Don’t trust him! The Unreliable Narrator is out to get you!

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Like all stories, mysteries are told by narrators. Even mysteries told in the third person have a narrator, though the story is told by an omniscient narrator with a kind of ‘bird’s eye view’ of the story and its characters. But if you are reading a mystery written in the first person, the ‘I’ of the story is your narrator, and in this very intimate world of the first-person narrator, you as a reader need to be on your guard because the main mission in the life of the first-person narrator is to pull the wool over your eyes!

This is very often how the author introduces red herrings. You as the reader get drawn into the world of the first-person narrator, he or she seems nice, or maybe they are really horrid, but either way, they unfold to you the plot of the story as they see it and it all seems very plausible and it is only at the end you realise that they missed out crucial information or disguised themselves or presented events in a rather biased manner, with the intention of thwarting your attempt to solve the mystery yourself.

Maybe they are seeking to divert suspicion from themselves, or even if you know what they did and how they did it, it is important for the first-person narrator that you sympathise, even condone what they did. They deceive you with half-truths, half-lies or even simply accidental misinterpretation. The bumbling narrator is in many ways the worst. They disarm you with their apparent incompetence, they admit to being forgetful, or unsure of their facts, and all the time—all the time—they are deliberately drawing you into their web.

They might throw you off the scent by seeming to reveal some great truth; they admit to some minor sin in order to distract you from your hunt for clues. Their very openness, the revelation of their intimate thoughts, feelings and actions actually conceals greater guilt—the guilt of deception. Even worse, the author actually uses them to control your reaction to the story and how information is revealed to you. Often in an apparent display of ‘fairness’ they will actually allow the narrator’s flaw to be revealed early on in the story, in the hope that you will have forgotten it by the time the story reaches its denouement. The author manipulates your sympathy, forcing you to acquit the narrator of wrong-doing as you stand in the place of the judge and jury of the action of the story.

Now that you know this, you are forearmed, and will be on the lookout for these artful devices!

A few noted novels with unreliable narrators:

Agatha Christie’s infamous The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

Ian McEwan’s Atonement

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Who’s telling this story anyway?

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Point of View or POV is an important consideration when writing a story. Sometimes the POV is a foregone conclusion – if you want to write your autobiography, then it’s all going to be from your point of view. If it’s a book about someone else, then it’s going to be third person more often than not. Many writers like to experiment with strictly limited points of view, and this can be a huge challenge – using the second person POV will do that for you. It is quite a task to write everything based around what ‘you’ did. And choice of POV will also very often inform your choice of tense too.

I, and many others, like the first person POV. I’ve heard it said that this is the tool of a new writer, but I disagree with that. I love the first person viewpoint because it immediately plunges the reader into a more intimate involvement with the story, and hopefully, a sense of sharing in the outcome of the story too. But without the omniscience of the third person, there are a few things to bear in mind with the first person narrator.

  1. Remember to maintain consistency of tense and viewpoint. It is very easy to forget yourself and drift into a third person POV without realising you’ve done it. Keep asking yourself, but what does my character see here, what does he/she think, feel, how do they react? Are their attitudes likely to colour the way they see this or dictate a course of action? If they can’t for example, climb across a rooftop to reach the villains lair, how are they going to come face to face with their nemesis?
  2. Your reader can only know what your narrator knows and this is especially important in detective fiction of any kind – as your reader learns each new piece of information at the same time – it can feel limiting, so you will need to draw on your ingenuity to make it work. It can also be very freeing and a great way to create tension, to reveal inner motives and emotions that may not be visible ‘from the outside’. Instead of telling your reader so-and-so is grieving or depressed or miserable, you show them wondering if there’s any point in getting out of bed, or wrapping themselves in the old sweater of their dead lover because it’s the only way they can get warm. But don’t forget that if your character doesn’t know something or learn something, then neither can your reader. This also gives you a great opportunity to manipulate the reader with red herrings and misunderstandings.
  3. Your character needs to be identifiable-with for the reader. Even the hardest, meanest, evillest character needs a redeeming feature.  Make them human, make them believable. In my novel Criss Cross, my main character Cressida pours out all her woes into her journal, revealing that she is a murderer, cold, calculating, and ruthless. Yet she adores her husband, comes to adore her housekeeper and her husband, and in subsequent books, takes on more and more responsibility for making the lives of others happy. True sometimes the only way she can make people happy is by killing someone, but sometimes you’ve got to break a few eggs… And even when she’s getting ready to rush off and kill someone, she wastes time faffing about in front of her closet, wondering what to wear.
  4. Your character needs to be central to the story. Yes, I suppose they could in theory be on the very fringes of the book, but for a really satisfying read, they need to be right there in the central action of the story. Think about Agatha Christie’s unreliable narrators, and the use of James Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. But again, beware the pitfalls of telling and not showing – it’s all too easy to explain everything instead of demonstrating it.

Hopefully you’ll give it a try if you haven’t before, and quickly see that the first person point of view is challenging and freeing and a great means of getting your story out their to touch many readers.