Wednesday, April 24, 2013

U is for Unreliable Narrators


Welcome to the A to Z Challenge! This is my first year participating. Basically, we post every day except Sunday, which in April means we'll finish on the 30th. We blog about something each day which starts with the corresponding letter of the alphabet. So, day 1=A, day 2=B, etc. Visit the A to Z blog for more details.

My theme is writing and related bookish things. A pretty vague theme, I'll admit, but as this is a writing/bookish blog, I thought I'd clarify. 

Today's letter: U

U is for Unreliable Narrators.

Unreliable narrators, while they can be awesome if done well, are seldom attempted and difficult to pull off. An unreliable narrator is one whose credibility is shady. While we are getting the story from their POV, they omit important things, tell half-truths, or present information to the reader in a tinted light.

This is not something I would advise attempting often. In order for the reader to relate to the character (essential in story-telling) they have to feel like the character can be trusted. If the character is unreliable, it's hard to trust them. See the conundrum?

The best story I've ever seen this pulled off in is called The Yellow Wallpaper. It's a short story often read in college literary classes--the kind where you're encouraged pick a story apart seventeen different ways and beat it to death. *Warning: Spoilers for this story coming up right...NOW* In the story, a women goes to the country with her husband to rest and recuperate from an unnamed illness. The story takes the form of her diary. She's constantly complaining about her husband, and how the doctor won't let her do what she wants. By the end, we come to understand that she's off her rocker and has literally burrowed a trench into the yellow wallpaper of the title by crawling around the perimeter of the room on her hands and knees and pushing her shoulder into the wall. (Obviously a balanced individual, no?)

The point is, the reader doesn't realize the woman is unreliable until the final page of the story and it ends up being a twisted, shocker ending.

Another example of where this is done well is in the film Fight Club. (I believe it came from a book but I've never read it. Most people have seen the film, though.) *Warning: Spoilers for this story as well. Stop reading if you don't want to know the ending!* The narrator is unreliable because even he doesn't realize he has a split personality. He leaves out important information and then only tells us near the end of the story. See a pattern there?

I really think this format is the only way to do unreliable narrators. If you do them any other way--revealing their unreliableness half-way through the story, for example, and then continuing to let them narrate--the reader won't trust them anymore. They'll either get confused or frustrated and put the book down.

Not that I'm an expert or anything. I've never experimented with unreliable narrators in my own writing, and as I said, it's done so seldom that it's hard to find it when I read either. I'm a fan of something like this when it's done well, but it IS very difficult to do well. :D

What do YOU think about unreliable narrators? Good thing or bad?


  1. unreliable narrators are wonderful storytellers. This is a great post and yes, Fight Club is a perfect example. Stopping by on the A-Z.

  2. Have you read Gone Girl? Speaking of an unreliable narrator, Gillian Flynn can weave a tale that you believe and then slap you in the face with OMG!

  3. I love The Yellow Wallpaper. I used to have my students that story just for that reason.

    And I agree with Cathrina's recommendation of Gone Girl.

  4. I love a good twist, but pulling off an unreliable narrator well in a full-length novel is tough indeed.