Unreliable Narrators – Differences in Style #6

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It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts (literally 4 months guys!) so some of you might have forgotten what they’re about or maybe they’re completely new to you. Basically, I love to chat about different writing styles and encourage people to view alternative styles as something that may appeal to different tastes (instead of seeing them as inherently “good” or “bad”). If you’d like to see more of my posts in this series, feel free to check these out:

Pared down vs Purple prose – Differences in Style #1

The art of Intertextuality vs Innovation – Differences in Style #2

*ALL the Viewpoints – Differences in Style #3

Coherence Vs Incoherence – Differences in Style #4

Telling Vs Showing – Differences in Style #5

All that said, today’s post is going to be a little different. Because, given how prominent this technique is in certain genres, I thought that this was a perfect opportunity to get in some good recs for Halloween. So for a change, this post is going to (mostly) focus on creepy characters and unsettling reads. Tis the season for some spookiness, after all 😉

Unreliable Narrators Defined

the-odysseyUnreliable narrators are those that can’t (or won’t) tell story objectively. The term is a relatively new one, as it was coined by Booth in 1961, however the use of such a character actually extends back to the dawn of Western literature. The lord of lies himself, Odysseus, is a great example of a character whose overinflated ego causes him to exaggerate and expand upon his exploits. Little character flaws can be used to manipulate the narrative and distance the reader from the truth of the tale.

gone-girl-PBSince the evolution of the term, much work has been done in the literary criticism world to explore this technique. This is why unreliable narration works so well. Types of unreliable narrators have been classified by the likes of William Riggan ie in his work: Pícaros, madmen, naïfs, and clowns (Picaros = boasters, naifs = immature narratures). One way I like to divide it up is into the fault of the narrator and the narrator merely being a victim of circumstance. If we look at a book like Gone Girl, we have two unreliable narrators creating a toxic environment for themselves and consequently causing the drama in their lives (which becomes the plot). On the other end of the spectrum, there are narrators like Pi in The Life of Pi, who, through no fault of their own, experience a severely traumatic event and slant the narrative through that perspective.

stolenNow, for the most part, this centres on first person narration- though there are rare occasions when it could be used for second or third person. The best example of a second person narration where the story is told through an unreliable lens is Stolen, where the narrator addresses her kidnapper and it’s increasingly clear has some form of Stockholm syndrome. Otherwise, unreliable narrators can incorporate some second person to break the fourth wall, such as in Notes from the Underground. Unreliable third person narration is a little trickier to pull off- because the author really has to pull a fast one on their readership. a_monster_callsThis would be something like a twist akin to a Sixth Sense where spoiler alert Bruce Willis’ character is a ghost all along. I rarely see this sort of thing in books, but one example I’ve seen lately was in Safe Haven where, again spoiler alert, her friend was a ghost all along. This part of the book didn’t actually work so well for me, because frankly it felt like too much of a curveball. Yet arguably books like A Monster Calls, though more ambiguous in whether they’re unreliable or not, could be a more positive example of how third person unreliable narration in action.

Like I said, there’s been a lot of research into this area, so there’s more I could say on this definitions-wise, yet I think some of those subject fit more into the…

Pros:

(and what you’re here for- the examples! No spoilers except to say that there are unreliable narrators present)

EnglebyMost obviously, unreliable narration is perfect for creating bold plot twists. There’s a reason why it’s very popular in thrillers, for example. A favourite of mine will always be Engleby (a book that’s seriously underrated nowadays) where the clever characterisation of the main character drives the story forward.

 

name of the windOf course, one of the best things about unreliable narration is its power to create amazing characters. And not just the psychos of storyville, like Humbert Humbert. As previously mentioned, boasters also make up a huge number of unreliable narrators. Perfect for this time of year, I’d suggest the very atmospheric Name of the Wind. Kvothe, in my opinion, seems to warp some of the narrative to appear larger than life. Strong characterisation, in turn, is a powerful way to create voice.

woman in the windowIt can also be used to create another dimension to the story. This is exemplified in Woman in the Window, where it’s evident from the start that the main character has secrets and is slowly revealed through her backstory. We then come to see how parts of the narration were unreliable.

