In 2012, Gillian Flynn published Gone Girl and kick-started our current craze for unreliable narrator stories. 2015 saw the release of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and the unreliable narrator novel was firmly ensconced.
Rarely have I witnessed two books compared to each other more than these.
Not only was The Girl on the Train trumpeted as “this year’s Gone Girl,” not only did every critic and reviewer on the planet compare the two, but just about everyone I knew picked a favorite and took a side in the which-is-better debate.
Most people I know like both but have a clear preference for one or the other, and there are more than a few who love one and hate the other.
For most, their preference seems to boil down to which narrator appealed to them best. It’s not a matter of which you like best, as neither narrator is intended to be likeable. But both are meant to be intriguing.
I’m convinced that character appeal isn’t all that’s going on here. I think focusing on which narrator appeals the most is circling around a deeper issue.
My impulse to is to argue that the unreliability of the narrator feels like a natural and intrinsic part of the story in one, but it feels a bit like a gimmick in the other. This gets closer to the core of the issue but even this flirts with something deeper.
When I read Gone Girl, I felt like the story grew out of the character. It wasn’t a narrative device so much as how this character behaves. It seemed to me that Gillian Flynn developed the character first and then let her loose on the page to see what she would do. The fact that it’s an interesting narrative device is an added benefit.
By contrast, it felt to me as though Paula Hawkins came up with the idea for her story first and then built the main character to suit the needs of the narrative. It feels less intrinsic. The narrator feels less real to me and more like a narrative device. Which means her unreliability feels more like a gimmick.
I’m not saying that either author actually created their characters or wrote their novels this way—I merely convey how it felt to me when I read them.
Which one you prefer depends mostly on whether your like your stories character-driven or whether you want a clever narrative.
I think this also explains why Gone Girl made a better Hollywood movie than The Girl on the Train. Because the narrative in Gone Girl grows out of the characters (and not the other way around), the characters are more substantive, better developed, and there’s a great deal for the actors in that film to chew on. Whereas poor Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train had to fill in much of her character’s substance on her own.
An unreliable narrator can be a wonderful narrative device—provided it doesn’t feel like a device. Which is to say, an unreliable narrator can be a fascinating character—provided they feel organic and natural, and not like a gimmick to serve some narrative trickery. The moment it all starts to feel like a formula is the moment you lose me as a reader.