The (Un)usual Suspects: Unreliable Narrators in Film and Literature

Usual SuspectsOne of my all-time favorite movies is The Usual Suspects. I could watch it on a loop, and I’d still never get sick of it. If you haven’t seen it, I’m going to spoil the ending, and if you keep reading and get mad at me, it’s your own fault because that movie has been around since 1995 and you really should have seen it by now.

The vast majority of the movie is Kevin Spacey’s con man character telling a cop about a job that results in a huge explosion and lots of deaths. He says the mastermind behind the job is a man named Keyser Soze. At the end of the movie, we learn that Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze, and a good number of details from the story that he told the police were made up from things he observed in the cop’s office.

The first thing your brain does after it picks itself up off the floor is get confused: Wait—if he made up those details, what other bits of information did he make up? Was anything he just told us real? Is Keyser Soze even real?

And just like that, the movie that was so straightforward for the first 100 minutes is suddenly a completely different movie.

How to Make Your Narrator Unreliable

Creating an unreliable narrator is one of the classic ways to integrate a twist into your work, and at a minimum, it makes your reader question how much of what they just read was true.

The classic literary example is Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Aykroyd (SPOILERS AHEAD!), which completely takes everything established about the detective genre and turns it on its head with the great reveal at the end that (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER) the narrator, who has been assisting our intrepid detective with the case, is the murderer.

Unreliable narration, at its mildest, can establish that the characters the narrator meets maybe aren’t quite how he/she describes them. An example of this is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is told from the point of view of a 15-year-old autistic savant. He’s a whiz with numbers, but has some “behavioral difficulties”. Because he perceives the world differently than the average first-person narrator might, he could be considered an unreliable narrator.

PRACTICE

Write for fifteen minutes from the point of view of an unreliable narrator. Your narrator can be either concealing information that isn’t made immediately evident, or maybe the narrator is a child, and has a more naive way of perceiving people around them.

Post your practice in the comments, and take some time to read the work of your fellow practicers.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

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