In my first published novel, Across The Universe, one of the things I particularly wanted to do was create an unreliable narrator. I’d just read a wonderful book – Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief – and was blown away by the brilliance of her unreliable narrator. Several other books have used the unreliable narrator to great effect, from the recent Liar by Justine Larbalestier to the famous play Mousetrap by Agatha Christie.
Perhaps because it’s a trope in literature I love so much, and therefore have my eye on, I’ve noticed more and more titles are using the unreliable narrator in YA literature.
It’s important to realise that every first-person narrator is, to some extent, unreliable. Much like history is written by the victors, the narration of a first-person story is written by the hero of the story. It’s important to realise that a truly good book means that the bad guy would be the hero of his story, if the book was told from his point of view. Of course, the hero of the book you’re reading is going to be unreliable to the point that he believes that his actions are good and true – but the villain of the story obviously disagrees. Neither is right or wrong – it’s a matter of perspective. Therefore, any first-person narrator is, in essence, unreliable, as he will add his or her own personal bias to the story.
But for a truly unreliable narrator you have to have a lie. The narrator has to lie to the reader, and the discovery of that lie must be crucial to the story – whether or not the truth is discovered isn’t as important as the discovery that the narrator has been lying.
One reason why I think an unreliable narrator is becoming so popular in YA literature is because of the audience – teens. When you’re a kid, you tend to believe what adults tell you. When you’re a teen, you realize how much of your life – from Santa Claus to “don’t worry, everything will be fine” – is a lie. Discovering the extent of lies is a powerful thing and therefore features prominently in teen literature.
Of course, the best literature recognizes not only that people lie to us but that we are also liars. Mankind is brilliant at lying – especially to himself. A good story turns the act of narration onto the reader. The point of an unreliable narrator in a story isn’t to tell us that everyone lies – it’s to remind us of the lies we tell ourselves.
Beth Revis’s author website: www.bethrevis.com
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