Paradigm Shift: Unreliable Narrators

We continue with our September Wicked Wednesdays on the theme of paradigm shifts. Today I want to talk about that mind-altering thing that is the unreliable narrator.

Unreliable narrators are point-of-view characters who are either unintentionally or deliberately deceptive. They may be impaired by mental illness, youthful naivete, addiction or some other challenge. As a reader you may know from the moment you meet them that you shouldn’t trust what they’re telling you, or it might come as a creeping realization, or a sudden, breath-taking reveal.

The Wickeds are sick of hearing this from me, but I believe all narrators are unreliable, just as all people are. We only know the story we tell ourselves.

To make my point: Have you ever talked to a cousin or a sibling about a common event in your past, and not only is their memory of it different, their conception of its meaning and its impact on the rest of the family and the rest of your lives is utterly different?

In Clammed Up, (mild spoilers) Julia Snowden is called back from her successful New York career to rescue her family’s failing clambake business. Julia comes in like the white knight, determined and scared in equal measure. Everywhere she looks there’s a mess she must dig the business out of. She’s the savior and she’s making the sacrifice. She believes that. And I believed that, as I wrote the first draft. Until, late in the book, her brother-in-law, Sonny, calls her on it. He points out that he and her sister have been the ones who ran the business and supported her parents while her father was dying of cancer. They’re the saviors, the ones who stayed. He isn’t wrong. And neither is Julia. But they would each tell the story very differently.

Maybe that’s just point of view, but I say this, dear reader, don’t believe everything you read.

Wickeds, what do you think? Unreliable narrators, yes or no? Have you used them in your writing? Do you like them in your reading? Can you give some examples you love or hate?

Sherry: As soon as I saw “unreliable narrators” in the title I thought, Barb always says all narrators are unreliable. I don’t think we can talk about unreliable narrators without talking about Spoiler Alert– Gone Girl. I thought it was a brilliant book, but I felt like I’d been slimed when I finished. It’s not a genre that I’m drawn to and would avoid a book if Gone Girl is referenced as similar. I don’t think I’ve set out to have Chloe or Sarah — the narrators of my book lie. But other people certainly do.

Liz: Sherry – I felt the SAME WAY about Gone Girl. I don’t mind other unreliable narrator books, but for some reason the ending of that one sent me over the edge. I know the Wickeds are sick of me talking about Dennis Lehane, who I absolutely worship as a writer, but his book Shutter Island was absolutely brilliant and to this day a book I reread every now and then to pick up some new technique. I am working on something with multiple POVs that don’t necessarily set out to lie, but everyone sees the same thing in a completely different lights. So perhaps many of them are unreliable…

Julie: As readers of this blog know, I adore the Amelia Peabody books. Her first person narrative is a wonderful example of an unreliable narrator–Amelia is unaware of the effect she has on others, but Elizabeth Peters lets us know through the writing. I’m writing a multiple POV book, and each POV tells the story through their lens, with their truth. As Delia says in my Garden Squad series at least once per book, facts are facts. Truth depends on who is interpreting the facts. Like Barb, I think this genre depends on all narrators being unreliable, since we’re playing a game with our readers.

Jessie: I’ve never set out to create an unreliable narrator either. I am always squeamish about betrayal and somehow an unreliable narrator feels a bit in that vein to me. I do like to highlight different points of view on the same subject or incident and I tend to use that technique frequently when I switch between protagonists in each of my historical series. I enjoy letting each tell the truth as they see it and allowing the reader to decide what they think of the characters’ opinions.

Edith/Maddie: What a great topic, Barb. A couple of years ago I read half a book that was really bothering me. I was talking with Sherry and learned the narrator is living in a fantasy, at least according to everyone else. No wonder it bothered me. I didn’t finish the book. Of course we all have our own ideas and memories about life, but I need to be able to trust my narrator, both in the books I write and the ones I read.

Readers: What do you think? Do you enjoy stories with unreliable narrators? Are all narrators unreliable? Do you need to be able to trust the narrator as a character or only the author as the storyteller?

