Have you ever read a story from the villain’s point of view? Ever tried to write one? What about a narrator that doesn’t tell the reader all of the truth? The narrator may not lie, not really, but they may not tell the reader everything that they know…
An unreliable narrator is just as it sounds — a narrator that the reader cannot rely on to tell all that they know. Narrators, either in first or third person, typically are the reader’s eyes into the world of the story. We see what the narrator sees, hear what they hear, remember what they remember. The narrator’s emotions are, generally, what the reader is supposed to feel while following the narrator through the story. This empathy is what keeps a reader invested in the book.
It’s difficult for a reader to empathize with the narrator if the narrator is unreliable.
Figuring out near the end of the book that the narrator suddenly knows something the reader did not or drops the act that the narrator had been performing throughout the novel can be a risky move. On one hand, having an unreliable narrator can keep the reader in suspense — to suddenly have the narrator reveal a grander plan than the reader originally knew can keep the thrill of the story going…
Or it can jolt the reader out of the story, citing that the narrator has gone out of character. It can also annoy the reader to have this narrator that we’ve been emotionally invested in suddenly change. Any empathy the reader had gets thrown out the window.
Then, of course, there are unreliable narrators that are played straight — a character that may have split personality disorder, that may have a troublesome memory, that may be known as a chronic liar. The readers ideally keep reading to see what is going to happen to the narrator, to figure out for themselves what is the truth or not.
Have you read any stories with unreliable narrators? Any really well-written ones, or did the narrator’s unreliability turn you off from the story?