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:
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
Unreliable 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.
Since 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.
Now, 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. This 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…
(and what you’re here for- the examples! No spoilers except to say that there are unreliable narrators present)
Most 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.
Of 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.
It 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.
Structurally, 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…
It 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…
Unreliable 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.
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:
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!