Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere

Unreliable narrators and reader expectations #amreading


someone reading a book

We’ve all heard the term “unreliable narrator”. It’s what we call a character we can’t trust to tell us the truth of the story. Sometimes we don’t see the “unreliable-ness” of that narrator right away (or maybe it’s just me 😉 ), but sometimes we see it becuase a different POV character sees the world of the story in a way that feels more accurate.

Narrators can be unreliable for many reasons, from simple naivete to a highly-biased view of the world due to a mental or behavioral condition. Think multiple-personality disorder or sociopathic characteristics. Or maybe they are so jaded by their life that reality is always distorted through their lens.

I haven’t written an unreliable narrator (not intentionally, at least), but I do have characters who behave a certain way because they see the real world through a filter woven from the cloth of their life experiences. They don’t narrate, but POV characters interact with them, and their slant on the world comes through that way.

Needless to say, I haven’t read many books in which the POV character is an unreliable narrator, so I’m not familiar with how those stories work out in the end. I’ve just read a story in which one of the POV characters is unreliable in a big way, but the reader learns this early on. Once I realized the character couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth of the world the way it was, but only the way she saw it, I expected the story to work out a certain way.

Did it? Well, yes. Sort of. It was good for conflict and tension. There was the inevitable “is that really how it happened, or is that just how the character remembers it” question each time the character’s story was told from someone else’s perspective. This led to the question of a different character’s true nature. Is he really abusive, or does she just see him that way? Was her child truly sick, or was there some sort of Munchausen syndrome by proxy going on?

Which adds up to a story fraught with questions and conflict and tension. A good story overall, but at some point, I disliked the unreliable narrator so much I didn’t care what happened to her at the end. I did care about other characters and how the unreliable character’s actions affected them.

Even with the unreliable character’s potential redemption at the end of the story, I felt unsatisfied. I did see opportunities to strengthen other threads that would affect other characters a bit more, threads that could reflect facets of the unreliable character’s story and thus put more pressure on the character(s) I did like, but that part didn’t happen the way I expected. If the author had pushed that angle a bit more, would it have made the story better or worse?

As a beta reader and fellow author, how do I critique the story? If I hand the story to someone else who reads more books with unreliable narrators than I do, would the story meet their expectations?

Writing is subjective, as are all creative endeavors. There is no doubt the author is skilled. It’s the story. It’s like my appreciation for the ability of an opera singer, even though I do not like opera. I can appreciate the talent of a great actor, even if I don’t like a lot of the projects they have done. I’m one of the two dozen people who think The Great Gatsby isn’t worth more than a meh.

All I can do is share my take on the story and offer suggestions the author can either use to make adjustments, or ignore. I’m only one reader, so don’t just take my word for it. Ask that reader over there what s/he thinks about it. You’ll get a different answer for sure.

Keep calm and Write On!

What? We aren’t getting into trouble …

Author: Julie Holmes, author

A fiction writer since elementary school (many years ago), and NaNoWriMo annual participant for over a decade, I have been published in small press magazines such as "Fighting Chance" and "The Galactic Citizen". I write adult mystery with a touch of romance, mystery with extrasensory elements, contemporary fantasy, and epic fantasy, and I'm represented by the fabulous Cynthia Zigmund of Second City Publishing Services. My debut novel, "Murder in Plane Sight", has been released by Camel Press (an imprint of Coffeetown Press/Epicenter Press). In real life, I am a technical writer and empty-nester with a wonderful hubby, one cat (what writer doesn't have cats??), one dog, five chickens, and more chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits than any garden should have to deal with. My garden, our hobby farm, and Nature's annual seasons are some of my muses.

8 thoughts on “Unreliable narrators and reader expectations #amreading

  1. I think you just mentioned exactly the right solution, Julie. Simply give the writer your feedback and suggestions. As long as you’re supportive and respectful, the writer will know that everyone’s got a different take on a story. It’s for the writer to decide how to make meaning from your critique. As far as the unreliable narrator goes, sometimes those are fascinating characters. But you’re right that if they’re not sympathetic – or at least interesting! – it’s hard to engage in the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing your opinion of a story told by an unreliable narrator. I just finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale. You could say Offred was an unreliable narrator to a certain extent because she held back information from the reader. Considering secrecy was essential to survival the reader can see why she did, but still if makes one question parts of the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t personally mind characters who hold back information from the reader; that happens a lot in mystery, I think. And I’m okay with unreliable narrators, but this one in particular didn’t appeal to me for a variety of reasons. I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale (not sure I want to the way the world seems to be going, but that’s just me. The news is depressing enough).

      Happy Writing, Molly!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Everyone Is So Untrue* – Crime Writer Margot Kinberg

  4. Oh my goodness, I can’t even handle the fluffy tummy. Fluffy tummies are my Kryptonite. I so want to bury my fingers and/or face in that belly!!!!!

    Whew. Ahem, as I was saying, great post, Julie! I appreciate the tutorial on unreliable narrator, as that’s a term I’ve heard but never really understood. That sounds like a challenging writing method that is beyond me, I mean, at least, on purpose. 😛

    One more scroll up to the kitty-kitty fluff before I go…

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL! I knew you’d like that one 😀 😀 As for unreliable narrators, I agree it would be challenging. I would be more likely to have the character hold back information from the reader, which, I suppose, could be considered unreliable. This character, though, was unreliable because that’s the way the character truly was (and mental issues do come into the picture). I get it, I appreciate the craft behind it, but as a reader, she really rubbed me the wrong way.

      Another face-fluff for kitty tummies!

      Happy Writing, Betsy!

      Liked by 1 person

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