Recently, I read an article in which an editor talked about what sort of fiction is popular right now. They said the best selling thing right now is “suspense with an unreliable narrator.” I admit, sometimes I really enjoy a story with a well-written unreliable narrator–because it can be so complex, layered, and really force you to think–so I see why readers are enjoying stories like this and want more of them.
But what is an unreliable narrator?
It’s too simplistic to say an unreliable narrator is a POV character who is lying or omitting things from the story, because it’s more complicated than that. If you’ve never heard the term before, it means literally that your character can’t be trusted in how they’re living in and experiencing the plot. In other words, the way the story is being told is a lie, or at least, not quite honest. It’s not always about lying, though–sometimes, the character is simply telling the reader their version of the story that they personally believe, even if it’s not the truth of the matter.
Have you ever had someone you know tell you about an event and make themselves look good/like a victim/make it sound like it wasn’t their fault–and then later, you discover their version of events is not quite how it happened? That’s an unreliable narrator. They have their own best interest at heart when pleading their case. In fiction, the character can also be mentally impaired in some way, imagining all of it, or delusional. Remember Fight Club?
One of my favorite instances is from Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. In Interview With the Vampire, Louis is an unreliable narrator because he’s telling the story of his life with Lestat through a skewed lens of hate and anger. In The Vampire Lestat, Lestat refutes much of what Louis said as being either exaggerated or untrue–but again, perhaps Lestat is unreliable too, because he’s telling things based on his point of view and his own feelings. It’s very much a “vampire said/vampire said” situation. Just like in real life but with more blood and fangs.
Reading and writing an unreliable narrator can be fun. Here’s a few notes about this type of character:
- The reader needs to realize they’re unreliable. You’re probably going to make readers angry if you write a whole story and then just reveal at the end it was all a lie. There should be clues that the narrator is not exactly being honest–or at least, you should give your readers reason to doubt and question along the way.
- The narrator should still be engaging, interesting, and/or sympathetic. Even if they’re telling a big fat lie, we should have reason to want to continue reading. Not many people like a liar, but if we’re made to understand and even sympathize with the reasons they’re lying, it’s going to make us want to keep reading.
- It doesn’t always have to be lies. As I said, feelings skew a person’s perspective. It can make them misremember and misunderstand things. We all have our own way of viewing events–even if, objectively, that viewpoint isn’t correct or accurate. In the narrator’s head, this could all very well be true because of what they personally believe.
- The narrator can be unreliable due to circumstance. This is especially found in books based around younger people–children and teenagers often misunderstand the world and the motivations of adults and others, leading them into convoluted, unreliable situations. The narrator can also be sick, impaired, or forced into some situation that skews their beliefs. Unreliable doesn’t always mean malicious–it just means their version of things isn’t quite right.
There are many kinds of unreliable narrators. Have you ever written one? Do you enjoy them in fiction? What do you think makes a good, and engaging, unreliable narrator?