Contrary to what you might hear in writing classes and workshops, your narrator doesn’t have to be likeable. She can be really good at telling lies and making everyone believe them. He can be deceptive, either deliberately or not. In fact, your narrator can be downright unreliable. And whether you’re a fan of unreliable narrators or not, one thing’s for sure: they tell really memorable stories.
If you’ve ever read Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, you know very well what an unreliable narrator is capable of. In the book, Patrick Bateman is an investment banker who might be killing people in truly horrifying ways, but then again maybe not. At some point while reading this book you will start to wonder if the things Bateman describes doing are all in his head. There is an entire discussion about this on Goodreads, where one person makes the point that it doesn’t really matter whether he committed the murders or not: “It’s more important that Bateman thinks he’s a killer than if Bateman is actually a killer.”
Patrick Bateman in American Psycho is such a perfect example of an unreliable narrator, probably because even while writing the book Ellis hadn’t decided if he was a killer or not. Here’s what he had to say about it in this Rolling Stone interview:
No, I’ve never made a decision. And when I was writing the book, I couldn’t make a decision. That was what was so interesting to me about it. You can read the book either way. He’s telling you these things are happening, and yet things are contradicting him throughout the book, so I don’t know.
Even if you haven’t read American Psycho, you’ve probably encountered unreliable narrators before because there are so many examples of this technique used in fiction. Just take a look at this Goodreads list. Some of my favourite books that feature unreliable narrators include Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, and maybe everything Poe ever wrote. And if you’re looking for an example in film, Christopher Nolan’s Memento is about as good as it gets.
While I was reading the book Writing the Intimate Character late last year, I found the section on creating an unreliable narrator particularly interesting. While it seems like quite a challenge, writing an unreliable narrator also sounds like it could be a lot of fun. Here are some of the notes I jotted down about creating an unreliable narrator:
Unreliable narrators should be full of contradictions.
– they say one thing and think another
– they reveal partial information, or none at all
Unreliable narrators should have a troubled past.
– they are inherently good but learned bad behaviour as a matter of self-defense
– they can be redeemed by overcoming their past
Unreliable narrators should be obsessed with something or someone.
– it doesn’t have to be dark or creepy
– this obsession skews their thinking or beliefs
Writer’s Digest also has some pretty good tips on writing unreliable narrators. The key takeaway for me was this:
Fiction is most powerful when it comes from an honest place—even when your narrator doesn’t. When you’re toying with the trust of your readers, it’s especially important to keep it believable.
In this essay by author Ruth Ware (The Woman in Cabin 10), she makes the point that when you stop and think about it, we’re all unreliable narrators:
Every day we choose what to remember, what anecdotes to retell. And every day our mind pushes flashbacks on us when we don’t want them, and forgets the name of the boy we met in the bar. We leap to conclusions and remember those conclusions as fact. We react on our own prejudices but don’t always recognize them as such. We “remember” a donkey ride that never happened. We forget the face of an attacker.
The more I look into unreliable narrators, the more I like them. The more I want them to tell me a story and make me believe what they say, only to twist things around causing me to question everything. One book that keeps coming up in lists of books with unreliable narrators is We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, which I haven’t read yet. Are there any others I should check out?