What to do with a dishonest narrator?

When reading a book, we might be lost in mystery. There may be plot twists and turns we didn’t anticipate, but through it all we trust our narrator to be honest with us. To tell us what he or she or they know, to reveal details as they are discovered, and help us wind through the twists and turns along with them, unraveling mysteries as we go. But what happens when the narrator is deceiving us, the readers?

I recently read Jennifer Nielsen’s The False Prince, an adventure tale full of mystery and deceit, where, in the end, the reader realizes that Sage, the narrator, has been lying throughout the entire book, leading us to believe one thing only to later reveal what really happened. The entire book is a tapestry of lies, where one falsehood weaves into another, carrying us from one pattern of deceit to the next. In the end, Sage reveals the lies and tells us the truth. Or does he? Can readers trust a dishonest narrator? Or, once the deception has been revealed, do we begin to question everything the narrator tells us from that point on?

I had a creative writing teacher once who lectured that no matter what happens in a story, no matter how many falsehoods the characters commit, the narrator must always be honest, must always tell the reader the truth, otherwise, the entire story becomes false because readers rely completely on the narrator for everything that is contained within the pages of a story. When the narrator lies, the trust between narrator and reader is lost, and further reading becomes pointless. Is that really the case?

When I reached the end of The False Prince, I didn’t feel that I had wasted time reading the book, nor did I dislike Sage for his lies. Instead, I thought him rather clever and admired his deception because it resulted in him achieving his goals. Do I trust him as much as I did in the early chapters? Absolutely not. Will I read more carefully into his every word when I read the sequel? You betcha. Do his lies deter me from the reading the sequel? Not one bit. In fact, I am eager to see the lies he will have to tell to keep his neck out of a noose in The Runaway King.

And now I am eager to know what you all think of dishonest narrators. Do they deter or encourage you to keep reading? What other books have you read where the narrator deceives you? Comments encouraged and appreciated.

Thanks for stopping by.


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