The Irresistible Attraction of the Unreliable Narrator

Ah, the lure of the unreliable narrator. That delicious moment in a book when some twist or trickery makes you sit up and say ‘hang on a minute – I trusted you!’

It seems there has been a slew of them recently, especially of the female variety. Gone Girl, Apple Tree Yard and The Girl on the Train, to name just a handful, include flawed female protagonists whose versions of events are, for different reasons, called into question.

It’s not a new phenomenon in literature, of course. From Huck Finn to Holden Caulfield, The Great Gatsby to The Secret History, authors have given us characters who alternately seduce and mislead us, through limited understanding or deliberate misdirection or something in-between.

Probably the best-known and greatest example of the unreliable narrator is of course Humbert Humbert in Lolita. I could rave about Lolita for hours (I won’t, though): it’s beautiful, disturbing, comic, compelling and my favourite book. Humbert is charming, by his own admission guileful, and his spin is so convincing that even today, 60 years after the novel first appeared, some people still buy into it.

In The Guardian’s 100 Best Novels, for example, Robert McCrum has this to say:

Although we see him drugging the love object of his dreams, Humbert is hardly debauching an innocent. In a twist that makes for uncomfortable reading in the context of contemporary anxieties about child abuse, Nabokov establishes that Lolita is sexually precocious already. When it comes to the moment when she and Humbert are “technically lovers”, it was, in Nabokov’s brilliant and clinical reversal, “she who seduced me”.

When I saw this, my reaction was ‘really? You believed that?’ (For an alternative view, which is somewhat closer to my own, see Draw your own conclusions around the fact that one reading of the book is from a man, one from a woman…guess which is which, folks!)

I would have thought that considering the information Humbert chooses to leave in (e.g. withholding the fact of Dolores’s mother’s death from her until after the ‘seduction’; thinking about drugging her so that she’ll be oblivious to his advances; I could go on), most readers might wonder what he’s not saying. Most readers might infer pretty early on that it’s Humbert’s all-consuming self-delusion that causes him to paint his ‘relationship’ with his step-daughter as romance, or to insist that she, the twelve-year-old, was in some way the predator (even though he, in other parts of the book, recognises himself as a monster). Most readers, but not all, evidently.

Anyway. Unreliable narrators are a bit close to my heart as I’m trying to write four of them at the moment. Between them they’re telling the story of Book 2, and if I get their voices right they’ll be convincingly unconvincing. They all tell lies and keep secrets. It’s also been interesting to me that a lot of people have described Fiona from Precocious as unreliable. I don’t think she’s wilfully so. But then (as with Humbert), self-deception is every bit as powerful as other kinds. Haven’t we all met, or worse, been lied to by, someone who seemed to believe their own confection? And the lies we tell ourselves – the versions of ourselves we construct – to make our realities more palatable are particularly convincing.

Why, then, are unreliable narrators so much fun to write, and to read?

As an author, I want to achieve two things: to create believable characters, and to keep the reader turning the pages. People ‘in real life’ are complex, and most people are liars (it’s been said we tell 10 lies a week on average – the most common being ‘I’m fine’) so an unreliable narrator gives the story, paradoxically, an element of realism. Writing a flawed character is always more fun and more challenging than the ‘perfect bore’…I have the chance to explore my own darker side and continually ask the ‘what if?’ questions that I think drive a lot of fiction. What if I found myself in this situation? What if I had a choice between x and y? What might I do, and what would happen next?

The second goal on my writing wish-list is a bit more nebulous; if only any of us held the key to what keeps readers turning pages. It can be great plot, beautiful poetic writing, compelling characterisation, a combination of all of these or more. What the unreliable narrator does for the reader is keeps them engaged as they want to discover the ‘truth’ (what is truth in fiction, anyway? – this brings me to the subject of a future blog…). It’s why detective series like Broadchurch are so popular, maybe – as readers or viewers we like to be kept guessing, to build up our own theories, it involves us in the narrative – but we also like to be wrongfooted, we feel cheated and disappointed in some way if we ‘get it right’ too early on.

Fiction is a ‘safe’ place to be deceived, and we can enjoy it in a similar way to how we enjoy a rollercoaster: being hurtled around in an actual out-of-control car hundreds of feet in the air might be a touch stressful. Being lied to in real life is not much fun.

I write a lot about relationships and it’s a sad truth that it’s often the people we’re closest to who bear our greatest deceptions. Perhaps the biggest appeal of unreliable narrators is that we recognise ourselves in them. The tales we tell ourselves; the glossy picture we sometimes paint of our lives to present to family, friends and social media; the fantasy versions of our partners we create to suit our own ends…in life, and especially in love, we are all unreliable narrators.


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One response to “The Irresistible Attraction of the Unreliable Narrator

  1. I agree that Fiona, in ‘Precocious’, is not an unreliable narrator; she’s telling the truth as she sees it. If every narrator who comes to understand herself better in the course of the book were considered ‘unreliable’, then the unreliable narrator would be the norm, surely. Huck Finn–could he *really* float down a raft with an escaping slave to freedom? (Hint: how many slaves escaped to freedom by running *south*?) Does that make him unreliable? No–he believes. Could slot in any number of further examples here.

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