 

rebeccaStructurally, this also creates other sides to the story. Books with unreliable narration can often incorporate flashbacks for instance. Or unreliable clues might be given through suspicious characters in the story- such as Mrs Danvers in Rebecca. This can create a fantastic Russian Doll effect of hiding clues within the story. Which leads me onto my main pro…

confessionsIt turns the reader into a detective. It can be brilliant fun trying to figure out where the truth lies and piecing together that oh, hang on a minute, this narrator has been taking me for a ride. Dodgy actions (it dawning on the reader that a character that commits murder isn’t to be trusted), unclear accounts (what’s not included can be a massive hint that something’s up) and the reactions of other characters can all help us figure this out (critic Nunning also explores the signs of unreliable narration in more depth). We can also find ourselves to be victims of a savagely dishonest narrator- which lends to a scary feel- such as in Confessions of a Justified Sinner or even Yellow Wallpaper. Yet, what’s great about both of those, is that we can’t be sure that in either of those everything we’ve been told was untrue. Which brings me to the fact that…

turn of the screw 2Unreliable narrators can create a sense of ambiguity. A lot of the time, we may be left wondering if they were reliable at all, and if they were, how unreliable were they? This can lead to a great deal of uncertainty- which lends to an uncanny feel and can be an excellent way to create mood. The Turn of the Screw is one of the best examples of this technique in action- we never get an answer to whether the book is supernatural or not. Being on uneven ground can be one of the most potent devices for scary stories. Nonetheless, there are some drawbacks to this.

Cons:

Atonement_(novel)On the flipside, placing the reader on unsure footing can put some readers off. Some people might want clear answers and be dissatisfied if the story is left open-ended. And while it can make some standout characters, it can also make for some truly detestable mcs, like Briony in Atonement. Naturally, unreliable narrators don’t belong in every story or genre- readers might dislike being taken advantage of by a peculiar twist. In fact, if it does feel out of place, it can feel cheap.

Accounting for Different Tastes

As you might be able to tell, I struggled with the cons section. Obviously, this technique isn’t great if misused and I know some people aren’t keen on some specific books that use this technique- but I find it hard to see why anyone would be wholly against it. Personally, I see it as a way of showing how complex people are. It doesn’t help that I’m often overly suspicious and *always* suspect first person narrators of something- after all, didn’t House teach us:

everybody lies house

That’s why I can be dissatisfied with books where I expect there to be an unreliable narrator and they aren’t (which may or may not be a teaser for my next review 😉 ). So while I understand that people don’t necessarily like reading from the perspective of shitty people or might be scared off the genres they’re in, I’m curious to hear why some people might not like this at all and would love to hear some reasons why people hate it.

So I’ll pass the question off to you- do you like or dislike unreliable narrators? And if you’re a fan, who are some of your favourite unreliable narrators? Let me know in the comments!

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30 thoughts on “Unreliable Narrators – Differences in Style #6

  1. Jenna M says:

    Love that you mentioned Kvothe. I’ve seen some readers complain about him as a character being too “unrealistic” because they take everything he says about himself at face value. He’s not ridiculously exceptional in every single way; he’s just a braggart. lol.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Maria H. says:

    I love the House reference.

    Personally, I want to be friends with the narrator and when they are unreliable it makes them harder to like. I don’t like my friends lying to me, after all.
    Fortunately, when it is really well done then I can get over not being friends with the narrator and still enjoy the story.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Ryann the Reader says:

    Great post! I love unreliable narrators when they’re done well, because it seems more realistic to me. Like, we all tend to be a little unreliable when telling stories about our real lives, why should characters be any different?

    Like

  4. anovelglimpse says:

    Great topic! I love unreliable narrators. My favorite is probably Towner from The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry. Have you read that one? It’s one that’s best if you don’t read the book blurb before reading it. I’ve actually read it 3 times (I never re-read) and found different things each time.

    Like

  5. The Cozy Pages says:

    I’m usually in two minds about the unreliable narrator. It works pretty well in more thriller type novels maybe… but are fully annoying in a mystery, where the reader is actually trying to piece together the clues! Lol

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  6. pcochrun says:

    I read The Woman in the Window a little while ago. I thought that was particularly well done in regards to a narrator who was under the influence and having major mental health issues at the same time. But it was a book I saw had some mixed reviews. Some didn’t like the narration.

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  7. dragonsandzombies says:

    Kvothe is a great example! He’s one of my favourite narrators – probably because of it.

    I’m a fan of the unreliable narrator. Poe does it very well in most of his works. There’s more surprises & tension if you are confronted with a narrator you can’t fully trust.

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  8. Marie says:

    This is a great post, I really like this series and am glad to see it coming back 🙂 I don’t read a lot of stories with unreliable narrators, but I have to admit they make a story even more entertaining, keeping you wondering and on edge the whole time and that’s very cool 😀

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  9. Gayathri Lakshminarayanan says:

    I personally love the unreliabe narrators, especially when they are believable and make us want to believe them, like Humbert Humbert in Lolita, who desperately wants us to feel his actions are all right and he keeps justifiying them. It goes without saying it works only when the writing is done tastefully.
    And as for the question when I would hate it, I think the trope falls through when we dislike the character and feel that the narrator is annoying and a whacko. Rachel from the book Girl on the train got on to my nerves pretty quickly, even though she is a classic unreliable narrator and the story line was done well.

