Thrillers And The Unreliable Narrator

by | Nov 9, 2016 | The Writer's Life | 8 comments

by Jamie Freveletti

We’re talking about weapons in novels all this week and my other Rogue Women Writers have covered just about everything and very well. Today I’ll be writing about psychological weapons.

In novels there’s a concept called The Unreliable Narrator. If you’ve read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or Paula Hawkins’ The Girl On The Train then you probably have a sense of what it means. It’s a main character in a book that tells the story from their eyes, but in a way that twists reality. You begin by believing the narrator in a story, but as it proceeds the reader begins to understand that they have been duped. That the facts as they were told them, or believed them to be, are not real. This type of protagonist in mystery and thriller novels has been dominating the best seller lists for the past couple of years.

Creating an unreliable narrator is an interesting exercise from an author’s point of view. Unlike reality, where facts exist in a physical world, the author of a novel actually creates a fictional world, and so can present the facts in any way they like in order to hoodwink the reader. The reader accepts these facts, and after a bit of time the author drops hints as the story progresses to reveal to the reader the error of their assumptions. What makes this type of narrator fascinating is the benign way that evil is presented. Usually the narrator puts on the trappings of an upstanding member of society, but that is just a cover for the darker nature of this protagonist.

The other characters in the book believe in the protagonist with a sometimes blind acceptance, though if the author makes the characters deliberately obtuse, they risk losing the reader. It can be a fine line.

To say that the Unreliable Narrator has been popular lately is an understatement. The books, including the two that I have mentioned, have been blockbuster bestsellers. If you go to Goodreads and type in the term, you will find excellent lists of books of this nature. They make for some interesting reading on the nature of a character’s ability to be led down blind alleys. Only in the end of the story, after the unreliable narrator has damaged the other characters, do the scales fall off the characters’ eyes and the truth is revealed.

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  1. John Sheldon

    Sounds like you have to walk a fine line between misleading the reader and confusing the reader.

  2. Karna Bodman

    Jamie, you have given us something to ponder and really think about as we pick up a new novel. I hadn't considered the term "unreliable narrator" – but you have pegged it perfectly. Now, when I pick up another thriller, it will be a fascinating exercise to figure out what is "real" and what is a "psychological" weapon. Thanks for posting!

  3. Jamie Freveletti

    John-yes it's a very fine line. If you mislead a reader too much when the reveal comes they will get angry (I know I do when I'm reading novels that don't do it well). Tough to do well, but interesting! I have not written such a narrator as of yet. My protagonists usually show their truth.

  4. Sonja Stone

    Jamie, this is such an interesting topic. My novels are told from multiple points of view, and though I've been tempted to try this technique, I haven't yet figured out how to incorporate an unreliable narrator. I think it would be a natural addition to espionage thrillers.

  5. Jamie Freveletti

    Sonja:I'm with you. It's a tough way to go. Haven't tried it yet.

  6. S. Lee Manning

    Always loved the unreliable narrator, although I'm more used to it from literary fiction – The Great Gatsby – than from thrillers. I also don't know if I could use it myself – but tempted to try. Not my Kolya series, but a stand alone. Great blog.

  7. Chris Goff

    I'm not a fan of the unreliable narrator. I somehow always end up feeling cheated. I definitely don't think I could write it. Great post.