Unreliable Narrators Abound in Life, Law, and Fiction

Recently I attended a talk by Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl. A week later I read The Girl on the Train. Both books are hugely popular and both feature more than one first person narrator who may be unreliable. Which led me to wonder: is that part of why readers enjoyed both books so much? And if so, why?

The Encyclopeadia Britannica offers this definition of an unreliable narrator “…one who does not understand the full import of a situation or one who makes incorrect conclusions and assumptions about events witnessed…” This may occur because the character lacks the age or capacity to understand or convey accurately what is happening, such as where she or he suffers from mental illness (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), has blackouts due to alcoholism (The Girl on the Train), or is a child (Room). Unreliable narrators can also be viewpoint characters that deliberately lie or withhold information from the reader.

This literary device is not a new one. Articles and lists on the topic usually include classics such as Lolita, Huckleberry Finn, and The Great Gatsby. But when I did a Google search about why readers enjoy such stories, most of the results were articles and posts directed at writers, not readers.
Personally, I can think of three reasons for our love of these types of stories.

First, a tale told by one or more than one unreliable narrator creates a puzzle for the reader, or adds more layers to an already-existing mystery, as in both Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. In a typical suspense novel, the reader attempts to put together what she sees and learns through the viewpoint character’s eyes to solve a mystery or guess how the plot will unfold. Adding one or more narrators who might not be telling the whole truth means the reader must assess the characters’ honesty, knowledge, and understanding, requiring more reading between the lines. This allows a higher level of reader engagement and is more satisfying for the reader who unravels one or more story questions or successfully spots misrepresentations. It can also lead to anger and disappointment if the reader feels the author didn’t play fair; for instance, by not sufficiently signaling that the narrator may not be fully truthful. (I felt this way about Presumed Innocent but, to be fair, the cues might have been there and I missed them.)

Second, on a related note, unreliable narration adds to the surprises or twists many readers enjoy in novels. By making the resolution less predictable and what actually occurred less clear, there is more room for a turn in the story that is well supported and yet still a shock. Also, revelations about how true or false a particular character’s narration is can come at different points during the book, adding to the intrigue and providing many plot turns.

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Finally, and most significant, unreliable narration reflects real life. In both reality and fiction, every narrator is unreliable to some degree, as we all see the world through the lenses of our own personal experiences, knowledge, and emotions. If that weren’t so, there would be far less conflict, and far fewer lawsuits, diminishing my work in my other life as a lawyer. Try asking two different family members who attended the same holiday gathering and had an argument to describe it. What each remembers about what was said and done will be different. And even if both remember the same words, the meaning that’s drawn from them will vary. Likewise, the courts are full of disputes where business partners discover after the fact that they had completely different understandings of contracts to which they agreed. Because no one knew what was in the other person’s mind, everything went smoothly until it was time to sell the business, or one partner wanted out, or another decided to hire his or her child as the president.

Our political process offers yet another example of this phenomenon. If you read the responses of the two major political parties to the same words spoken by the president, you might easily conclude that two different speeches were given. And one need only look at the reactions to the changes in the laws regarding health insurance to see the same effect on a personal level. I believe the new health insurance laws are wonderful for small businesses. Any number of owners of small businesses might disagree with me, starting with what counts as a small business. Right now, I’m a business of one, so I’m definitely small. But depending upon the industry, the Small Business Administration includes companies with as many as 1,500 employees as a “small business.” It’s unlikely a 1,500-employee company and I will have the same view of how a law affects our livelihoods.

And to segue to a topic more interesting than health insurance (and what isn’t), consider romance. There’s a reason He Said, She Said is the title of a 1990s RomCom and has been the basis for hundreds of thousands if not millions of books, plays, and movies throughout the ages.

So, ultimately, my take on the popularity of books with unreliable narrators is that these books more accurately reflect how we live from day-to-day. But who knows, my comments on this topic may be completely unreliable.

Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you’d like to be notified of new releases and read reviews on M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller), click here to join her email list.