Unreliable narrators

From Reedsy Blog: What is an Unreliable Narrator: Definition and Examples

Fiction that makes us question our own perceptions can be powerful. An unreliable narrator can create a lot of grey areas and blur the lines of reality, allowing us to come to our own conclusions.

Fallible storytellers can also create tension by keeping readers on their toes — wondering if there’s more under the surface, and reading between the lines to decipher what that is. Unreliable narrators can make for intriguing, complex characters: depending on the narrator’s motivation for clouding the truth, readers may also feel more compelled to keep reading to figure out why the narrator is hiding things.

The linked post pulls out three basic types of unreliable narrators:

–Deliberately deceptive

–Deceptive because unable or unwilling to face the truth and therefore providing a slanted version of the story

–The narrator is just wrong about what is going on

I’m willing to accept those categories. Let me see. A handful of novels leap to mind when I think of unreliable narrators:

Chime by Franny Billingsley. The link goes to a review that I think is good, in the sense that I felt pretty much the same way about the book: I admired many things about it, but did not actually like it. I didn’t like the narrator — self-loathing is not my favorite characteristic in a narrator, and I thought it was SO clear that the stepmother was evil that I couldn’t help feeling that Briony ought to have figured that out well before she did. I realize that is not quite fair to Briony, but there it is. This would fit the second category.

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind them All by Laura Ruby features a wonderfully unreliable ghost narrator. This also fits the second category, but, not sure why, I liked the book a good deal better. I was certainly shocked to find out the truth about certain things, even though Ruby totally played fair and after the fact I thought I should have caught on much faster than I did. Anyway, this story is rather grim, but not actually tragic.

A lot of books by Dorothy Dunnett have highly unreliable narrators, either because the first-person narrator is not mentioning something very, very important about herself (Dolly and the Singing Bird and Dolly and the Bird of Paradise) or because the third-person pov protagonists are just completely wrong about the opaque protagonist (Lymond series, Niccolo series). So the Dolly books feature the first type of unreliable narrator and the historicals feature the third type.

Elizabeth Wein brilliantly pulls of an unusual twist on the unreliable narrator in Code Name Verity. The link goes to Jacqueline Carey’s review of this book. Again, this is an example of the narrator being deliberately (very) deceptive.

What springs to mind for you when it comes to unreliable narrators?

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15 thoughts on “Unreliable narrators”

  1. Yes, Dunnett immediately came to mind, though it was clear long before the end–indeed from pretty early on–that the main character was not remotely like the narrator’s impression.

  2. Silent snow, secret snow by Conrad Aiken. I read it as a child and it has stuck with me to this day.

  3. In general I don’t much like unreliable narrators, but I found the revelation at the end of The Thief, and the new slant it created on the narrator for the whole book, so intriguing I immediately reread it.

    Stephen Brust sometimes uses an unreliable narrator too, but it’s been so long since I read those that I’ve lost the details. I think it’s the long-winded narrator of The Phoenix Guard & its sequel.

  4. The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner is a biggie.

    Conjured by Sarah Beth Durst has a protagonist who’s missing time and doesn’t know who they are at the start, so they start out very unreliable, until they get a better handle on things.

  5. The Thief was my first thought, and best unreliable narrator ever! I love unreliable narrators. Lorna Freeman wrote three books in a series called Borderlands (the first and I think best book of the series is Covenants) where the narrator is not blatantly unreliable, but his “Aw shucks, nothing going on here, just a normal guy and everything’s perfectly fine” message doesn’t reflect either his internal or external truths. It’s a great series with the major frustration that it was never finished.

  6. My problem with The Thief is that we never get any hint that the narrator is recounting it as a story. Unreliable narrators who are just third-person cast as first-person don’t impress me as anything but a trick.

  7. Agatha Christie The Murder of Roger Ackroyd? I don’t think the narrator is actually unreliable though. It’s our own expectations that are.

  8. I found The Thief delightful, but as a rule I tend to avoid unreliable narrators. Unless . . . unless they’re written by Diana Wynne Jones. For example, The Game.
    And, yeah, I liked Chime, but mostly for the beautiful writing, because self-loathing is not really something I enjoy reading about.

  9. I generally dislike unreliable narrators, but with that said, my favorite ongoing story has an unreliable narrator protagonist. I’m not sure if it would be #2 or #3 that he falls under, though.

    The story is originally Korean, and the translated title is Trash of the Count’s Family. The third-person point of view is generally from the view of the main character, Cale, who describes himself as lazy, unmotivated, and unheroic—but if you look at what he DOES, not what he SAYS, that’s pretty much obviously wrong. On the other hand, it’s how he sees himself, and he does take every opportunity he can to push work off onto others, or he treats his enemies with a hilarious form of petty revenge every chance he gets.

    But then he’ll do things like pushing himself almost to death to protect someone close to him, or he’ll endeavor to rescue people from a bad situation and put them in a place where they can realize their dreams.

    So I suppose I don’t HATE the unreliable narrator, but usually it comes off feeling like someone’s lying to you, which just rubs me the wrong way. In this case, the discrepancy is usually both a point of humor and also underlines how he’s lying to himself.

  10. Megan, I think Cale sounds like a pretty neat protagonist — but I’d probably like it best if he actually knows and acknowledges that he’s doing good things.

    I liked The Thief, but I do think MWT cheated somewhat. But it was so well done I liked it anyway. I do prefer every other book in that series except maybe Thick As Thhieves.

  11. Murderbot is an interesting variation on the unreliable narrator (and one everyone seems to like) whose reports of events are generally accurate — and I expect they’re even pretty complete, one it gets past the initial concealment about why it’s calling itself Murderbot. But when it comes to its own feelings and motivations, “unable or unwilling to face the truth” sticks out so much that it doesn’t actually feel like the author is making you work to figure anything out.

  12. Ooh, yes, AND Murderbot is the sort of protagonist who, like Cale in the previous comment, doesn’t necessarily like to acknowledge when it’s doing nice or good things.

  13. Murderbot’s memories of past events have also been tampered with somewhat, too, right?

  14. Yes, they have, especially as Murderbot doesn’t really remember what happened during the event when it participated in the massacre. Lots of uncertain memories from its earlier life.

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