The unreliable narrator has shown up in some pretty popular books, like Gone Girl, A Clockwork Orange, Lolita, and Fight Club, just to name a few.
What is an unreliable narrator?
It’s basically a narrator whose credibility has been seriously compromised.
This can be obvious to the reader, as it is with Alex in A Clockwork Orange, or not so obvious, like it was with Gone Girl.
Why don’t I like unreliable narrators?
Because it’s hardly ever done well. Gone Girl is one of the exceptions, and I’m a little hazy of Fight Club at the moment because it’s been a while, but I seem to remember thinking that one was done pretty well too.
What makes the difference between an unreliable narrator being done well or feeling like a cheap trick?
It all comes down to the ending.
I remember watching a movie with my hubby some years back called Hide and Seek. My husband and I both agreed that this one of the worst attempts at an unreliable narrator that we’d come across. What left us feeling that way? Basically, by the end of the movie, we were both left feeling like we had been blatantly lied to through the whole movie. The MC acted in ways completely contradictory to the truth that would eventually be revealed, and so did his daughter.
The daughter was the biggest disappointment, because it made no sense at all that she would respond to the dad’s questions and act the way she did when she knew the truth the whole time. There wasn’t any logical reason for the way the characters behaved, EXCEPT that the writers were lying to the audience.
An unreliable narrator believes in his or her reality, or is completely committed to the deception they’re trying to perpetrate. Every word that comes out of their mouth, every action the take, and look and gesture should all be in line with their warped viewpoint or deception.
At the end of the book/movie, you should be able to look back and not point out any instances where things don’t line up.
The Sixth Sense is a good example of this. If you’ve ever watched the “making of” for that movie, you’ll see how the painstakingly went through that entire film to make sure Bruce Willis never talks or touches anyone other than the boy. They create situations where there “seems” to be interaction, such as when he’s sitting in the living room with the boys mom, or goes to meet his wife at the restaurant, BUT you see at the end that none of those scenes were what they seemed.
When writing an unreliable narrator, this is what it takes.
Unreliable narrators are tough to write well. There has to be a well thought out plan. Interactions, thoughts, and dialog has to be scrutinized. It’s a lot of work, but if you can pull it off, you’ll have something people will remember for a long time!