    I think it has got to do with the fact that the weight of the book falls on that one person and we as a reader don’t like them. I think it becomes a personal choice there.

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  10. waytoofantasy says:

    Fantastic post! I do love an unreliable narrator and I feel like all first person POV stories are in some way unreliable or at the very least biased since you’re in that character’s head, experiencing everything from their perspective. (And this is making me think more about this and how it relates to POV so thanks!)
    I love the unreliable narrator because I feel like it’s very true to life in a lot of ways. Even a lot of historical sources are the story told from a POV and may be biased or unreliable, why shouldn’t our stories reflect that?
    I also love the atmosphere it can creat when even the protagonist is confused as to what’s going on–gaslighting, gothic, dreamlike quality…love it all.
    I also love the debates it can create. Like, there’s a lot of debate about whether Kvothe is an unreliable narrator or not, but I do think he is just by the nature of the story. And also because Rothfuss has pretty much said ‘I’m not telling you the story you think I’m telling you’. These kinds of things are fun to theorize over. 🙂

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  11. lucindablogs says:

    I love a good unreliable narrator! Like you I think I’ve gotten wise to the trope though and immediately try to work out what’s really going on by suspecting everyone and everything. Going back to one of your previous posts, I really liked how Big Little Lies showed the same event from different perspectives, giving lots of unintentionally unreliable narrators (is that a thing? I guess everyone has bias). Overall though I really enjoy anything that adds additional intrigue and extra layers to a story. Great post! ☺

    Like

  12. failingatwriting says:

    Love this post! I definitely want to read some of the books you’ve suggested. One of my favorite unreliable narrators in Charles Kinbote in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. I also think there are some strong elements of unreliability/ambiguity in Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves.

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  13. Beth (Reading Every Night) says:

    Great post, and I’m glad these have come back now you’re back from hiatus. 😀 I don’t read too many books with unreliable narrators, the only one you’ve used as an example here that I’ve read is A Monster Calls, and I think I’d consider We Were Liars one as well, but I feel like they would make for really interesting stories. It adds a different layer of mystery when you can’t trust what the narrator is telling you, or what the story is telling you as you’re reading you know? There’s something else to work out as the plot develops.
    Great post. 🙂 ❤

    Like

  14. Joelendil says:

    I love unreliable narrators, especially the ones who are clearly bonkers (e.g. “The Telltale Heart” or “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”). It gives that added dimension of trying to figure out what is really happening. The one place where I really don’t like it is a detective withholding evidence just so they can make a big showy splash at the end (I’m looking at you, Poirot)…to me it feels like a cheap trick to cover for an inability to legitimately build suspense.

    Like

  15. Nicola @ Thoughts on Fantasy says:

    I actually realised I haven’t read a lot of books by unreliable narrators. One I liked that might count is ‘The Rosie Project’ – it wasn’t that the narrator was lying, but his personality and social awkwardness meant he misinterpreted things, and you could tell from the other character reactions what was really going on, which was what made it so funny.

    I read another book recently though were I hated the unreliable narrator… I won’t say what it was, since it’s a major spoiler, but basically he’d been lying about his identity/motives all along and only revealed it in the end in a big surprise to the other characters. It really annoyed me, I think because even though it was 1st person, I felt like I was being let into the characters true thoughts with the way it was written, and I felt like these had been deliberately edited by the author for the sake of a big reveal (he had no reason to lie to the reader other than that, he only had reason to lie to the other characters – it wasn’t like the narration was framed as a recounting to someone in particular). Also it made me feel like his character had been a lie all along so I didn’t really know who he was, which made me feel getting to know him during the rest of the book had been pointless. I guess basically I felt tricked and I didn’t like it! That doesn’t mean I hate all unreliable narrators (some of the ones you described above sound used to great and chilling effect), but I certainly hated this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Oh I’ve always been curious about the rosie project- that description makes me want to read it even more!

      And that sounds like such an annoying thing to do. That kind of tricking the reader just feels annoying, cos it doesn’t feel like a payoff at all. Totally get that! There are annoying ways to do everything!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Sarah says:

    Awesome post! I really love this series of yours! To me unreliable narrators always add a great part of suspense in a story and they keep me at edge, trying to pay extra attention to the twist and turns of the story. That said I try not reading them at night ’cause the keep me from sleeping! 😂

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Nicole says:

    My issue with unreliable narrators is how well they’re written. When they’re well written, I love the technique. However, they’re often written poorly, in which case they drive me nuts. Also, I think the technique is a bit overused in some genres, which is another pet peeve of mine. Still — it can be a great way to develop tension and interesting characters!

    Liked by 1 person

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