An interesting post from Julie at Facets of a Muse has got me thinking about unreliable narrators. It’s a bit tricky to write such characters. On the one hand, an unreliable narrator allows the author to misdirect, build suspense, and more. It can be a very effective approach to character development. On the other hand, there has to be a credible reason the narrator is unreliable. Otherwise, the story asks for too much suspension of disbelief or relies too much on coincidence. Either way, the reader can get pulled out of the story.
In crime fiction, there are some narrators and protagonists who are unreliable because they are murderers, and they want to cover that up. Agatha Christie wrote more than one story in which the narrator or protagonist is unreliable for that reason. Her ability to misdirect readers on that score is, you could argue, part of her appeal, even after almost one hundred years. Other authors have used this strategy, too (no names or titles – no spoilers here!)
Another reason a narrator or protagonist might be unreliable is mental illness/dementia. One example of this is Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind, which features Dr. Jennifer White. At the age of 65, she’s been diagnosed with dementia, and has retired from her job as a highly regarded orthopaedic surgeon. Now, she lives with a caregiver, and, although she’s lucid most of the time, she’s starting to have lapses. Then, the woman who lives next door is murdered. The police suspect that White may be involved in the murder. The wounds bore the hallmark of someone who is medically proficient – perhaps even a surgeon. But it’s going to be difficult to interview White, let alone gather the evidence needed to convict her. What she says may or may not be useful; and, as the story progresses, so does the dementia. It’s an interesting case of the only really helpful person being unreliable.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time also features what you might call an unreliable narrator. Fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone is on the autism spectrum. He functions well enough that he can attend school (special classes) and do his own hygiene, etc.. But he does have autism, and that means he doesn’t always see the world the way the rest of us do. He’s not good at understanding social nuances, and that sometimes gives him a very skewed perception of reality. Interestingly enough, he isn’t unreliable because he’s a liar; as a matter of fact, he tells only the truth. But there is plenty that he misses, and there are other things he misinterprets. All of that gives the reader a completely different way to see things when Christopher gets accused of having killed the dog that lives next door. He knows he didn’t do that, but he doesn’t know who did, and he wants to be a detective just like Sherlock Holmes and find out. As we follow his search for the truth, we that sometimes, he sees things very clearly. Other times he doesn’t.
Children can also be unreliable protagonists and narrators. Even when children are both intelligent and truthful, they don’t have an adult’s perception or adult maturity. So there’s plenty that they misinterpret. We see that in Babs Horton’s Jarful of Angels, which takes place partly in a small Welsh town in the 1960s. One eventful summer, four children spend most of their time together. They see and hear things that are going on in town, including some things that people would very much rather they didn’t hear and see. Because they’re children, they don’t always understand what they’ve found out, and even when they do, they don’t have the maturity to really make sense of it. But they do uncover some town secrets. This storyline relates to the novel’s other storyline, which takes place some forty years later, when a retired police detective returns to his native Wales to solve the mystery of a child who went missing years before. When we learn the truth, we see that these children are unreliable protagonists mostly because they aren’t mature enough to really make sense of the world.
That’s also true of twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan, whom we meet in Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B Flat. Gwenni’s growing up in a small 1950’s Welsh village. She’s smart, somewhat of a dreamer, and curious. When one of the locals goes missing and is later found dead, Gwenni wants to know what happened. She’s especially curious because she knows the family, and has even minded their children a few times. She starts asking questions, but doesn’t always understand the things people say, nor some of the things that she finds out. And yet, bit by bit, she learns the truth about what really happened. She also learns some things about herself and her family. Gwenni’s not a liar, nor does she have a mental health issue. She’s just not mature enough yet to really make sense of what’s going on in her world.
There are other reasons, too, for which a narrator or protagonist might be unreliable. And if the author is to make that character believable, that reason has to be credible. When it’s done well, though, the unreliable narrator/protagonist can certainly add to the tension in a novel. Thanks, Julie, for the inspiration! You’ll want to visit Julie’s blog, which shares her journey as a writer, as well as some fantastic ‘photos.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Honesty.