18 Thoughts

  1. Oh my. That is a hard one. You do and don’t believe real people because you know everyone has a point of view that can be different, particularly when they are putting forth an argument or their side of a two-way argument. However, in a book it is difficult at times when you are reading it. In history you are taught that you must seek multiple sources to extrapolate a more accurate vision of the truth, but you are still interpreting between the facts. In crime, all witnesses are relatively unreliable, and it is a puzzle to be put together with fact. I guess I am split on this one. I tend to live by “trust no one” until something is proven. In books, that is a bit more work! Seeking out who you trust in a book is probably part of the puzzle. One of the possible reasons we choose books from authors we trust?

  2. Like Sherry and Liz, GONE GIRL is a memorable book with an unreliable narrator.
    GONE GIRL sticks in my memory since I was thrown off about the villain’s ID. But it’s true that several other mysteries give you limited information/clues about the crime & villain depending on the POV.

  3. Yes, I need to trust and believe the narrator, although I understand they’re narrating their own perspective.

  4. I have not deliberately written an unreliable narrator and I tend not to like books with them. Others have touched on GONE GIRL; I didn’t make it to the end of that one. There is one exception: Hank Phillippi Ryan’s THE MURDER LIST and I can’t say too much about it because of spoilers.

    I want to trust that my narrators are telling me the truth as far as they know and believe it. Of course we all want to believe that OUR truth is THE truth, which may or may not be the case, but that’s different – at least to my mind.

  5. When I opt to read a book by a beloved author, I put my full trust in the creator, and even though I try to question and analyze what I am reading, I am loyal to the author. After finishing the book, I can review and express my opinions, but I do respect the author, who is the master and creator. Your craft is extremely complex, and for me it is a miracle that a book is even able to come together, so I read with gusto, and celebrate all my authors. Way to go Wickeds! Thank you for always overwhelmingly keeping me in anticipation of reading the next amazing cozy on my tall TBR pile! You are all wonderful! Luis at ole dot travel

  6. Interesting question. I also disliked GONE GIRL. Not my cup of tea, but I have read books with unreliable narrators that I loved – why? They are unreliable because they believe their own story not because they are attempting to deceive the reader. We all see and report life through our individual prisms.

  7. Generally, I want to be able to depend on the narrator to tell the truth as he/she sees it. I once read a book where the narrator was the guilty party. Talk about being gobsmacked. I have to keep reminding myself that I shouldn’t believe everything a character says. I guess I’m too trusting when reading cozies.

    1. I am too trusting in general. You have to prove to me you’re a liar, I don’t start out with that perspective. Did you like being gobsmacked by the narrator being guilty? It would blow my mind.

  8. I don’t tend to enjoy unreliable narrator stories. It comes back to wanting to feel I can trust the person telling me the story. There’s a difference from an unreliable narrator and not being aware of how others view things, which is what Barb and Julie are talking about, at least to me.

    1. It seems to be shaping up that there is a difference between believing your version of the story is THE version, and being a deliberately deceptive narrator.

  9. This is an interesting discussion. I tend to think there are more unreliable narrators in suspense/thriller type of books. I don’t read widely in that genre because I don’t enjoy feeling “gobsmacked” when I realize that the story I have been reading is not true. I am familiar with Gone Girl, although I didn’t read it. Without mentioning Spoilers I will say that The Silent Patient made me feel that the book lied to me and I felt betrayed rather than it was a clever twist. But I recently read a book that I didn’t enjoy as much as I anticipated I would because of what I thought of as an unreliable narrator. But after discussing it with others I came to appreciate it more because they opened my eyes to it being more of a situation where the narrator didn’t have all the facts about the past and the story was told from the character’s perspective of the facts. But I still prefer a reliable narrator!

  10. I don’t like unreliable characters but sometimes they work. I did not like Gone Girl as Amy was a piece of work. The ending was awful. Many of the NYT bestsellers are in that vein, so I will not read them. I try to stay away from those kinds of books along with many other books I used to like. No horror, serial killer, lots of blood and violence, and unhinged people. Life is too short and there are too many books to read and so little time. I still love mysteries as long as they are not too violent.
    Cozies fulfill my mystery needs and still entertain and make me try to figure out whodunnit.

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