Autolycus. Locke Lamora. The Magicians of The Prestige. Wade Wilson. Unreliable narrators are everywhere in genre fiction and the one question we always ask is why? What’s the appeal of listening to stories narrated by liars? What’s the difference between authorial mischief and shaggy dog stories? Why do we love the twist in the tale?
Genevieve Cogman, Jason Arnopp, Mark de Jager, James Smythe, Emma Trevayne, Catriona Ward
Back in December 2015 I did a very long, not very detailed blog on different angles of narration. The final panel that I attended at Nine Worlds was on a single aspect of this – the unreliable narrator. (That’s not entirely true. The actual final panel I attended was another world-building session but, as I didn’t learn anything new there and spent the whole time just building a world of my own, I won’t bother regaling you with that one.)
Types of Unreliability
The unreliable narrator isn’t confined to a single approach. There’s lots of ways your narrator can be unreliable, including:
- Changeable structure, such as time-travel, e.g. Everyone in Hal Duncan’s Vellum
- Amnesiac, e.g. Mary Jared in Jessica Richards’ Snake Ropes
- Naïve, e.g. David Dunn in Unbreakable
- Misled, e.g. Father Emilio Sandoz in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow
- Blinkered, e.g. Dr. John Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes
- Delusional, e.g. The narrator in Fight Club
- In denial, e.g. Dr. Malcolm Crowe in Sixth Sense
- Speaking with an agenda, e.g. Pi in The Life of Pi
- Lying, e.g. Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects
The way in which your narrator is unreliable throws light on both their character and their reaction to challenges. This ties strongly into voice – the words you choose and the way in which you style them should reveal a lot about your narrator’s personality.
When the narrator isn’t deliberately misleading, their unreliability can be highlighted by other characters’ reactions to them. To use my own work as an example for a moment, in my book Spiritus the narrator is wholly unreliable in the way she frames the character of her brother because she loves him too much to see his many flaws or question his actions. Those flaws are only brought to light by a third character, who challenges the narrator’s bias. The narrator doesn’t accept it but the reader is thus made aware of her unreliability on the subject.
A quick note on changeable structure: this is where none of the characters themselves are unreliable in any way, but the order in which the story is presented is deliberately misleading. The reader is encouraged to make false assumptions, not by the narrator, but by the writer.
Reasons for Misleading
Unreliable narrators don’t have to be unlikeable. In fact, if you want your reader to keep reading, they probably shouldn’t be. A lot of it can come down to who your narrator is lying to, and why. Are they lying to the reader in particular, or to their compatriots (and therefore the reader is misled as a side effect)? Are they lying for the good of others, or for selfish reasons? If the latter, does this impact their heroic status (see previous blog on heroism)? Are they not, in fact, lying but only telling the truth as they know it (which covers all of the list above down to ‘delusional’)?
That brings us on to the question of subjectivity. All narratives are, to some extent, subjective and therefore unreliable. History itself is massively unreliable, the facts recounted by people with a heavy bias. Different country’s accounts of the same event vary wildly, depending on which side of the events they were. A lot of fun can therefore be had with opposing POVs, which narrate different ‘truths’ about the same events. A fantastic example of this is the film Hero, and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. The downside of taking this approach is that the audience is aware that they are being misled in some way and therefore have to start working out who and what they believe to be reliable. This makes the story a puzzle to be considered objectively, rather than something they can fully immerse themselves into.
The Big Reveal
There needs to be some kind of twist or reveal at the end, if you’re using an unreliable narrator. As one of the panellists said, “why pick that technique if you’re not going to capitalise on its power?” This can either be big or gradual, giving emotional and/or intellectual closure. But you must play fair with the reader – none of this ‘it was all a dream’ crap. That’s not satisfying and carries a strong risk of alienating your audience. Lewis Carroll only gets away with it because he was writing for a very different era.
The twist has to feel organic, rather than a deus ex machina. Something crowbarred in is also deeply unsatisfying, and this is where some detective stories walk a very thin line. Those that have a big reveal which include information not previously shown to the audience throughout the story are, frankly, cheating their readers. This is unreliability through omission and, whilst it’s a valid technique, I don’t like it.
The important thing to note is that this reveal is for the reader’s benefit, not necessarily the narrator’s. For those who don’t even realise they are unreliable – the misled, the delusional, and so on – they don’t necessarily need a moment of realisation at all. In Spiritus, the actions of the narrator’s brother trigger the downfall of an empire. The narrator never realises this, partly because she’s blinded by bias and partly because (SPOILERS!) she dies before it happens. The reader, however, had their eyes opened earlier in the book and can therefore see it coming. More officially, Clare Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days provides the reveal to the reader but not the narrator, and that ignorance adds to the horror of the narrator’s ultimate fate.
To Lie or Not to Lie?
There are two main risks with using unreliable narrators. The first is that readers’ attention spans are shrinking and they might not stick around long enough for the reveal to make all the pieces fall into place. Unreliable narrators often mean apparent inconsistencies throughout the main story, which are only resolved at the end.
The second is a question of loyalty and trust. Readers will very quickly build up emotional bonds with the narrator (or at least, they should if you’re doing your job as a writer well). This means that they may not accept the narrator has been misleading them. That sense of loyalty might lead them to reject the reveal entirely. This largely depends, I think, on how organic the reveal is.
There’s a very simple workaround to both these risks. Have the narrator (or other characters) say early on that they are a liar, a la Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. Then dupe the reader anyway.
Aaand that’s all, folks, from the Nine Worlds Convention 2016. Next week we are back to our regularly scheduled programme of notes from the Creative Writing MA.