Telling Lies

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?

9 Comments

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  1. Ugh… I HATE the unreliable narrator trope. I didn’t used to, then came “gone girl”, “girl on a train”, “woman in the window” (that one REALLY bothered me, as I read an interview with the author. He worked in publishing and wrote this book basically following a formula for the sole purpose of making money off something popular. It wasn’t a passion for writing, it was “huh, that looks easy. I’ll bust something out and make a truck load of cash!”) 😕 The unreliable narrator is WAY too overdone to the point where I can no longer read thrillers with the words “woman”, “girl” or “wife” in the title because most of them are the same!

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    1. I haven’t read any of those books, but I’ve heard that about them, and I totally understand your frustration. I’m sure this was the ‘suspense with an unreliable narrator’ the editor was talking about. It sounds like the market is getting really oversaturated.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Super essay! Alex is right, and that irony between what the character thinks is happening and what is really happening does add spice. (I love Fight Club, btw!!) I know a lot of the old romance novels had a snotty man and a charming man, and the snotty one turned out to be the hero and the charming one the bad guy — experienced romance readers knew that, and interpreted their actions differently than the heroine because of their reading experience. In my A DEAD GUY AT THE SUMMERHOUSE, the young main character learns, at the end, that the relationship between two characters is very different than he had thought. Upon rereading, their true feelings are clear, but the main character misinterpreted them.

    Again, excellent essay! So glad you’re back!

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    1. Ah, very good examples! I think it can happen in all genres of books. Personally I kind of like this sort of narrator, especially if I’m aware of it–it really keeps me thinking and trying to figure things out.

      Thank you very much, and thanks for stopping by!

      Like

      1. Lolita! Dear ghod. Humbert Humbert tells exactly what’s happening (maybe, possibly), but it’s filtered through his own twisted, warped, self-absorbed vision. Completely unreliable ABOUT HIMSELF, if nothing else.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Since most people usually do tell their version of a story, I think there is probably a bit of unreliable narrator in every book and story.

    Liked by 1 person

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