An unreliable narrator can add an interesting dynamic to your story, up the tension and when done well, leave readers debating their impressions of a character long after the final page.
In this post we’ll be talking about what makes unreliable narrators potentially unlikable to readers, how to use this strategy effectively in your writing, and discuss The Maid by Nita Prose as a case study for the unreliable narrator. If you haven’t yet read The Maid, I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers.
Why do some readers dislike unreliable narrators?
Unreliable narrators are most often used in first person point of view stories, where a character either intentionally, or unintentionally misleads the reader to varying degrees. Their success at misleading can vary, but an unreliable narrator can be identified when the readers realises they cannot necessarily trust the interpretation or presentation of events, as told by the narrator.
There are different kinds of unreliable narrators, but can generally be broken into two camps. Those who are intentionally unreliable, or those whose unreliabity is unintentional.
Narrators that outright lie to the reader, or exaggerate to their own benefit, are generally not well-liked by readers. Trust is something that is expected generally between reader and character, and when a narrator acts in this way the reader can feel on guard or like there’s been an unspoken breach in the usually sacred relationship.
But similarly, unintentional unreliable narrators can cause disappointment or confusion in the reader. Yet they can also invoke a level of protectiveness in the reader. Perhaps the character is inexperienced, or clearly applying too much generosity to those they encounter and the reader knows this.
The degree to which the unreliablity is intentional or not, is often the root of the discussion of if a narrator is liked or not (and let’s be clear, not all characters have to be likable). Because people, and therefore readers, generally don’t like being lied to. We’re more willing to engage and like a narrator who didn’t realise they were unreliable, or who are repentant in some way, over a character who is an outright liar. But the greyness of this, and the difficulty of determining makes unreliable narrators some of the most fascinating characters to consider.
How to use an unreliable narrator well in your book?
Some genres seem to be more suited to an unreliable narrator. Thrillers, mysteries and literary fiction most often use this technique, because of the ‘off-kilter’ or ‘jarring’ effect it has on the reader. But that’s not to say you can’t explore using an unreliable narrator in other genres.
Tips for effective use of an unreliable narrator:
- You need to know what the “truth is” versus what your character presents/thinks is the truth. This way you can play around with how much knowledge you reveal to your readers and when. An unreliable narrator can make for some great plot twists as you play with keeping your readers in the dark.
- What kind of unreliable narrator is your character? Liar, innocent, exaggerator, or a blend?
- How do you want readers to perceive your narrator? Do they know they’re unreliable from the start, is there an escalation, or is it revealed deeper in the book? Generally, unreliable narrators are best applied from the start of the book, whether the reader realises it or not. The point/s of revelation (for the reader) can be a key moment in the book.
- How unreliable are they? Even usually reliable narrators can have moments where they get it wrong—what lie does your character believe and present to us as truth? Having these moments make your character feel more realistic and interesting, as most people get it wrong sometimes.
Case Study: The Maid by Nita Prose
The Maid by Nita Prose is one of my favourite mystery reads from 2022. The book follows Molly Gray, a maid in the esteemed Regency Grand Hotel. She prides herself on completing her job to perfection and restoring order to every room she cleans.
She used to be able to rely on her Gran to help her navigate life’s complexities, but she’s since passed on. So when Molly finds herself in the centre of a police investigation into the murder of one of the Regency Grand Hotel’s guests, she’s at a loss. Gaining new friends, she must try and unravel the deception, before she goes down for a crime she didn’t commit.
Is Molly An Unreliable Narrator?
Most conversation that has centred on this book has related to the discussion of the portrayal of Molly Gray as someone who is neurodivergent. There’s been fair critique from those with lived experience, that the characterisation of Molly is a simplistic view of neurodivergence.
I think that’s a fair point to discuss, especially when we consider that Molly Gray is definitely an unreliable narrator.
From very early in the book we see that she often misinterprets events and social interactions with those around her. But at this point in the book, she’s not unlikable. We understand that it seems she’s just in need of some assistance to correctly interpret what’s going on. We see other characters such as her Gran, and later her friends, fulfil this role of helping Molly interpret (narrate) events accurately.
Where things become grey, is when we as readers discover that Molly is actually very capable of misleading others, in particular through omission. I think this is where the end of the book is highly controversial (I won’t get into spoilers)
Through Molly being revealed being both an unintentional and intentional unreliable narrator, it forces readers to confront those uncomfortable feelings discussed earlier. They may not want to dislike Molly, because throughout the book she is positioned as somewhat of a helpless victim (which is where much of the issue of her representation stems from) and yet, she is capable of betraying readers who have felt so firmly on her side throughout the novel.
Through her agency in deception, she is made more complex. Even as problematic as some of her representation is, I’m glad that there’s a sense that there’s a deeper level to Molly which is not revealed until late in the piece. All people are complex and capable of being more than one thing, and I do think Prose has executed an effective and engaging read as a result of how she’s implemented this literary device. It also forces the reader to question if they, like many of the other characters in the book, have written off Molly’s capacity due to her evident neurodivergence. It’s a slight change of the dynamic, but the distinction is very important.
If you haven’t read The Maid yet, I’d recommend checking it out. It’s an engaging read for the mystery lover and gave me Only Murders In The Building vibes in the best way possible.
What books do you love that use an unreliable narrator? Let me know in the comments.
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