Lies, Damned Lies and the Unreliable Narrator

Lies seem to be flavour of the month, don’t they? [Can’t think what made me light on that, can you?] I can’t match Dame Isadora on lies, but I found myself thinking about lies in fiction and what they say about the characters. And, sometimes, the readers, too.

Lies and Integrity?

Don’t know about you, but the heroes and heroines I write have to be people of integrity. Does that mean they can’t tell lies, though?

Um. Well, no. Not exactly.
It depends…
Right and Wrong aren’t necessarily clear or straightforward choices.
This graphic below is possibly a bit misleading?

sign with right and wrong

Image by tumisu from Pixabay

It depends on why the character is lying. If A N Other has been backed into a corner, and then tells lies to save his own skin, it’s not exactly noble, is it?

But if, say, characters are lying because they have to maintain a cover story as a spy for their country? I’d say that’s a different kettle of fish.
It’s probably justified. And it may even be noble and heroic.

For example, the heroes of my spying quartet, The Aikenhead Honours, had to do their duty in various glamorous locations around Europe, places like St Petersburg, Vienna and Paris. And they were risking their own lives while they did it. They even had to lie to the women they were coming to love which led to terrible crises of conscience.

Aikenhead Honours Quartet by Joanna Maitland

Their conflicts were resolved in the end, though, I promise. They each had their HEA. And in my opinion—feel free to disagree—all four heroes remained men of honour and integrity.

In spite of the lies they were telling.

You may remember that Sophie blogged about issues around long-term liars a while back. She covered it in more depth than I can here.

Lies and damned lies…

Young Couple Holding Hands Sensually On Red Silk Bed.Let’s take a fictional for instance…

Anne, full of doubt, asks her fiancé Ben if he really loves her. “Of course I do,” he protests without hesitation. But he’s lying. He’s fallen in love with Anne’s best friend, Claire. Lying to Anne is a dreadful and cowardly thing to do.

Ben is a villain. It’s a damnable lie, isn’t it?

Or is it? What if Anne has terminal disease? Ben is trying to make her last weeks more bearable by pretending that he still loves her. So yes, it’s a lie, but is it a good lie?

Where is the judgement line between Right and Wrong here?

gavel balance judgement integrityDoes it depend on Ben’s motives for lying? Was his lie truly just to save Anne pain?
Or was it to save himself from the embarrassment of admitting the truth to Anne?

The examples above assume that the author shares the liar’s motives with the reader. So, for example, readers of the Aikenhead Honours know more or less from the outset that the Aikenhead brothers are spies. And if you were writing Ben’s story, you might well show his inner turmoil over telling lies to Anne.

The Unreliable Narrator

But there’s another way. The unreliable narrator.The link takes you to a Wikipedia article that contains some erudite stuff on what an unreliable narrator is. But I’d  say that an unreliable narrator is one who tells lies to the reader, who withholds information from the reader, who deliberately misdirects the reader into taking a wrong path. Some readers will reassess such a story at the end and accept the narrationThe Murder of Roger Ackroyd Cover. Others will feel cheated.

Take, for example, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In 2013, the Crime Writers’ Association voted it the best crime novel ever. It has certainly been very influential.

[Spoiler alert! If you haven’t read it and think you might want to, don’t read on.] 

In the last chapter, it is revealed that the first-person narrator, Dr Sheppard, who has been acting as Poirot’s assistant, is actually the murderer. He has used clever narration to mislead and misdirect the readers without ever actually telling lies. For example, he says, “I did what little had to be done,” implying proper actions at the murder scene, when what he was actually doing was tampering with the evidence to protect himself.

Fair? Christie certainly thought that it was. Many reviewers agreed. I’m one of those who felt cheated, though I agree that the writing is very clever. But other readers will make up their own minds.

Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine CoverA more recent example of the unreliable narrator is in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine which won the Costa Debut Novel Award in 2017. It’s had rave reviews and sold millions of copies.

[Spoiler alert again! If you haven’t read it and think you might want to, don’t read on.] 

It’s another first-person narrative. In this case, we have an unwitting unreliable narrator. Childhood trauma has blocked out Eleanor’s memories. She appears to believe the reality she has created, including her weekly phone calls with her controlling and abusive mother. In fact, her mother had died in the house fire she set to dispose of her two daughters. Only Eleanor, aged 10, survived.

Do readers root for the Unreliable Narrator as protagonist?

Woman reading. Will she accept protagonist's lies?Unreliable narrators come in various guises.

Christie’s Dr Sheppard, mentioned above, comes across as a decent, upright, dedicated man. He has a sense of humour. He tries to restrain his sister’s harmful gossiping. He’s the kind of character readers can easily identify with and root for.

Eleanor Oliphant seems flakey from the start of the book. Her work colleagues call her “mad”. She has no friends and she spends her weekends alone with two litres of vodka. I found most of the book thoroughly depressing. I could not root for her, though I know that other readers disagreed.

