Writing an Unreliable Narrator

If you’re a voracious reader, you probably recognise the structure of familiar plot formats as soon as you start reading a novel. It can sometimes get a bit boring when you can guess the twists of stories before they happen. The solution? Seek out books with unreliable narrators. You won’t guess the twists if the main character is actively lying to you, the reader! 

You may be familiar with this writing style from books like We Were Liars, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Fight Club. In all of those books, the characters have hidden integral truths about their lives from the reader, usually to shield themselves from some kind of trauma that they’re not willing to process. In some cases, entire characters don’t exist in reality in the form in which they’re presented. 

I’ve always wanted to have a go at writing like this – not only because these books are some of my favourites and most memorable as a reader – but because it’s a fun challenge as a writer. When I’m creating a new character, I always think about what secrets they’re keeping, what they’re afraid of, and what they desire most in the world. Having a character create a whole fake narrative for their world combines all those factors of their personality into something that’s tangible on the page. 

A well-drawn character’s inner life should dramatically impact the events of the story and the plot lines. Nowhere is that more clear to the reader than when they actively interfere with the story being told, changing it into a narrative that they prefer. 

In The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, an all-knowing, possibly immortal narrator interferes with the story to give her take on the events as they happen. As Harriet, a new ghost, stumbles around the afterlife meeting the ancient ghosts who live in the same building, the narrator comments on Harriet’s mistakes and victories. This narrator can see the future – so she has the benefit of hindsight and future-sight, all of which she uses to be very opinionated about the actions the characters are taking. 

Just a few catches, though: she never tells the reader who she is (why? Every unreliable narrator keeps secrets for a reason!), and she’s not entirely truthful about her own involvement in events. Sometimes, it seems like the story she’s telling is purposefully misleading, as if she’s trying to convince the reader that her version of events is the best one – or that she’s in the right. 

It was a lot of fun to write an unreliable narrator – especially one who is such an outrageous and obvious liar. I enjoyed it so much that I gave it another go, writing an unreliable narrator into my serialised online story An Unauthorised Fan Treatise, in which a teenage fangirl tries to convince the readers of her blog that she isn’t a stalker of her favourite actors. 

If you read the book, remember: don’t believe everything you’re told. Everyone has motivations, whether they reveal them to the reader or not. And the afterlife is a dangerous place, especially for a captive audience. 

For those who may not be familiar with your newest (and fabulous) YA title, The Reckless Life of Harriet Stoker, how would you sell it to them in one sentence? 

A building of ghosts are trapped together for all eternity, and trying to destroy each other – what could go wrong?

What inspired you to write The Reckless Life of Harriet Stoker? How and when did you come up with the idea?

I really wanted to write about a villainous girl. One of the big things that surprised me when I was first published was how unforgiving reviewers were of female characters – people didn’t like it when they did anything wrong! They were seen as very unlikeable and mean if they made mistakes, which isn’t something we see for male characters. Once I started reading about different ghost myths from around the world, I thought it would be a fun setting to use for my anti-hero, as she explores the world of the afterlife and gets herself into trouble of various kinds. 

The Reckless Life of Harriet Stoker is your first paranormal novel. Did you find the writing process differed from that of your sci-fi novels?

Writing a paranormal fantasy with magic is very different to writing a book based on real life science. The plot possibilities seemed endless and overwhelming at first – where do you stop when you can do literally anything? Everything clicked into place when I realised the importance of a magic system with rules and limitations. When your characters have powers – each of the ghosts can do something unique, like hypnotism, shapeshifting or clairvoyance – it’s very important that the magic has restrictions. Otherwise, what are the consequences of their actions? What is stopping them from becoming impossibly powerful? That gave my plot a structure that made the novel a lot easier to work with.

Do you have any YA paranormal recommendations for readers wanting more after finishing and loving The Reckless Life of Harriet Stoker?

HARROW LAKE by Kat Ellis was recently released and is great – a creepy tribute to the horror genre. THE RAVEN BOYS by Maggie Stiefvater is deceptively creepy, with a great ghost character. A SKINFUL OF SHADOWS by Frances Hardinge also has a terrifying take on ghosts – not one I would want to experience myself! And LOCKWOOD AND CO by Jonathan Stroud is slightly younger YA, but definitely not any less creepy for that – these ghost hunters are very scary.

