Who You Gonna Trust

photo by Ryan.Berry

I ran into an intriguing editing problem recently. A client had a character who was disguising the fact that she was a woman. What made it tricky was that she was the narrator of a number of scenes, so we had to construct those scenes so as to mislead both the other characters and the readers. You’d be surprised how often gender gets mentioned in interior monologue. The client and I got a lot of practice at avoiding personal pronouns without looking like we were deliberately avoiding personal pronouns.

This started me thinking about the unreliable narrator, a technique that’s shown up in a couple of my favorite books. If, as we discussed last month, writing techniques should be treated as tools, what do you use the unreliable narrator for?

SPOILER ALERT: If you’ve never read Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, go do it now. I’ll wait.

Okay, welcome back.

As you’ve just seen, unreliable narrators are a great way to set up a surprise ending. According to a lot of commentators, Christie’s revelation that the narrator was actually the murderer was a milestone of crime drama and may well have been her masterpiece. She took advantage of the fact that readers naturally assume the narrator is telling them the truth. Writers can also give readers a shock at the end because readers assume that the narrator is alive (Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”), or sane (Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club).

To pull off this kind of surprise without alienating your readers, the narrator has to tell the truth, at least technically. One reason the unreliable narrator is hard to write is that you’re using your readers’ assumptions to slip stuff past them that would otherwise raise red flags – like the way my client’s character never uses personal pronouns in interior monologue. Christie’s book works because, at the end, Dr. Sheppard reveals how he described the actual murder without revealing that he was the one committing it. For readers, subtle misdirection is a terrific trick, but outright lying is an insult.

In Death’s Jest Book, Reginald Hill makes use of an unreliable narrator to create dramatic tension. If you haven’t read it, Detective Pascoe receives letters throughout the book from a brilliant ex-convict named Franny Roote, whom Pascoe had once helped convict and who has since been proven innocent. The letters are apparently simple, grateful reports of the literary research Roote is up to now that he’s out of prison. But Pascoe is convinced they are mocking, carefully constructed hints at Roote’s crimes, past and present. Unless Pascoe’s just being paranoid. His growing desperation to decipher who Roote is and what he’s up to is one of the things that drives the story forward. I won’t tell you how that one resolves. Go read it — it’s brilliant.

The most satisfying plot twists not only surprise your readers and change the future course of the story. They also rewrite what your readers have already read. When readers discover that my client’s character has been a woman all along, it rearranges the motives of a few other characters and the meaning of one or two earlier scenes. When Pascoe eventually discovers who Roote really is, it finally lets readers understand what the letters they’ve been reading all along really mean. And the ending of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd essentially rewrites the book from the beginning. That is one reason it’s a masterpiece.

In The Documents in the Case, Dorothy Sayers does even more with this narrative ambiguity over who a character really is. The novel consists of letters, evidence reports, news clippings, and notes by various characters that make up the case file for a possible murder. The various documents paint Margaret Harrison, one of the central characters, as either a cold, heartless adulteress who manipulated her lover into killing her husband or a misguided and misunderstood innocent who accidentally started something that spun out of control. Who she is depends on which narrator you believe, and the tension helps drive the story forward. But in a truly audacious move, Sayers doesn’t resolve the question at the end. She does reveal how the murder was committed and by whom, but readers are left wondering who Margaret Harrison really was. Some of us are wondering still.

Unreliable narrators are most useful in mysteries, where slipping clues past readers is the point – you’ll notice all three examples so far have been mysteries. But in The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger uses the unreliable narrator for something else entirely — to create empathy between readers and Holden Caulfield. Holden is unreliable not because he is misleading readers but because he is unaware of the depth of his own alienation and how it affects what he sees. Readers feel for him because they know him better than he knows himself.

Regardless of what you use it for, the unreliable narrator puts distance between what your readers are reading and the “reality” happening behind the narrative. Since readers are always aware at some level that fiction isn’t real – disbelief is suspended, not eliminated – giving them this glimpse behind the curtain lets them sink more deeply into the world of your story. It’s tricky to maintain suspension of disbelief at two different levels. But if you can pull it off, it makes for powerful storytelling.

So what are your favorite examples of unreliable narrator?  Have you ever used an unreliable narrator yourself?  If so, tell us about it.

A lot of people feel Agatha Christie cheated with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  Do you think so?  Or do you know of a case of unreliable narrator that went wrong?


About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.


    • says

      I can’t think of an example where the narrator wasn’t one of the characters, though I suppose it’s possible. If, for instance, the narrator was an elderly version of one of the characters, looking back at the past with nostalgic forgetfulness. Readers might be aware the past wasn’t as pristine as the narrator was remembering. Granted, the narrator’s younger self would be part of the story, but you could argue that a callow 17-year-old is a different character from a nostalgic 53-year-old. I certainly feel I’m a different person than I was at 17.

  1. says

    I’m working on a book where the narrator(s) both first person both have to rely on once-removed stories to complete parts of their own story. That might be unreliable. It will be interesting to see how this pans out.