At the very end of Honeyman’s book, Eleanor goes from unappealing misfit to a woman who is vaguely hopeful of a future where she can come to terms with her traumatic background. As a reader, I felt that the small ray of hope in the last few pages did not compensate for having to read reams of misery. cartoon villain who tells lies

At the end of Christie’s book, Dr Sheppard goes from sympathetic protagonist to devious murderer. As I reader, I felt conned.

I may be in a minority of one, but I find the unreliable narrator approach unattractive.

However, it did raise an interesting question of writing craft. Is it possible to write an unreliable narrator in the third person?

My gut reaction is that it has to be first person. In a third-person narrative, the narrator would be the author and the lies and misdirection would be coming directly from author to reader. That, I contend, would break the tacit contract between author and reader. In a first-person narrative, by contrast, it can be part of that character’s persona that they lie, deceive, misdirect. The author is one step removed.

But I may be quite wrong about that. Perhaps you know of third-person stories with an unreliable narrator as protagonist? Perhaps you’ve written one? If so, do please share.

22 thoughts on “Lies, Damned Lies and the Unreliable Narrator

  1. Kate Johnson

    I did lie a little in Max Seventeen, where the hero slightly misrepresents his motivations and…er, loyalties, to the reader. To be totally honest, I didn’t know he was lying until he told me.

  2. lesley2cats

    Love that, Kate!

    Interesting blog, Joanna. I’m off down Google’s rabbit hole now, in search of third person unreliable narrators

    1. Joanna Post author

      In the wiki page, I referenced, Lesley, it implies that there can be unreliable third-person narratives but not narrators. Not sure about that, m’self. It’s too early in the morning for such deep thought.

  3. Sophie

    Really interesting. I didn’t exactly feel cheated by Roger Ackroyd. (Though I did re-read it to check that the narrator hadn’t lied to me.) But I never quite trusted Agatha Christie again.

    In fact I’ve often wondered if I dismissed her characterisation as thin simply for that reason. I never dared invest in a character in case they turned out to be the murderer.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Now that’s a very interesting point, Sophie, and a good argument, I’d say, for not using an unreliable narrator. We authors generally want readers to trust us and invest in our characters. But if readers decide they can’t? If I read the next Gail Honeyman book, for example — scheduled for 2024, I notice, and without a title as yet — will I trust her characters? Possibly not.

  4. Jan+Jones

    Well, not blowing own trumpet, but I do wonder if people feel cheated or appreciative after reading my Mystery on the Princess Line. It was satisfying to write, but I am aware it might not be quite so satisfying to read. Nobody has posted a spolier yet – for which I am very grateful!

    1. Sophie

      Speaking for myself I found it very satisfying, Jan. I had clocked some of the salient characteristics of the character and was building scenarios to account for them. The answer was much more satisfying than anything I had come up with.

  5. Jan+Jones

    On the general ‘unreliable narrator’ topic, I never feel cheated if (a) the author doesn’t lie to me and (b) I don’t see the twist coming. Oh, and (c) I have to actually enjoy reading the book.

  6. Elizabeth Bailey

    I quite like this trope. I remember being quite annoyed with the Roger Ackroyd when I first read it because I had grown to like Charles – it is Charles, isn’t it? It was played as a Poirot with Martin Shaw as Charles and he was very convincing.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I remember that Martin Shaw episode (or I think I do) but wasn’t he an actor rather than a doctor? Was it, in fact, Roger Ackroyd? The doctor in Roger Ackroyd was not Charles, but James (Sheppard).

      Checking Wikipedia, I find that the Martin Shaw episode was Three Act Tragedy. They did do Roger Ackroyd, but back in 2000. And I have to say that I don’t remember it at all, though I do remember the Martin Shaw one where I, too, came to like Charles.

      1. Liz Fielding

        I remember the Martin Shaw one. The second murder had an understandable motive, the first was just despicable. And if the purpose was to embroil Poirot in the smoke and mirrors plot, it was badly planned because he could just as easily have been the victim. I thought they did a very creditable effort with Roger Ackroyd given the difficulties with the plot.

        1. Joanna Post author

          Now you remind me of that plot, Liz, I realise you’re right. The first murder, just a try-out for the approach, could have killed anyone. So callous. Still can’t remember Roger Ackroyd, though.

          1. Elizabeth Bailey

            You’re right. He was an actor. Now you say, I have obviously also forgotten Roger Ackroyd! Will have to check it out again. I read the whole lot of them years ago and in the end decided I wasn’t going to read them again and got rid of all my paperbacks (about 70 or 80, I think) except one which had a sketch of Poirot on the cover which was almost exactly how David whatsit looked when he played it. Uncanny or deliberate?

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Barb. I do think it’s easy to get the narrator wrong and difficult to get him/her right and convincing.

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