Lying Is The In Thing

Recently I finished Gone Girl. For those who haven’t read it, neither of the main characters are likable. Interesting maybe, but not likeable. But what intrigued me with the story was the whole unreliable narrator thing.

Image courtesy of
Stuart Miles

Unreliable narrators can’t be trusted. They maybe lie, with-hold information or misrepresent what’s happening, but we the readers might not realize it until we get further into the book.
It’s an unusual concept to me, and I was curious about other books with unreliable narrators.
When I did a Google search, some of the well-known books that pop up are Lolita, American Psycho, and Fight Club—none of which I’ve read.
There were a few on the lists I have read: Catcher in the Rye and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but I read those so long ago, I don’t really remember much about them.
I’m curious though, and plan to read more about these scheming and deceitful characters. As a writer, I want to know what those authors do to make these liars likeable. From what I’ve seen, it’s not an easy thing to do.
And I’ll probably start with Fight Club—I loved the movie after all.
Have you read any books with unreliable narrators that you really enjoyed? Do you like the whole unreliable narrator concept?

6 Responses

  1. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Gone Girl…but I found it interesting that they chose to make the male character MUCH more likable than he was in the book. Or maybe it’s just hard to dislike Ben Affleck. But you never really saw Ben Affleck as a killer in the movie…and the Amy character wasn’t likable at all, even in the beginning, to me. As a result, one of my friends who saw the movie without reading the book didn’t think the big twist in the middle was a twist at all…I found that interesting. I think Hollywood couldn’t deal with an unreliable narrator so they watered Ben Affleck’s character down. As I recall, they kind of did that with Fight Club, too, didn’t they?

  2. I’m more familiar with the “unreliable narrator” thing from film school than books. I like it as a concept, but in execution it does require finesse. For me, I still want to be able to like/root for a character. An interesting and quirky character is fine, but with Gone Girl, I more or less wanted everyone to die or go to jail or whatever. I found them so frustrating. Not because of the lying but because I wanted to see some kind of justice done against characters I didn’t like.

    I watch something like Sherlock, and in that case Moriarty is the unreliable character, but I don’t want him to die or go to jail, even though he’s a villain, because he’s too fun for that. I want him to stick around. He adds flavor.

    I agree with Stephanie comment that they make Nick much more likable in the movie. Not because Hollywood can’t do unreliable narrators (they do), but because it can’t do a movie in which the audience hates EVERYBODY. There has to be what we in the biz call a “sympathetic character.” Someone the audience identifies with and basically lives the movie through. An entrance point. Your main character is the door through which the audience enters the film, so it needs to be an inviting door. With Fight Club (and I didn’t read that book), they make Ed Norton the sympathetic character, and it isn’t until later you realize he’s not reliable. Then you have to look back and wonder whether he’s likable after all, given that he’s also Brad Pitt and did all that other stuff.

    I could go on, but I won’t. It really comes down to likability vs. reliability. Does making a character less reliable make them less likable? Not necessarily. And yet we do seem to naturally assume unlikable characters are unreliable. That’s just human programming.

  3. There are plenty of subtle unreliable narrators out there too. For example, the narrator of “My Antonia” isn’t exactly totally on the up-and-up.

    Then again, pretty much any narrator of any Edgar Allen Poe story shouldn’t be trusted. (Tell-Tale Heart, Cask of Amontillado come to mind.)

  4. Great post. This is a fun idea which would take great skill. I once wrote a very dark character and wanted to make him likeable, one of my critiques suggested he stand up to his dad who was the evil. I brought in a butterfly to come between them. One wants it to live the other thinks nothing of crushing it. It was a simple action that changed the next readers perspective about my dark character. So it’s very small things that make us curious enough about these unlikeable characters. That’s my theory. But now I’m gonna have to go through these books and find these moments to be sure. lol.

  5. now now. why start reading fight club when you can DO fight club. the first rule: we won’t tell anyone we are about to do fight club. second rule: we will not do fight club. third rule: we will actually just end up reading fight club. fourth rule: stop making rules.

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