  2. says

    Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story offers the best narrator. Lemony Snicket’s narrator in the Series of Unfortunate events is not a character, but adds more suspense to the stories.

  3. says

    I love this technique and wish I had the nerve to try it out. Several favorite examples: Huck Finn (in his naivety), the governess in James’s Turn of the Screw, and the narrator of The Black Prince (by Iris Murdoch). In the last two examples, the narrators are so unreliable that what really happens in their stories is open to debate.

  4. Denise Willson says

    Hmm… I’m really going to have to think on this one, Dave. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  5. Carmel says

    I read recently that people thought Agatha Christie cheated. I was surprised because, after reading all her books, Roger Ackroyd sticks out in my mind as, not only her best, but the best mystery I’ve ever read. People do love surprises, and that was a great one!

    I vote for anything that surprises, and an unreliable narrator is a great tool to pull one off.

    • says

      Mystery readers expect to be fooled — to see what they need to discover the murderer but to still be surprised when the murderer is revealed. When Christie uses their unconscious expectation that the narrator is honest against them, she fools them in a completely new way. Most appreciate the creativity involved. Some feel like she’s changed the rules.

      I agree with you. I’m with the latter.

  6. says

    The narrator in Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House is unreliable, but Jackson doesn’t hide that from the reader, who sees the things Eleanor decides to fold into her personal story (she lies more and more as the story goes on). The narration also leaves doubt as to whether the supernatural phenomenon Eleanor experiences or witnesses is of her own doing, whether intentionally or not, or if it’s really of supernatural origin.

    This sets up an ambiguity in which the reader cannot be certain if Eleanor’s ultimate fate is that of a mentally disturbed woman or one haunted/possessed by the strange mansion.

    Unreliable narration is one of the trickiest tools in the writer’s kit and likely not to be used very often, so I haven’t tried it myself. It’s one thing for a reader to see the narrator believing what they want to believe, and another for the reader to think the narrator is honest.

    • says

      You’re right about it being tricky, Ruby. It’s hard enough to learn how to affect your readers directly — to convey who your characters are and what’s happening to them. To affect your readers at two different levels simultaneously — to convey not only the story your narrator is telling but the real story behind it — requires a high level of craft. You’ve got to know your stuff to be able to pull it off.

  7. says

    I’m going to be *that* reader who gripes that you didn’t start off with the unreliable narrators in the works of Edgar A. Poe (the daddy of the mystery genre). ;-)

    • says

      Actually, MIna, according to the Wikipedia Page on unreliable narrator, the technique dates back to Aristophenes’ “The Frogs.”

      • says

        I didn’t credit the unreliable narrator technique to Poe, just the mystery genre. Though perhaps it would be more accurate to say he really developed detective fiction.

        Even so, the unreliable narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart is pretty important in terms of American literature (I’m pretty sure every American kid reads this in high school, eh?) :-)

  8. says

    Gone Girl has been on the lists for months–maybe a year now?–and I’m convinced it’s partly because of this technique. Another in the suspense/thriller wheelhouse.

    I’ve been pondering micro-tension through the lens of my former medical practice. (Might do a post on this at some point.) You’ve just helped me understand why some interviews were so fraught. I’d receive information that require choosing a therapeutic fork-in-the-road, the stakes were significant, but I’d be uncertain about the narrator’s reliability. (It was rare for people to lie, but humans have enormous capacity for self-deception and often rationalize omission.) Anyway, thank you. All these years later and I’m still figuring out what went on in that world. :)

  9. Ronda Roaring says

    I’ve been thinking of writing a novel with a mentally unstable character, so I recently attended a workshop called something like “Insanity in Fiction,” which was an odd mixture of discussion about both insane characters and insane authors. The one thing I got out of the workshop was that I needed to start small. Many writers sit down in front of the computer and say to themselves, “Now I’m going to write a novel–70,000 to 120,000 words.” In this particular case, I think I’ll write a few short stories to get my fingers wet a bit and to try different approaches. Many of Agatha Christie’s novels were no longer than today’s novellas, so starting small can help a writer decide if they’ve really got a novel in them.

    • says

      Yes! Insanity is almost a subgenre within unreliable narrator. I almost used as an example one of my favorite short stories — “The Yellow Wallpaper” — in which readers slowly realize that the narrator is insane. Then there’s Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman.” Although Gogol was mocking the narrator rather than generating sympathy.

  10. says

    The unreliable narrator of Ender’s Game caught me off-guard. Orson Scott Card didn’t wait until the end to reveal his sleight of hand; he put it right in the middle. At first I was shocked. I reassess all of my prior convictions, and from that point forward, read with a wary eye–wondering whether I should trust the information, or not. It definitely added an extra layer of suspense.

    Great post, as usual, Dave. :)

  11. says

    A possible example of a narrator who isn’t a character: I never did figure out who the narrator was in Toni Morrison’s Jazz. My best guess was that it wasn’t a character — she just liked playing with POV and reader expectations. But I could be wrong …