The unreliable narrator has become a staple in fiction. But when it comes to novels, why would people turn to someone they know they can't really trust? We asked best-selling author Kaira Rouda, whose latest novel features a memorable unreliable narrator, to offer some insights into why readers are drawn to the unreliable.
Some of my favorite works of fiction feature unreliable narrators: classic novels like The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. In The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, my all-time favorite, Nick Carraway tells the reader from page one that he’s an objective observer, meaning most likely he isn’t. And today, psychological thrillers with unreliable narrators continue to be a significant trend in fiction. Consider the book that started the latest phase, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which has not one but two unreliable folks who happen to be married to each other. Nick and Amy were once in love, we think. And then there’s The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, featuring Rachel, an alcoholic, unemployed divorcee who commutes into London each day because she doesn’t want to admit she’s lost her job. Her story is sad, of course, but what draws us in is that we readers root for Rachel even as the horror of what is truly happening unfolds.
On the surface, some readers might not find such protagonists relatable, but at their core, these characters offer dramatic representations of an impulse that many of us do feel: an impulse to change or tweak or lie about our own personal stories, whether we’re comfortable admitting it or not. We tell friends that “everything’s fine” when we’re hurting. Maybe we don't want them to worry. Maybe we're embarrassed. Maybe we're scared to let ourselves show vulnerability. We soften the truth about real life for our children, or brag about things we don’t really have to our peers. The end result is the same: to some degree, we are misrepresenting our lives to those around us. And on a visceral level, even if we’re not aware of it, we recognize this impulse in unreliable narrators in fiction.
Today, social media provides an accessible platform for us to unreliably narrate our own lives. We can more easily filter and curate what others see or understand, since social cues like body language and tone of voice, which others might use to discern the truth, are manufactured or lost when we post online. And maybe we’re even aware when others misrepresent the truth on their social media accounts, but we Like or Retweet their posts anyway. The opportunity to share our selves and our worlds with a massive audience and to do so within seconds, allows us—maybe even pressures us—to hide behind more pleasant illusions, and perhaps even start to believe them ourselves. Like the narrators of our favorite psychological suspense novels.
I hope that’s what readers feel when they pick up my novel Best Day Ever. Paul Strom, the creepy protagonist of Best Day Ever, believes he’s the perfect husband, a loving father, and a successful businessman. He promises his wife, Mia, the first day of their romantic weekend together will be the best day ever. They’ve been married for years, though. Does she still believe the illusion? I hope you’ll read Best Day Ever to find out.
-- Kaira Rouda
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