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?