The Problem with Unreliable Narrators

There are trends in storytelling, which spawn imitations. J.K. Rowling’s success with wizards led to a rash of similar books. Fifty Shades of Grey lubricated the thrust of mummy porn. More recently, there have been a host of novels with unreliable narrators, the best-known being The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl.

Unreliable narrators have been around for ages, in such classics as Lolita, Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby and The Catcher In The Rye. What goes around comes around, but I’ve found the recent novels told through the POV of a severely compromised narrator to be poorly written. This hasn’t stopped them selling in their millions, with film adaptations.

I had to force myself through The Girl on the Train, just to see what happened in the end. It’s not just me being grumpy, as others have criticised Paula Hawkins’ abilities.

Image result for novel the girl on the train

She’s got a new novel out, Into The Water, which I haven’t seen a good review of yet. Critics’ unfavourable opinions won’t stop it becoming a bestseller, that also gets adapted into a Hollywood film. It’s galling to realise that novels which become popular only do so because readers are intrigued by the concept, not caring about the skill of the writing and that they buy a book because all of their friends have—it’s a social phenomenon—never mind the quality, feel the width.

For me, the main problem with Paula Hawkins’ and Gillian Flynn’s unreliable narrators was that I didn’t care what happened to them, or to the characters they interacted with, as most of them were weak, irritating and nasty too. Overall, I finished these bestsellers feeling depressed for the human condition.

I’ve written using an unreliable narrator in just one of my novels, so far. The Perfect Murderer was told from a multiple POV, including the detective protagonist, his team, a pathologist and the suspects they were hunting. One was a serial killer, whose bizarre slayings aroused the bloodlust of an unsuspected career murderer, a retired chief of detectives who’d murdered a harden criminal every year for forty years. He was a member of the establishment, and the hardline views he expressed about crime didn’t suggest that he’d been taking things into his own hands. I differentiated between his thoughts and those of the serial killer by calling the latter the killer’ and the old copper the murderer’.

I thought this device was obvious and guessable, so was pleased when my three readers were shocked at the twist in the tale. The copper’s ramblings and his homicidal campaign of retribution were caused by a brain tumour, which he escaped by committing suicide before he was arrested. Although he was a difficult man to like, and severely flawed, I managed to make him sympathetic.

How do you handle unreliable narrators?

Image result for charles palliser quote unreliable narrator

Charles Palliser

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *