Greetings again, fellow lit lovers. This week, I’m going to share with you five of my favorite unreliable narrators in fiction. But first, let’s start by explaining what an unreliable narrator actually is. Is it a narrator who just lies through his teeth? One trapped in the grips of madness or addiction? How does the narrator become ‘unreliable?’
To boil it down into the simplest terms possible, unreliable narrators tell a story readers cannot take at face value. The good folks at American Literature have a great post explaining the trope with examples. Essentially, when we read a story featuring an unreliable narrator, we can’t be sure the events are being described to us truthfully and accurately. The narrator has their own agenda and offers the story from their perspective. They might be deliberately misleading readers by distorting events or concealing critical information. Perhaps they’re straight-up evil, or insane (think Poe), or too young to understand the full situation. Maybe they misremember things, or maybe they intentionally lie to paint themselves in a better light to justify their actions. Whatever the reason, readers know to be wary when trusting an unreliable narrator.
But why would an author choose an unreliable narrator to tell their story? Well, to some extent we can all be regarded as unreliable narrators. When we tell a story, our description of the events gets filtered through our own unique backgrounds, beliefs, and preconceived prejudices. The way we interpret Cousin Mary’s disaster of a wedding might differ from how she viewed her special day. This can be true of even the most honest, noble, selfless people alive.
Authors may choose unreliable narrators for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the story’s emotional arc is more powerful when told from the child’s perception. Maybe the narrator’s change in beliefs or biases is a crucial part of the character arc. Maybe the main character is struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues, or maybe they aren’t as crazy as everyone around them seems to think. As the saying goes, every villain is the hero of their own story.
It’s been said before that the plot of thriller novels are driven by the antagonist. But what happens when your main character is his own worst enemy? What about when the most hazardous obstacles exist within the character’s own mind? Welcome to the pleasure of crafting a psychological thriller starring an unreliable narrator!
Is your interest peaked yet? If so, this next part is for you. Here are five of my favorite unreliable narrators in fiction.
- Both Amy and Nick in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (Though I’m admittedly partial to Amy)
- Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart (When a narrator begins by insisting he isn’t crazy, it’s probably safe to assume he’s nuts).
- Christopher John Francis Boone in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (A great look at an unreliable narrator without malicious intent, Haddon’s narrator is a 15-year-old boy with Asperger syndrome)
- The unnamed insomniac narrator in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (Sorry, no spoilers! Really, though, has anyone not read this yet?)
- Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (Trigger warning: this one is not for the faint-hearted. Humbert Humbert is a pedophile detailing his obsession and eventual affair with his young stepdaughter. While it’s masterfully written, the content is easily the most disturbing on this list)
An honorable mention goes out to Girl on the Train and We Need to Talk About Kevin. Unreliable narrators can be confusing and frustrating when written poorly. The novels listed above do a wonderful job of introducing readers to this narrative device. While I’ll probably never pick up Lolita again, the others each have a special place in my heart years after reading them.
How do you feel about unreliable narrators in fiction? Do you love the surprises and plot twists? Loathe the confusion? Did I leave out one of your favorites? Have an awesome recommendation to add? Feel free to leave a comment below!
Happy weekend, thrill-seekers!