With six novels now under your belt and plenty of wonderful characters, which characters from your previous books do you think Harriet Stoker would best get on with and which do you think she’d clash with?

Ooh, great question! I think Harriet would like Romy from THE LONELIEST GIRL IN THE UNIVERSE (who could hate Romy?) because she has never had any friends, and Romy is in a similar position after growing up in space. They could be each other’s first friends. 

She definitely wouldn’t like Kate from THE NEXT TOGETHER very much – she’d probably find her very annoying and chatty! I think she’d be quite intimidated by Lowrie in THE QUIET AT THE END OF THE WORLD, who is very independent and capable.

Okay, so The Reckless Life of Harriet Stoker would make the best movie. If that were to happen, who would your dream casting be for Harriet, Felix, Leah, Rima and Kasper?

I have so many thoughts on this! The novel was inspired by my favourite TV comedies, like SPACED, MISFITS, BEING HUMAN and WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS. Right from the beginning, it’s been a very visual story for me – I can picture the scenes in my head, in a way I can’t always do with my novels. So I know exactly what they look like. Harriet is Daisy Ridley (STAR WARS), Rima is Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (NEVER HAVE I EVER), Leah is Sofia Boutella (KINGSMAN), Felix is Keiynan Lonsdale (LOVE, SIMON) and Kasper is Froy Gutierrez (TEEN WOLF). You can see my character bios with pictures on my website here: https://laurenejames.co.uk/the-reckless-afterlife/

There were so many brilliant twists and turns throughout the book. Were these all planned or did they come to you as you wrote? Could you tell us a little about your writing process?

Some of the smaller twists were planned from the beginning, but my editor really pushed me to add more twists during the editing process. That really pushed me to take risks and stretch the narrative in ways I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do otherwise (particularly in regard to the characters’ backstories). I added in the ‘narrator’ very late on in the editing process too, which is one of my favourite parts about the novel now. 

While writing, I tend to think about my novels in several strands: 

1) what the reader knows about what’s happening

2) what the characters know about what’s happening (but aren’t necessarily saying)

3) what is really happening

I then pace out reveals about the truth alongside character development. Ideally, readers will guess twists about 10 pages before the characters realise the truth – I try to give enough clues that it’s possible to work it out if you’re a close reader. I don’t think it’s fair, otherwise. If anyone wants a clue for HARRIET: keep an eye on the knitting. 

From the unpredictable plot to the complex characters to the queer pining, the process of writing The Reckless Life of Harriet Stoker must have been a lot of fun but was there a specific scene or element you enjoyed creating the most?

My favourite scenes are the ones where the gang are just hanging out, being silly. They’re a true ‘found family’ – they’ve been stuck in this building together since 1994, so they’ve really refined their banter in the decades of playful hanging out. It was a real joy to write about an established, loving friendship group. I could have written a lot more scenes where they just spent time together, but obviously that’s not very exciting for the plot! 

Do you have any writing projects in the works and if so, can you tell us anything about that?

I’m currently working on a novel about climate change – about nature, geoengineering and teenagers taking action through civil disobedience, in the face of overwhelming corporate negligence. It’s something I’ve wanted to write about for years, but never felt good enough at writing to tackle, as it’s such an enormous topic. I’m finding it tough, and there’s a lot research to do, but it’s such an important discussion to have. 

Lots of your stories feature young women in science. Is that something that you’ve included in this book?

I studied Chemistry and Physics, so it’s always been important to represent realistic, flawed female scientists in my books – I’ve had biologists, computer scientists, mechanical engineers and mathematicians. This was a bit more difficult this time around, since all my characters are dead, but I added a scientist called Qi, who was studying for her PhD when she died, and now runs experiments on ghost energies. It was an interesting experiment in the science behind the magic of my idea. 

Do you believe in ghosts?

No, but my family does have some old stories about my great-granddad appearing as a ghost after his death – though I’m not sure how much that was due to gas leak hallucinations! I tend to look for the scientific explanations behind things, so I’m very interested in the phenomenon of ghosts and what the collective stories we’ve created as a society say about our culture. 

Did writing about the afterlife make you feel uncomfortable, or is it a topic that you love exploring?

I loved it! Especially because I could mix teenagers from two time periods – the 1990s and 2020 – which is a real collision of generations in a fun way. It was very nostalgic to write.

