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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 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?

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