The Use of 'Unreliable Narrator' in Story Plots
A few useful points for writers from Dave Weaver
It’s something both ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘The Girl on the Train’ have in common as well as many other popular thrillers and famous novels across genres – the ‘unreliable narrator’. Our protagonist appears to be balanced and coherent but then unfolding events contradict their skewed reasoning and drive an ever-growing wedge between their perception of reality and ours. Things just don’t add up; the reader can no longer take the story at face value. Is the POV character insane, lying, deluded or just plain wrong? We won’t know until the final piece of the jigsaw that is their damaged mind fits into place.
This is what gives the narrative its strength; the need to understand the true nature of the head we are locked in and the reason that person disguises it. For once we give them our trust there is no escape from the consequences of their actions. We become helpless partners in their chaotic drift towards disaster.
The unreliable narrator works particularly well in crime and mystery plots where the reasons for a person’s odd behavior are shown in the story’s resolution. But how can the author make the reader understand that he or she is not to be believed or trusted? Clues must be planted at regular intervals to make sure the reader understands that things are not as they should be, even if the narrator remains unaware of this. Other characters’ reactions, the narrator’s inappropriate behaviour in various situations and a general sense of normalcy slipping away can help achieve this.
The phrase ‘unreliable narrator’ was first coined by literary critic Wayne Booth in the early 1960s. It has many classic examples:
Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabakov’s ‘Lolita’, whose unreliability is shown by his outrageous claims, endless self justification and contempt for others; Alex from Anthony Burgess’ dystopian classic ‘A Clockwork Orange’ who proves at the very start to be a violent, manipulative sociopath who uses a fictional language, has delusions of grandeur and enjoys exaggerating his reprehensible acts to strut and show off to us, his horrified accomplices; the main character in Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Fight Club’, a maladjusted insomniac who joins an underground fight club for therapy that quickly transforms into a terrorist group, leading us down a particularly nasty rabbit hole to a stunning reveal that makes us question everything gone before; J. D. Salinger’s cynical teenage Caulfield in ‘Catcher in the Rye’, an admitted liar whose opinions are provoked by adolescent angst and filtered through the distorting prism of immaturity.
What does the writer gain from this deception of using a misleading main character to tell the story? The main reward would seem to be balance, or rather lack of it. If the reader’s perceptions are continually challenged they are in a state of constant tension and the story becomes a fairground ride of unexpected twists and turns. They cannot rely on their guide with any degree of certainty and they cannot predict the outcome. In fact anything could happen; a healthy state for a thriller to be in.
Sometimes the narrator is unreliable by nature, so awful they cannot be objective about themselves even when behaving abominably; they continually self-justify the most terrible acts.
Sometimes they are damaged; an accident or psychological impairment has caused them, and by definition us, to see the world in a particular way others don’t.
Sometimes they are young or naive; the narrator of Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night’ is an autistic child seeking to explain their understanding of events. There is no trickery involved in these reports, at least on the teller’s part; they are telling us what they know. It is the miss-fitting framework around what they say that gives the lie to their words.
A further type of narrator is different from the above in that their misconceptions are due to a lack of, or incorrect, information. This is particularly effective in the thriller genre as having only half the picture can lead to some pretty spectacular leaps in the dark. Of course, in crime there are any number of unreliable narrators; they’re called witnesses and constantly contradict each other. The character of the investigator who will sift all this for the truth must be the one reliable factor. If we cannot trust their best efforts at enlightening us anarchy will quickly ensue. This would be problematic in a crime novel which is a carefully constructed and methodical machine with room for doubt and suspension of disbelief but never anarchy.
A final benefit of the unreliable narrator is that they can be used to cross genres. If their state of mind is in question we may start out with what appears to be fantasy and end up in psychological melodrama thus getting the best of both genre worlds; something I have attempted with my latest novel, ‘The Unseen’.
However the device of unreliable narrator is used though, it generally proves to be a reliable method of delivering the chilling psychodrama every thriller writer aspires to and every reader wants to read.