There has long been a discussion of whether or not a reliable narrator in fiction is something that truly exists. Since humans are prone to biases and judgment, a purely reliable narrator just isn’t possible. Rather, degrees of reliability in literature might be a more realistic conversation. Literature, especially thrillers, often dabble in the many vices that most affect reliability: drugs, alcohol, and lust, to name a few—and therefore we see a lot more unreliable narrators in the genre.
Point of view can often be an indicator of what to expect from your narrator, setting you up to either trust them or be a bit more weary. First person has the most potential to lean towards unreliability due to the fact that the readers are in the main character’s head, working through the character’s emotions as they come.
How someone interprets their experiences can be the opposite of the neutral truth of a scene. For instance, in a first person novel, a main character could glance across the bar at a handsome stranger making eyes at them. They’re flattered and boom, a crush ignites. Little do they know, this handsome stranger might be glaring at them in annoyance, or zoning out completely as they think about something entirely unrelated. If the main character goes home and gushes about the man to her friend, does that make her unreliable and delusional, or are humans just prone to misinterpret and jump to conclusions?
A tight third point of view can be just as open to narrative unreliability as first. This point of view can give readers the same internal emotion they’d get from a first person point of view, all the while the third person point of view might lull the reader into a sense of trust, making it even easier to not realize the unreliability of the narrator.
Some might say that an unreliable narrator can make too much work for a reader, but I would argue that in thrillers, fans of the genre might find it exciting. Thriller readers love to try to suss out the twist right from the get-go. I would argue that an unreliable narrator adds a new, and sometimes enjoyable layer of challenges for readers digging deep for clues. Truths are rarely black or white, so why should our books be?
Unreliable narrators are often deeply troubled, waffling back and forth with their own struggles with morality or what it means to ‘behave well.’ This offers readers a chance to grapple with their own standards. Every time the narrator does something troubling and completely out of pocket, it provides either the shock value of “I’ve never done that and never would!” or the bittersweet comfort of, “Oof, been there, done that.” Hopefully the latter doesn’t involve murder, but you get the point.
Of course, most readers are familiar with the unreliability and sheer messiness of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. The latter, like the often-drunk main character of Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10, dial in on how addiction and substance use can warp the perception of our characters, or at least cause the readers and other characters to not trust them.
Thrillers are rife with substances, especially alcohol, but does that mean every character who has a drink or toke is unreliable? Substances can be artfully wielded by a writer to play with a character’s and reader’s sense of reality, but it can also be cheaply used to obfuscate the truth with a conveniently timed black out. Writers have to be honest with themselves about whether or not the substances are being used to tape together a potential plot hole, or if the substance use is adding depth to a complicated character, like the famous substance-heavy novels previously mentioned.
As a reader, it would be wise to not fall into the trap of immediately writing these characters off as unreliable. It would be unfair to deem a character untrustworthy or delusional from a bit of recreational dabbling, so it’s up to the reader to determine based on their level of intoxication and type of substance used. I’d be more likely as a reader to not trust a character’s perception or judgment if they’re on psychedelics rather than if they’ve taken a prescription pill or had a glass of wine.
This all being said, I do firmly believe that there is such a thing as a cheap shot when it comes to unreliable narrators. Their unreliability has to be consistent throughout or at least built up to, like a gradual collapse of ethics or sanity. Otherwise, as a reader, it can feel like a betrayal—and not the fun, twisty way us thriller readers love—but like a bald-faced lie or slimy trick. It would be unfair for a character to be an even-keeled, kind person, only to wildly pivot at the end in a grand reveal of the character’s malfeasance. It’s a delicate dance where writers have to respect the reader, even while they try to scare the daylights out of them.
I recently had the pleasure of reading Benjamin Stevenson’s Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone, which takes the respect for the reader to an entirely new and witty level. The narrator immediately breaks the fourth wall and informs the reader that there will be no cheap shots or unreliable narrators in the book, even going so far as to tell you on which pages there will be murders. It was a brilliant celebration and critique of the thriller genre and an enjoyable way to poke fun at the common pitfalls of mystery and thriller writing. Despite this, Stevenson managed to provide a satisfying twist, showing that a hyper-reliable narrator can still be full of surprises.
This book was refreshing from both the perspective of a writer and a reader. When I started writing suspense in 2019, I got into a serious reading slump in my genre. To read them became more of a study of my fellow writers’ craft, and I found I’d sucked the fun out of it. To combat that, I’ve worked to make myself a gullible reader, meaning I turn off the detective part of my brain and allow myself to be moved through the story. And usually this means that I believe every little detail told to me by the characters. It can be hard at times to stay in this impressionable headspace, but this forced naivety makes it far more fun, especially when there are unreliable narrators.
As a writer I enjoy the flexibility of an unreliable narrator, especially one under the influence. It allows me to play a bit more with reality, push heightened emotions, and quick shifts of tone with some potentially inappropriate reactions. It’s all about personal preference in the end, but I encourage readers to allow themselves to be a gullible reader every once in a while and follow the unreliable narrators along in their wild, often inaccurate journeys.