I think the use of an unreliable narrator is a pretty interesting way to tell a story.
So I wanted to have a think about what kinds of unreliable narrators exist, to see if I could get my head around how to use them. It made me realise there are two different types of unreliable narrator:
Aren’t stories the best? There really is an endless supply of possibilities within stories, and I find that pretty damn exciting!
Spoilers ahead for: The Dark Knight / The Hounded by Simon Butters
Two Types of Unreliable Narrator
Basically, is your character lying to your audience?
Or are they lying to themselves, and thus lying to your audience unintentionally?
To dig a little deeper into the first idea, I am going to use a truly classic example that pretty much everyone will be probably be familiar with.
A Character That Lies.
The character of the Joker in the Dark Knight Batman movie is a character that lies.
Like I have mentioned in a previous post (which can be read HERE), it is a great idea to humanise your villain. Villains need to be given a reason to be so villainous. It makes them more real, more complex, and more compelling. By displaying a vulnerability beneath a terrifying exterior, I believe it makes your villain much more interesting and effective.
So I wasn’t surprised when the Joker says his famous line:
‘Do you want to know how I got these scars?'
The Joker proceeds to tell a completely disturbing (and kind of sad) story that starts giving the audience an idea of why the Joker is the way he is. By telling this Tragic Backstory (which I also covered in a previous post, which can be read HERE). the writers of this movie managed to make their audience begin to feel a little sympathy for the Joker.....
Until........ the Joker pulls out this exact same line later in the movie: ‘Do you want to know how I got these scars?'
And then tells his audience a completely different story.
I absolutely love this scene because it is such a great twist, the writers cleverly making it clear that whatever we thought we knew about the Joker was nothing compared to who he really is. And it ties into the theme of this entire movie: Some men don’t need a reason. They just want to watch the world burn.
So I thought it was pretty clever use of a character that lies.
A Character That Lies to THEMSELVES.
My other example will be less well-known, and is taken from a young adult novel I read recently, by a South Australian author named Simon Butters. His book is called ‘The Hounded’ and was a pretty interesting and totally dark reading experience.
Now the protagonist of this book (written in the first person) is called Monty.
He is an uncomfortable and unattractive teenager, and he draws us deep into his mind as he begins to describe his daily life.
One of the most interesting things about this story to me, was how Monty describes his daily routine, which involves allowing himself only the smallest morsels of food. The character describes it as if he is punishing himself through choosing to restrict his daily intake of food, but he also says very very clearly that it is definitely not an eating disorder, and that he could eat if he wanted to.
He just chooses not to, because of his set of reasons.
And at first when I was reading this novel, I was like.... oh okay. So he doesn’t have a problem. He’s just doing this weird thing for whatever reason.
Because Monty believed he didn’t have a problem, he made his reader also believe he didn’t have a problem.
Except after awhile I realised this character was completely fucked!
He was starving himself. His hair was falling out. His body was only bones. He was fainting and having brain fades and he was utterly destroying himself.
And because he told me he wasn’t.... I just believed him.
A perfect example of a character lying to himself, and thus presenting readers with a lie.
As readers, I think we are naturally inclined to believe in our narrator. We are predisposed to automatically believe that what a story presents to us as truth.... must be the truth.
Which I guess is actually an opportunity as an author to play with your reader’s expectations.
Because the more you understand about the impression you are giving your readers through your character’s statements (or state of mind) the easier it is to then turn that on its head and completely surprise them.
So....... like a character twist I guess!
(Wow, I am really tying in all my previous posts to this one! You can read my thoughts on Character Twists HERE.)
So anyway.... I found that topic extremely interesting.
Have you written an unreliable narrator before? Or do you plan to?
As always, I would LOVE to hear your thoughts!!