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What's Up With Unreliable Narrators

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tUnreliable narrators. You either love them or hate them. There doesn’t seem to be much in between. Personally, I love the way they keep me guessing, always on my toes, trying to decipher fact from fiction. Never a dull moment. Especially when it comes to a domestic thriller. What better way to immerse the reader in the characters’ interpersonal relationships than to have them question the veracity of every word on the page? How better to create suspense than to have characters keep secrets from the reader?


Telling the story from their point of view, a first-person narrator can hide certain things from the reader, making them question what exactly is going on. An unreliable narrator may be intentionally dishonest in recounting their version of events to make themselves appear innocent of wrong-doing, or they may be confused and unable to give an accurate account. Perhaps they’re just being silly, exaggerating, overreacting; could be they’re not aware of all the facts due to memory loss or some other impairment; maybe they’re mentally unstable, suffering from a personality disorder. Who knows? All we do know is they are unreliable witnesses to the story unfolding. Just like most people in real life. We all see things from a different perspective.


So, what’s up with Mallory? A nervous young woman, suffering from extreme anxiety and prolonged grief, riddled with guilt, always second-guessing herself, wanting nothing more than a family of her own—the perfect family. 


And what about Jake? A bit of a jokester, somewhat of a jerk, not a care in the world, flying through life by the seat of his pants, tossing off-hand comments like confetti, never considering the consequences of his actions, seeking the perfect woman—one to keep all to himself.


Opposites attract, but sometimes they collide. Then the sparks fly. Jake and Mallory come from different backgrounds, have disparate personalities, and pursue contrasting objectives in life. Two complete opposites. Two different viewpoints on life. And two variations on a story that falls apart when their versions clash.


Can either Jake or Mallory be trusted to tell it like it is? Is either a reliable witness to the events in their marriage? Both have tunnel vision. Imagining things that aren’t really happening. Making up their own reality. Both keep secrets. Sometimes, the truth is too difficult to confront.


So, who should you trust? Jake or Mallory? What’s really going on behind closed doors? As the author, creator of these characters, I have my own opinions about their goals and motivations. As the reader, it’s up to you to take what you will from their words and actions. But, I’ll let in on a couple of secrets.


Mallory may not be the meek, mild, timid little mouse she presents herself to be. Jake may not be the controlling, obsessive, prone-to-abuse husband he is portrayed as. There might be more to them. Or perhaps they are exactly that, each wishing themselves to be different. I could say more, but I’m just their creator, a literary mouthpiece for Jake and Mallory. Can you really believe anything I say?


Using an unreliable narrator as a literary device puts the onus on the reader to dig deeper and come to their own conclusions. As bits and pieces of the truth are uncovered through unexpected plot twists and new revelations about each character, the reader must take responsibility for constructing the puzzle, exposing the true picture. They can’t expect the characters or the author to lay things out for them.


In Where is My Husband?, the clues appear from the beginning, as Mallory reflects on her marriage while waiting to pick up Jake from his workplace. Does she see her husband through rose-colored glasses? Are there parts of him she would just as soon pretend didn’t exist? You bet. When Jake thinks of his wife, does he put her on a pedestal? Does he try to ignore her issues? Of course. Like most couples, Jake and Mallory present their best face to the world. The uglier side is kept hidden from family, friends, and neighbors, and yes, even to each other and themselves. They make mistakes, do stupid things, have regrets, try to cover up what they’re ashamed of, pretend it never happened. They are the perfect couple. Perfect for each other, at least. And so they lie and keep secrets from the reader. They’re only human.


 As the past is interwoven with the present, the narrative sheds light on their relationship from day one to their current predicament. Jake is missing. Or is he? Has he left intentionally? Does Mallory know where he is? Which one of them is to blame for the events leading to his sudden exit from a seemingly perfect marriage? However you feel about unreliable narrators, you’re not likely to be indifferent. Following Mallory and Jake on their roller-coaster of a relationship as the layers are peeled back, questioning their actions and motives, I hope readers will love or hate them as they see fit. As long as they are memorable.





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