The Unreliable Narrator




I’m quite fond of this device, though I admit that in its simplest form (“and then I woke up and it was all a dream”) it has been done to death. No, I didn’t think Agatha Christie was cheating in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and I enjoyed the double-impostor twist of Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree with its narrator who misleads us delightfully by telling the truth… just, not all the truth. So I was pleased to see a new twist on this in one of the fantasy novels I’ve been reading via Kindle Unlimited, and I’ve made a note of the author for further reading.

In W.B. McKay’s Bound by Faerie the narrator is hired to retrieve a magical artifact. She’s warned in advance:

Today, however, we’d gotten word that Lou was in possession of a heavily enchanted necklace. I hadn’t been given any particulars about its power, just a strict warning not to put it on and a description.

 Of course she puts it on – what do you think? It’s part of the rules of the game, isn’t it? Psyche brings in a lamp to gaze on Cupid, Beauty picks up the only remaining spindle in the kingdom, and McKay’s Sophie Morrigan puts on the necklace, part of whose enchantment is the power to lure her into doing exactly that.

The fun is what comes after, as we see how it sneaks around and subverts her conscious mind. Immediately after putting on the necklace she escapes from the dragon’s den:

I had a moment to think, The necklace!, before I felt it thump against my chest. I didn’t remember putting it on…

 When a friend offers to help, she evades the offer:

“I’d be happy to give you a ride into the office so you can return that necklace.”

My hand jumped up to the gold around my neck. I tucked it under the collar of the sweatshirt. This was the second time he’d mentioned me returning the necklace. “I can handle it myself.”

Even when she looks in the mirror, she can’t keep her mind on the necklace:

I brushed down my shirt, like that would do anything at all, and gave myself another look. A glint of ruby caught my eye. The necklace did work with everything. My gaze drifted lower. Were boobs really that important in this equation? How much would he even look at my boobs anyway? Do heterosexual men like boobs?

If a friend comments on the necklace, she changes the subject without even thinking about it:

“That’s a nice necklace you’re wearing,” she observed.” What necklace? My hand touched the stones. Oh, right. Did she want my necklace?

“It’s all right. Are we going to be waiting much longer?”

Her mind starts rewriting history:

Lou disappearing into Faerie with the necklace had been quite a surprise. It had been so strange finding his cave empty like that—no necklace, no Lou, not even his hoard.

 My favorite part is where the folks who hired her to retrieve the necklace begin demanding to see it, and the contradictions start crashing into one another:

My phone chirped three times in quick succession. It was my boss, Hammond, asking where I was with the necklace. Confusion knitted my brow. I could have sworn I told him that it had been lost. My hand drifted up to my neck and I felt the cool touch of gold. No, that wasn’t right. I hadn’t gotten around to turning it in yet. I was busy with getting the book. Be there in 30, I tapped out. I dropped my phone on the couch and went back to my book.

A couple of hours of reading, and:

My phone chirped, announcing a text message.

Art: I don’t know what game you’re playing, but Hammond is about to have a stroke. You need to get that necklace down to MOD, now.

Me: I’m on my way.

I rolled my eyes. “So dramatic.” Another few pages…

She gets a call from her friend warning her that she’s likely to get fired if she doesn’t show up – it’s been hours now:

“You know I only care because I don’t want you to get fired, right?”

“I know, Art. I appreciate that. I’ll be there. Don’t worry.”

“Okay, see you then. Bye.”

“Bye.” I dropped the phone on the couch and picked up the book again.

Okay – that’s more than enough to give you the flavor. There’s plenty more going on in the book, and I’m definitely going to pick up the sequel next time I’m in the mood for fantasy. It’s the start of a seven-book series, so there’s room for a lot more entertainment and surprises in the future.

And, of course… being as low and dishonorable as any other writer… I’m already thinking What could I do with this idea? How come I’ve never used an unreliable narrator? What would my gimmick be?

I can promise you that the next book in the series I’m currently writing will not feature an enchanted MacGuffin that causes the narrator to hang on to it desperately while simultaneously thinking that she never acquired it. But there are so many other ways to pull it off…

What have you done with an unreliable narrator?

Or what would you like to do?



24 thoughts on “The Unreliable Narrator

  1. In my story The Night My Father Shot the Werewolf, accepted for publication in an upcoming Superversive anthology, the narrator is a third-grade boy who tells more than he sees, or rather, doesn’t connect all of the dots he’s laying out for the (presumably adult) readers.

    As I see it, any first-person narrator is potentially unreliable, and that veracity is part of the author’s job to create in developing the narrator as a character.

    1. Yep – somebody who doesn’t connect all the dots is great, you draw the reader into the story by inviting them to make those connections.

    2. I remember as a child putting together things given to me by an adult, and being told that I had drawn probably correct conclusions that they hadn’t noticed before.

  2. I have a story I’ve set aside (I don’t have the skill to pull it off just yet) where the Narator is largely reliable, but that’s a problem, because the world around her is NOT. Certain people are messing with reality and she notices the discontinuities, and often draws improper conclusions because she’s the only one who seems to notice. (As far as she can tell.)

  3. I had a semi-unreliable narrator in “The Golden Road” – a very callow, impulsive teenaged cow-hand, in Gold-Rush era California. He noticed certain things, but was oblivious to what they hinted at or meant, until certain realities grabbed him by the collar and shook him vigorously to make him pay attention.

  4. The narrator of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd made a point of being scrupulously honest! They also made a point of pausing their recollections just before things got extra interesting. 🙂

    1. …I always found the second part of C.S. Lewis’ TILL WE HAVE FACES to be fascinating, because as far as Orual knew during the first part, she -was- being accurate and reliable. The second part proves this was not so not by revealing secret information but by having her own perspective widened.

      1. Yes. There are substantial differences between the narrator who’s trying to be honest, but lied to himself first, and the one who’s lying to the reader.

        I note that unless there’s a clue or two that the narrator is unreliable, or else a strong note that the character is telling this story (not just the “change all the third-person pronouns to first”) and therefore picking and choosing, an unreliable narrator may hit the reader not as a plot twist, but as an unreliable author.

  5. One of these days I’m going to write a story in which the protagonist is give a strange box with dire warnings to never open it, and *he never opens it*. He sticks it on the back shelf of the closet and forgets all about it. I’ll never mention it again for the rest of the story.

    1. I’m not sure if Chekhov would be spinning in his grave or applauding you, but that would be great!

    2. Fairy tales often have situations where you obey the rules and that’s how you get into trouble. Not so often as breaking them, to be sure.

    3. This is one of the little things that made me love the webcomic Digger. “If I gave you a box and told you that it must never be opened, no matter what circumstances, what would you do?”

      “Encase it in concrete. Probably in the foundations of a public works projects; those never get torn down.”

  6. I think unreliable narrators are a continuum, rather than a clear cut device. As J J Griffing observed above, all narrators are going to have their own preconceptions and idiosyncrasies of perception.

  7. A great example of an unreliable narrator comes from Alistair Maclean’s Bear Island. It becomes obvious that the narrator isn’t being totally honest with the other characters, leading the reader to wonder what his real agenda is. I’d love to do something that well.

  8. Laura Ingalls Wilder has a narrative of Christmas in … I think … The Little House on the Prairie where the little girl believes that Mr. Edwards saw Santa Claus and the grownups know something different. The little girl wonders why they are crying.

  9. Perhaps the ultimate I’ve seen is John C. Wright’s IRON CHAMBER OF MEMORY.

    (spoiler alert)
    You’re several chapters in before you realize that–for reasons already nicely explained–you’re dealing with an *unreliable third person omniscient narrator*! And he makes it work!

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