The Unreliable Narrator
Generally speaking, we assume that whoever is telling the story is telling the truth (including fictional truth). In fact, as we discussed in authority of the author, trusting the narrator can be critical to allowing your reader to sink happily into your world. But an interesting twist on this convention is to purposely present your reader with a first person chronicler who is unreliable.
Why use an unreliable narrator?
An unreliable narrator can create tension and intrigue. If we start to doubt the story-teller, then we will be unsure whether what she says is true. This can keep the reader guessing and second guessing what’s really going on. It’s basically playing with your reader’s mind, but if you do it right, he’ll love you for it. There are various ways to use this phenomenon.
Types of untrustworthy story-tellers
This is not an exhaustive list but here are some ways the reader can interact with this unusual heroine. This is all about the extent to which we believe her and when we start to doubt her.
We believe her from the get-go
From the beginning often to the bitter end, we believe the heroine is being straight with us. This novel uses the typical structure where the narrator’s veracity is taken for granted. Only near the end does it become clear that the heroine has been misleading us from the first page.
A famous example is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. The narrator is Doctor Sheppard who lives next to detective Hercule Poirot. He records his often humorous reactions to Poirot’s investigation of Roger Ackroyd’s death. He is astute and charming. He is also the murderer. Which we only find out right at the end.
We’re not sure of whether she’s telling the truth
Either at the beginning, or as the novel progresses, we suspect that the narrator isn’t completely honest. We doubt whether we can trust the story as it is being told.
Sebastian Faulks, in his brilliant novel, Engleby, creates a character who seems a bit odd from the first. He doesn’t quite fit into university life. He makes casual reference to his therapist. Not that unusual but the astute reader’s antennae are probably up. He is interested in a girl but is reluctant to approach her. Shy? He follows her around, wishing to connect. One day, he sees her drop an envelope. He picks it up. And reads the contents! And steals more of her letters.
Now we’re pretty sure we can’t trust Engleby but we are kept on our toes by constantly trying to figure out what he’s up to. The ending is surprising but satisfying.
Pretty sure she’s lying
We’ve all heard tall tales—about fishing, mountaineering, writing, etc. The reader is not expected to believe the tale but enjoy the way the story is told, or how cleverly the writer weaves together unrelated items so his heroine can accomplish what she wants. Mark Twain used this technique in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Believes what she is saying
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is the classic example of using a narrator who is undependable, not because she is willfully trying to deceive, but because she herself believes the story she’s telling. The heroine has impulsively married Maxim de Winter, only to find, she believes, that de Winter is still in love with his dead wife, Rebecca. She continues to build on her premise, only to find at the end, that she is completely mistaken.
As you can see, this technique gives you plenty of scope to juggle the normal pieces of a novel and come up with something really interesting. The next post discusses how you go about creating Unreliable Narrators.