Monday, February 9, 2015

Relying on the Unreliable Narrator

The first Agatha Christie book I read was “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” … and it was almost the last. I was about 10, and ready to give up my “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators” and “Trixie Belden” books for some adult mysteries. I picked up “Roger” one day in the library. With only an hour to read, I got through the first few chapters, and then skipped ahead to the end.

Spoiler space in case you haven’t read the book and someday might ….

The last few paragraphs of the book are the narrator cackling to the reader how he was the one who killed Roger. I practically threw the book across the room. I hadn’t even read the entire thing, and I was still furious.

A novel – especially one written in first person, as “Roger” is – is a personal dialogue between reader and protagonist. The reader assumes that the protagonist is giving the reader all the information needed to follow the story, in a mostly unbiased account. When that trust is broken, chaos ensues. Apparently “Roger” was very controversial when it was originally published.

With the success of “Gone Girl” and the current release “The Girl on a Train,” unreliable narrators are coming back in fashion. I’ve also read several in the slush pile for the agency I read for. (These were not done well.) If you’re considering writing a novel with an unreliable narrator, be advised that this is one of the hardest gimmicks to pull off in fiction. And it is a gimmick. When done well, the narrator’s inconsistency will be just another feature of the book. If done poorly, the entire book will revolve around this sleigh-of-hand, and readers will feel cheated.

In written fiction, the unreliable narrator is very similar to the trick ending in movies popularized by M. Night Shyamalan – and he was only able to get away with it once. Basically these movies hinge on the fact that the protagonist doesn’t know the truth about his identity, whether it’s that he’s a ghost or he’s mentally ill. Similarly, the unreliable narrator works when there’s something about her life that the protagonist doesn’t know, or she’s lied to herself so completely that her lies seem like the truth – for instance, how a stalker ex-boyfriend might view his ex-girlfriend and her new family.

If you’re considering an unreliable narrator, ask yourself a few questions:

Will my story work just as well with a conventional narrator? The answer here should be yes. If not, the unreliable narrator is a gimmick.

Are there other aspects of my story that will clue in the reader that an unreliable narrator is at work? Again, the answer here should be yes. You want your reader to end the book by hitting herself on the head, swearing that she “should have seen that coming,” and immediately re-reading the book to spot the clues she should have seen in the first read.

When is the best time to reveal that my narrator is unreliable? There is no one definite answer to this – a talented writer could pull this off in the first paragraph. “Gone Girl” alternates between Nick and Amy’s point of view – Nick is revealed as an unreliable narrator when his previously unmentioned girlfriend texts him from outside his sister’s house; Amy’s revelation comes when her faux diary ends. The first reveal lets the reader know it’s possible Nick did kill Amy after all; the second assures the reader that he did not. However, most books using an unreliable narrator save that reveal for the end.

Is the only thing noteworthy about this book is that it features an unreliable narrator? The answer here needs to be “no.” The plot has to be compelling without that feature.

Am I using an unreliable narrator to get away with not having to give the reader certain information or fully develop characters? Again, the answer here needs to be no.

Having an unreliable narrator can be a fun twist that makes a book unforgettable. It can also be a gimmick that frustrates and annoys readers. It’s a very difficult trick to pull off, but with careful plotting and studying, it can be done successfully.

Goodreads has a long list of books featuring unreliable narrators; check it out here.

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