Make an Unreliable Narrator Work for You

This is a guest post by Samantha Saboviec.

I love unreliable narrators—those characters that tell you part of the story and leave you to your devices to figure out what’s actually true. Some of them lie on purpose, such as in The Usual Suspects. Some of them accidentally lie because they want you to think well of them, such as in Lolita. Some of them have no idea that they’re not telling the truth, such as in The Sixth Sense or Fight Club. But all of them have one thing in common: you, the reader/watcher, has to decide for yourself what’s true and what’s not.
I recently read a book that employed the use of an unreliable narrator, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, a YA contemporary. At the end, I was mad. Yes, mad. I felt cheated. I don’t give out one star lightly, but I finally did to this book, after contemplation and several conversations with others who hadn’t even read it.
Among other things, Liar does not employ the one thing I believe is important for the unreliable narrator: a way for the reader to discover the truth.
The beginning of the book was fun. It was a game. What’s this narrator, a self-proclaimed pathological liar, really saying? What parts of her story are true and which are made up? Have I guessed her secret or am I completely wrong?
Halfway through the book there’s a big reveal that ends up making me hate it for a different reason (namely, genre shift without warning—you can read Goodreads reviews if you’re interested in more, but I won’t spoiler it for you). Despite my “What is this train that just ran over me?” feeling, I slogged on toward the end. In fact, I was more committed to finishing it because I wanted to find out what happened. I hoped beyond hope that that this “twist” was more lies.
Nope. The ending was even more disappointing. Assuming that the narrator finally told us the truth—by telling us we shouldn’t assume something and thereby revealing what actually happened through the lens of another lie—it wasn’t fun because nothing that happened in the book previously had hinted at it. I couldn’t reframe what I’d already experience. The entire book was 100% fabricated.
The great thing about the movies and books I mentioned earlier is that at some point, you’re able to figure out the truth. Whether it’s a big reveal, like in Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, or The Usual Suspects, or a series of small claims that just can’t be true, like in Lolita, you see each scene in a different way than what the narrator wants you to see it. “Oh!” you exclaim, “so when he was in the restaurant and his wife snatched away the bill, it’s because she couldn’t actually see him!
That’s fun. That’s why unreliable narrators, especially ones who have a big secret I don’t know about the entire book, appeal so much.
It’s also why the “and then I woke up” ending doesn’t work. It’s not simply because it’s an overdone cliché in children’s stories. It’s because we don’t want to be tricked—we want to be cleverly tricked. And with Liar, we’re not cleverly tricked. We’re told everything was made up.
So, I’d like to know, what’s the point of that? A novel is a fabricated story to begin with. I want a fabricated story that I can see truth in.
Unreliable narrators aren’t easy to write, but in the end, I think well-done ones are worth it. Have you ever tried writing one? How did it turn out?
Samantha is a self-published author whose dark, thought-provoking science fiction & fantasy contains flawed, relatable characters and themes that challenge the status quo. Her first release, Guarding Angel is available at several major eBook retailers and on Amazon in paperback: Kindle | Kobo | Nook | Google Play | Paperback (Amazon) | Goodreads. The sequel, Reaping Angel, will be released in early 2016.

You can also follow her on social media: Twitter | Pinterest | FaceBook | My newsletter (No spam!).

Do you agree? Disagree?