What are three fun facts about Harriet Stoker?

1) The novel has a mysterious omniscient narrator telling the story to the reader, whose identity is a secret – it’s up to you to work out who they are!

2) There is a queer enemies-to-lovers romance which was the most fun to write

3) The story takes place over two thousand years – ghosts can survive for a long time. Like, a really long time. 

Which is your favourite character in the book? 

I hate this question, because I love them all! But I have a soft spot for Rima – she’s laidback, playful, bad at telling jokes and the ‘mum friend’ who always wants to look after everyone else.

Are there any characters that you really relate to?

Probably Rima, for all of the reasons listed above! I also really enjoyed writing Harriet’s descent into immorality – there’s something really satisfying about a female character whose goals are more important to her than being liked. She’s willing to be rejected from society to make herself happy, and values her own judgement above anyone else’s viewpoint. That takes a kind of selfishness that is really interesting to me.

Name some of your favourite books that feature girls in STEM.

I have a whole Goodreads shelf for this, but some of my recent favourites are Blood Moon by Lucy Cuthew, Under a Dancing Star by Laura Wood, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley and Sourdough by Robin Sloan. 

Do you have any advice for young people (women in particular) who want to pursue a career in science?

I think it’s hugely important for teenagers to realise that you don’t have to be a genius to study science. I talk to a lot of teenagers about science, and hear a huge amount of enthusiasm. But it’s hard to see that progressing to the university level in admission numbers. Scientists in the media are often represented as geniuses and I think it’s a hugely damaging stereotype which might deter people from studying science. But if you have enthusiasm, you are good enough for science!

What can readers expect from The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker, and how is it similar or different to your other novels? 

It’s very different from my other books – it’s a horror, which I’ve written a bit of in The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, but not fully explored. It’s also my first book outside of the realm of science fiction, as this is a paranormal fantasy. I’m so glad I was allowed to explore other genres, as often authors are expected to continue writing similar types of books – so I feel really lucky to have stepped outside my comfort zone into something new. But it has a lot of the same elements of previous novels – humour, romance, plot twists, funny characters (or rather, characters who think they’re funny) and found families. 

The ghosts in your world have their own energies, rules, powers: what made you want to show a different side to ghosts than we’ve seen in pop culture before, and how did you decide on the shape and structure of the afterlife in The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker

 I’ve always loved the idea of ghosts, but there’s something missing from most paranormal stories. What happens when ghosts live in the same building? Do they share ‘haunting’ duties, or do they have to compete for space? What resources would they consider valuable? And, most importantly, can a ghost die? What happens to them when things go wrong? 

My sci-fi is always heavily based on rules and real science, so when I started thinking about the world of ghosts, I naturally gravitated towards thinking about how ghosts might work scientifically. Everything has to have an energy source, and ghosts would no exception. The world expanded from there, as I tried to work out how that might shape a society where there is one valuable resource – the energy that keeps spirits together. If you can get enough energy, there’s no limit to how long a ghost can survive, which means the oldest ghosts are the most powerful, as they’ve had many centuries to take and retain that energy. It gets quite dark, as Harriet learns how far they’ve gone to achieve that. 

Out of all the powers the ghosts have in the book, which one would you most want?

I would love Rima’s power of shapeshifting into different animals – it seems like the most fun, especially as she can fly as birds, or explore inside the walls of the building as a little mouse. 

Published by Lauren James

Lauren James was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, UK, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. She is the twice Carnegie-nominated British Young Adult author of The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, The Quiet at the End of the World and The Next Together series, as well as the dyslexia-friendly novella The Starlight Watchmaker and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. Her upcoming release is The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker. She started writing during secondary school English classes, because she couldn’t stop thinking about a couple who kept falling in love throughout history. She sold the rights to the novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her books have sold over fifty thousand copies in the UK alone, and been translated into five languages worldwide. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. The Last Beginning was named one of the best LGBT-inclusive works for young adults by the Independent. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and all of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. The Loneliest Girl in the Universe was inspired by a Physics calculation she was assigned at university. The Quiet at the End of the World considers the legacy and evolution of the human race into the far future. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient.  She has written articles for numerous publications, including the GuardianBuzzfeed, Den of GeekThe Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2020. She teaches creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands, providing creative writing courses to children through the Spark Young Writers programme.

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