I was stunned by the success of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. It was obvious to me that the author was employing the unreliable narrator technique in the story. This came as a shock to many readers and viewers, which is odd when everyone tells you that there are at least two sides to every story.
There is a long history of unreliable narrators in fiction. There is an even longer list in reality. They are called everyday people.
What is an unreliable narrator?
An unreliable narrator is a first-person narrator with a compromised viewpoint. (Read 10 Ways to Tell a Story – All about viewpoint, to understand what viewpoint means.)
Narrators serve as filters for stories. What narrators do not know or experience cannot be shown to the reader. The first-person narrator is powerful because that viewpoint is the only one we have to judge the events on the page. The reader believes that the narrator will be truthful and provide an accurate account of the story.
When we have an unreliable narrator, the reader cannot trust his or her version of the story.
Theses narrators may be insane, angry, strung-out on drugs or alcohol, naïve, foreign, criminals, liars, or simply younger than everybody else. They can be comical or absurd, tragic or serious, terrifying or surreal. The one thing they have in common is that they are deceptive.
The con man, Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint, in The Usual Suspects
At some point in a story, the reader realises the narrator cannot be trusted. Something happens – perhaps a lie is uncovered or an identity shown to be implausible. Readers are forced to form their own opinions about the events, and the characters’ motivations, in the story. If the author has not pulled off the initial deception with enough style or enticed readers with the power of the story, they may abandon the book.
Fiction relies on the willingness of readers to suspend belief. Although most of us do this, some readers jump ship when they realise that even the narrator of this make-believe world cannot be trusted. As Holden Caulfield tells us, ‘I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.’ How can we believe anything he says?
If unreliable narrators are badly crafted, they can be obvious, manipulative, misleading, confusing and pretentious. If they are well written, they can be powerful, clever and fascinating.
Pat Peoples from The Silver Linings Playbook
Here are nine types of unreliable narrators:
- The child. The narrator may be a different age or have completely different life experiences from the other people in the story. They tell their versions of a grown-up story through their limited understanding and experience. Examples: Jack from Room, Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn from The Adventures of Huckleberry Fynn.
- The outsider. The narrator may be prejudiced by race, class, politics, culture or gender. If somebody is brought up in a certain way, their version of events will be skewed according to that culture. Examples: Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Nelly from Wuthering Heights, Mrs de Winter from Rebecca, Invisible Man from Invisible Man.
- The crazy. The narrator may be going through a difficult adolescence, on drugs, or have an eating disorder: Lia from Wintergirls, Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye
- The crazier. The narrator may suffer from hallucinations or dementia, or flashbacks caused by post-traumatic stress. Examples: Pat Peoples from The Silver Linings Playbook, Pi Patel in Life of Pi, Chief Bromden from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Raoul Duke from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Narrator from Candy
The craziest. The narrator may have a mental illness or personality disorder: Examples: The anonymous narrator in The Fight Club, the unknown schoolgirl in The Moth Diaries, Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal, Humbert Humbert from Lolita, Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, Barney Panofsky from Barney’s Version, Portnoy from Portnoy’s Complaint, Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island, Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin
- The innocent. The narrator may have a lower than normal intelligence, or an inability to deal with reality, or a learning disability. Examples: Forrest from Forrest Gump , Edward Bloom in Big Fish, Christopher Boone from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Bartholomew Neil in The Good Luck of Right Now
The criminal. The narrator may be lying to save himself, trying to be persuade you that what he has done is not wrong, or attempting to blame one of the other characters out of revenge. Examples: Nick and Amy from Gone Girl, John Dowell in The Good Soldier, Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects, Nina and Isobel in Talking to the Dead, Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire, Dorothy L Sayers’s The Documents in the Case.
- The ghost. The narrator may be otherworldly. Examples: Dr Malcolm Crowe in The Sixth Sense, Jakabok Botch from Mister B. Gone, Screwtape from The Screwtape Letters, the ghost in The Turn Of The Screw, Lucifer in I, Lucifer
- The wilful liar. The narrator is just messing with the reader. This is the least successful type of unreliable narrator and is often the equivalent of someone waking up and declaring it was all a dream. Examples: Pandora in Big Brother, Briony Tallis in Atonement
Can you think of any other types of unreliable narrators?
© Amanda Patterson
- 10 Ways to Tell a Story – All about viewpoint
- Our Viewpoint Miniseries.
- Torture your Character – The Three Most Effective Types of Inner Conflict
Follow these links to help you find a reason for your unreliable narrator to behave badly: