Out of all the books I’ve read, the most memorable unreliable narrator I can recall goes by the name of Patrick Bateman; though, to most, he’s simply referred to as the American Psycho
. On the surface, Bateman is little more than a Wall Street investment banker obsessed with clothes, skin creams, exercise regimens, and Huey Lewis and the News. But beneath the surface (spoiler alert), he’s pure serial killer. And that’s wherein the brilliance of Bret Easton Ellis’s most iconic character lies.
If you’ve read the book, you know that the end leaves much to the imagination. Was Bateman faking his way through his “normal” life, or was he genuinely oblivious to the darkness that lurked beneath his skin? For me, it’s questions like these — if the author allows them to linger — that make fiction, specifically dark
fiction, unforgettable. These inquiries make us stop and blink, and perhaps flip back a few pages to reread a passage or two; these are the questions that send us to our phones, furiously texting our best friends or reading circles with our own questions of “What the hell happened?” or “Have you read this book?” These are my favorite types of stories, my favorite kinds of characters, and the reason why in my own fiction, the unreliable narrator reigns supreme.
Now, there’s a big difference between an unreliable narrator and a liar. A liar knows that what they’re telling you is an untruth, while an unreliable narrator — more often than not — has a difficult time distinguishing between fiction and fantasy. Their truth is their reality, be it real or imagined, and that’s what makes unreliable narrators so much fun. When it comes to books, I have no patience for liars. A liar is an unlikable character. An unreliable narrator, on the other hand, is a completely different beast. They can be as unlikable as the next guy, but their genius lies in their ability to garner sympathy, regardless of the story they’re telling. When an unreliable narrator is at the forefront, we not only get a story, but we get a puzzle. What’s real and what isn’t? What should I believe, and what — or who
— should remain suspect?
There’s a big difference between an unreliable narrator and a liar.
In my upcoming book, Apart in the Dark: Novellas
, I tell two stories with two completely different types of main characters, both of them unreliable. In The Pretty Ones
, Nell Sullivan is a mouse of a girl who wants nothing more than to fit in with a group of her practically perfect coworkers, her desire often spiraling into a sense of madness that she cannot see, and hence, cannot escape. In I Call Upon Thee
, Maggie Olsen is a college student who knows the nightmares of her past are nothing more than figments of her overactive imagination; and yet, she can’t help but ask herself, what if
? What if she’s wrong? What if it was all real? What if she’s not as unreliable as she thinks herself to be? And that’s where the fun resides: figuring out not only what to believe, but whom to listen to.
There are countless unreliable narrators throughout fiction. Some of the most beloved span from Fight Club
’s Tyler Durden, The Catcher in the Rye
’s Holden Caulfield, The Great Gatsby
’s Nick Carraway, and Chief Bromden from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
. Even Edgar Allan Poe throws us an unreliable narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart
. The main character’s opening lines are desperate to convince us that he isn’t mad (when we all know mad people never know they’re mad at all). Regardless of whether any of these characters were genuinely crazy, or whether Patrick Bateman knew his true nature or not, the fact remains: unreliable narrators make for fantastic stories, because most unreliable narrators have a hidden dark side and darkness makes for a great read. And maybe that’s the key to why we love unreliable narrators so much. Because, let’s face it, there’s a little bit of darkness lingering in us all.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the bestselling author of the horror thrillers Brother
, Within These Walls
, The Bird Eater
, The Shuddering
, The Neighbors
, and Seed
, and the novellas The Pretty Ones
and I Call Upon Thee,
collected in Apart in the Dark
. Born in Ciechanów, Poland, she lives in South Carolina with her husband and their dog.