhaps for whatever reason it just flew over my head in reading writing related articles and books.

    I’d definitely want to get a lot more skill under my belt before trying something like that.

  5. “Trust No One” by Paul Cleave (ninja-level New Zealand author) – story told from POV of a mystery-crime writer in the grip of early onset dementia.
    Perhaps the most unreliable narrator ever for me. Very challenging writing task and pulled off very well Imo. Exhausting to consider – no doubt a rigorous challenge.

  6. Of the three books you mentioned, the only one I’ve read is Gone Girl. I liked it at first but towards the end, I found the narration so irritating I almost didn’t finish it.

  7. I confess to always feeling a little cheated with unreliable narrators, and now that they’ve become so prevalent, I’m a little suspicious of all first-person narrators.

    I haven’t written a wholly unreliable narrator. But if I do I’m not going to tell. ; )

  8. I have 3 POVs in my current WIP, one of whom is the villain. I suppose you could call him an unreliable narrator until the First Plot Point. Fortunately, I don’t have to maintain the charade for very long, but I’ve been.intrigued by the idea ever since the TV series, The Black Donnelys… name may be wrong.

  9. I have complained in the past on this site about an unreliable narrator in a book I read many years back that made me feel cheated at the end. It’s not that the narrator POV in the book was untrustworthy, but that I, as reader, was duped into thinking the narrator was a different identity. The book was a great “page turner” though and got me hooked into reading another novel by the writer, than another and another. So I guess the writer accomplished his goal of drawing me into his writings. The writer is Ted Dekker and the book was “Three”.

  10. Is an unreliable narrator the same as a narrator who doesn’t have the correct information? Or, any information at all? I write about being a young woman who inadvertently gets involved with paranormal though not necessarily supernatural phenomena.

    Sometimes, there are no answers to the paranormal. And, sometimes, my character gets in a real mess because she doesn’t know the total truth about whatever’s going on.

    • An unreliable narrator may have an incomplete viewpoint but usually there’s more to it than that, as almost every first person narrator has their own limited viewpoint (and hence probably all are unreliable in some way). I think (imho) it’s where an author has made a deliberate choice to use someone whose motives are questionable or whose credibility is compromised.

  11. I was going to keep my two cents to myself today, but has anybody seen the film Memento? It’s an excellent film, and the protag is as unreliable as they come: he has anterograde amnesia. To keep from spoiling it I’ll just say that the chronology is different than what one might expect. It could not have been done any other way and still have the same impact. This is a prime example, albeit film instead of book, of a thriller with an unreliable narrator, and well worth seeing.

  12. Okay I have confession…

    On the surface I say no to Unreliable Narrators, but in my heart there is an evil twin that says bring it on!

      • I’m a reader. I don’t think I have the “right stuff” to become a writer. My wife, on the other hand, is a gifted writer. Unfortunately she doesn’t have the time to pursue a writing project.

  13. I love unreliable narrators. You’re right, it is difficult to pull off. My latest thriller was one of the hardest books I’ve ever written, and it’s because the protagonist is unreliable…sometimes she lies, other times she’s so paranoid because of her major trust issues that she sees the world around much differently than the other characters. I’m now writing the sequel, which isn’t proving to be much easier to write. But I’m having fun!

  14. Pingback: Unreliable Narrators? | A Writer's Notebook | ...

Comments are closed.