HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Remember that game show To Tell The Truth? It was on too late for me to watch when I was a little kid but I could hear the TV in the living room as I listened from bed. I didn’t really need to see., right? Just listen. The key, remember, was to guess which of three contestants was “the real” chicken-plucker or Nobel prize winner. In fact, it had some amazing contestants: Hunter Thompson, and Garry Trudeau, and Orville Redenbacher and Gene Roddenberry. Wrong-Way Corrigan and Caroll Spinney.
ANYWAY. That show was all about lying. About being unreliable. And we loved it! Now, we put liars in our books. Or, are they really lying? Maybe they are just telling us the truth as they perceive it.
Our Obsession with Unreliable Narrators
Unreliable narrators are more popular than ever, appearing in novels from Gone Girl, to Pretty Baby, to The Girl on the Train. We enjoy having someone lie to us- at least on the page. In some cases we doubt them from page one, and in others there’s a twist in the narrative that stops us in our tracks and forces us to rethink everything that came before. It’s that uncertainty that keeps us turning pages.
Reading is the ultimate voyeur activity. You have the opportunity to crawl inside someone’s head. Reading allows you to try out, even for just a few hundred pages, what it is like to be someone else. You can imagine what it must be like to be a spy, to survive the French Revolution, or having to hide a body after an unexpected murder. But what if you can’t trust the person whose head you are in? There’s something fascinating about being inside someone’s point of view, yet still uncertain if you can put your trust in him or her.
All first person narrators have an element of unreliability. I’ve worked as a counselor and one of the first things you learn about human behavior is is that reality is always filtered through the lens of the person telling the story. There is what objectively happens, but as anyone who has read comments on Facebook knows- almost more important than what is said, is how it’s interpreted.
Narrators are often unreliable because they can’t (or won’t) admit their real motivations to others, or in some cases, even to themselves. They want to control the story so they can manipulate how they’re seen. Part of the appeal of an unreliable narrator is seeing how they twist events to fit their view of reality. As readers we recognize at some level how we’ve done that in our own lives and we want to see how the character will make sense of their actions and justifications.
Stories with unreliable narrators provide us the opportunity to “Nancy Drew” the situation, looking for clues to the real story. We pride ourselves on being able to see through the character. We filter details and weigh their importance- ultimately deciding what’s true or false. In the same way that a reader of mystery novels enjoys putting together the clues, racing to solve the crime along with (or even slightly before) the detective, readers of unreliable narrators like trying to resolve the mystery of why people do what they do.
Even if we remove the potentially sinister aspects of an unreliable narrator- the fact remains they’re fun. They’re the wild girl you knew in high school who might do anything at any moment. They’re the politician who says something and then denies ever having uttered that comment a second later with their eyes wide and innocent, leaving you questioning your own sanity. They leave you off balance, and while you may not trust them- they’re never dull.
Writers love creating these characters. It’s an opportunity to create an individual who can’t be taken at their word, who requires exploration. And if that exploration keeps readers turning pages long into the night, promising themselves just one more chapter- then I can live with that.
HAK: Yup.I just read I LET YOU GO. Whoa. And it totally got me. (Have you all read that?)
What do you all think about this “unreliable” thing? Is it new? Or is it as it has always has been--and must be?
In the tradition of Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train and E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars, this gripping, addictive thriller will blow you away.
Eighteen-year-old Jill Charron wakes up in a hospital room, leg in a cast, stitches in her face and a big blank canvas where the last 6 weeks should be. She comes to discover she was involved in a fatal accident while on a school trip in Italy three days previous but was jetted home by her affluent father in order to receive quality care. Care that includes a lawyer. And a press team. Because maybe the accident...wasn’t an accident. Wondering not just what happened but what she did, Jill tries to piece together the events of the past six weeks before she loses her thin hold on her once-perfect life.
Two friends, an exotic foreign location, the potential for revenge and jealousy, and an accident that looks like it might have been murder. It didn’t matter what the truth was - what mattered was that it was fun to talk about.
A gripping and addictive read that grabs the reader and yanks them into a world where nothing is what it seems and where everyone is a suspect. You won’t believe how it ends.