I recently had a run-in with an unreliable narrator, a character who—either on purpose or unintentionally—leads you down the wrong path.
The narrator appeared in The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell. I thought I’d gotten the story figured out and then—bam—everything flip-flopped and nothing was as it seemed. My first reaction was: what? truly? My second was an urge to reread the book to see if clues were implanted within, to discover if I could have figured it out earlier.
And The Other Typist isn’t unique. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl has garnered hype thanks to its unreliable narrator. And so did Atonement by Ian McEwan. And the movie Shutter Island.
Sometimes the deception comes about because the narrator is outright lying. Sometimes the narrator is mentally ill and is deluded about the truth him- or herself. Sometimes the narrator is simply bragging or exaggerating or being a clown, sprinkling white lies alongside snippets of truth.
Sometimes the reader knows from the beginning the narrator is being deceitful. Sometimes they suspect it along the way. And sometimes—as in my case, with The Other Typist—the reader has no clue until the very end.
But why lead the reader astray?
To create tension. To offer a challenge. To surprise—and what a surprise it is to realize everything you’ve believed has been wrong.
(P.S. Another great example of an unreliable narrator is in We Were Liars by E. Lockhart.)