Jul 24, 2010, 4:41 pm
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Shockingly, I’m still alive. Between beta reading, short story editing, and plotting my next novel, I just haven’t had a heck of a lot to write about.

But then I read The Hunger Games the other day, and a lightbulb went off. Especially after my last WIP, The Hands of Cally Wu, I’m very intrigued by unreliable narrators. As far as I can see, there are three types:

  1. The narrator who lies to or purposefully omits information from the reader (see: Justine Larbastelier’s Liar, or any number of first-person detective novels who hide information only to info-dump later)

  2. The narrator who is somehow manipulated into thinking or acting a certain way
  3. The narrator who makes false assumptions/is biased in some way

The first type can be easier to pull off, because you don’t always have to read between the lines – though depending on the kind of lies, their reactions, etc. you can still make it plenty complex – but at the same time risks irritating the reader. Especially if it’s a first-person narrator, it can feel like a huge cheat to realize you’re not as 100% in the character’s head as you thought.

The second and third usually go over better with readers, but are tricky to pull off in different ways. If it’s too subtle, the full impact of the later revelation that they’re mistaken isn’t as strong as it could be. If it’s too on-the-nose, the reader can easily tell they’re being manipulated into thinking a certain way.

Take Katniss’s initial feelings about Peeta in The Hunger Games, for example. At some point these feelings are so strong (without enough action on his side to justify it) that the reader already knows they’re likely false. This can be intentional – and it’s fun to see narrators go off in entirely the wrong direction sometimes – but risks making the book predictable. Just like, in a heck of a lot of books, the characters who hate each other most will likely end up as love interests.

In another example, I finished an urban fantasy novel a few weeks ago wherein Our Heroine was convinced Character X was evil. The problem: she had very little evidence to base it on. Now, with personal entanglements (like Katniss/Peeta), it’s fun to see characters flounder. When it comes to plot – not so much. I was annoyed at Our Heroine for jumping to conclusions when she could be off chasing actual leads. Even more annoyed when she had Character X beaten savagely because of her suspicions. And even more annoyed when she didn’t really seem to feel all that guilty after she was proven wrong.

I love flawed characters, but, er, there are limits.

Anyway, there were also moments in The Hunger Games when I truly didn’t know if Katniss’s suspicions about some characters were correct. This worked on multiple levels – characterization and plot – which, IMO, was a great way to keep the reader guessing and intrigued.

I’d be very interested in your thoughts on the topic, as well, if you have any to share!

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One Response to “Unreliable Narrators”

  1. Reply katey  () says:

    This is why I love first person. The thing is that in life, most people have no idea what's really going on around them until it's too late/not very useful. It's very hard to pull off, but when it's right, nothing is more fun to read.

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