I should start calling this the “Spoilers” series, because if you haven’t read CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein or DANGEROUS GIRLS by Abby MacDonald, stop reading this post right now. Heck, I’m not even going to tell you the real topic of discussion until you read those books. Go!
Did you read them? Okay, let’s begin…
Today’s lesson: Unreliable Narrators
I know. I didn’t even want to put the “u” word in the title and give it away. That said, I won’t reveal any major plot points from these two novels aside from the fact that their narrators can’t be trusted.
But first I should clarify that there are two ways to use Unreliable Narrators: 1) from the beginning so the reader knows or at least suspects the narrator is unreliable, or 2) as an end twist, an oh-my-gosh-that-is-what-really-happened surprise. Obviously we’re going to talk about the latter today or I wouldn’t need the spoiler warning. I don’t want to ruin books for you!
Within the two ways to use Unreliable Narrators, there are different ways a narrator can be unreliable. William Riggan wrote a book in 1981 classifying unreliable narrators into 5 main types:
- Braggart: A narrator who exaggerates or brags and thus distorts the facts of the story’s events.
- Madman: A narrator suffering from any type of mental illness that affects their perception of reality.
- Clown: A narrator who does not take things seriously and plays with conventions, truth and the reader’s expectations.
- Naif: A narrator whose perception is immature or limited.
- Liar: A narrator who deliberately misrepresents him/herself.
An important thing to note is that the first four types each have a built-in reason for being unreliable: it’s part of their personality. But the fifth type, the liar, needs a plausible reason for not letting the reader know the truth. This is especially important when writing in the 1st person. If the reader is in the narrator’s head, how can the narrator lie? Because that would mean the narrator is lying to him/herself, right? And we’d classify that kind as a Madman or Naif.
So can the Liar type be written in 1st person? Yes, and here are two examples…
CODE NAME VERITY
This novel is written in first person so you feel just like you’re in the narrator’s head, but you’re not. What’s actually happening is the narrator is writing a story for someone else, and though she’s writing it in first person, the reader is never wise to her private thoughts (i.e. that she’s lying), so it totally works! It’s a neat trick to pull on the reader – make us feel like we’re in the narrator’s mind so we don’t even suspect that what she’s saying isn’t true. This novel could have been written in the 3rd person, but then I think the reader would guess the narrator was lying due to the nature of her predicament.
In this novel, the reader is in the narrator’s head, so when I first read the end twist, I didn’t buy it. How could we not know the narrator was lying if we were privy to her thoughts? But then it occurred to me that there might be a way to do this, so I went back and reread parts of the book and discovered two crucial things:
1) The narrator never expresses remorse or claims she’s innocent except in dialogue. She never thinks she’s sorry or innocent, she only tells other characters that she is. Holy crap! I completely didn’t notice that while reading! But it’s there and makes the twist plausible because the narrator never lies to herself or the reader, just to the other characters in the story. Well played.
Okay, but there was one other thing that was bothering me – the flashbacks. These were written as if the narrator really had no idea what happened or what she did in the present. How is that possible? Well…
2) The whole novel is written in present tense, even the flashbacks. Those past scenes were told from the narrator’s POV as she experienced it back then, not now. So the narrator doesn’t have to lie in those flashbacks because she legitimately does not yet know what is going to happen. Mind blown!
So there you have it folks: two ways to make an Unreliable Liar Narrator work with a 1st person POV. Do you have any other examples? What are your favorite unreliable narrators?
More in the Reading For Writers 101 series:
– Is Your Story Ending ‘Right’?
– Character Change Can’t Come Out Of Nowhere!
– How Character Change Makes A Story More Satisfying
– What Book Jackets Teach About A Story’s “Hook”
– Books I Did Not Finish… 3+ Reasons Why
Next Up from Heather… Now I want to reread FIGHT CLUB and talk about that narrator too, but I probably won’t have time to finish it in a week. Instead, I’m figuring out the Writer’s Back-To-School To Do List.
For more posts from Heather, click here.
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