The Word of a Liar

I’m fond of the unreliable narrator. It’s a point-of-view that invites the reader to judge the validity of what one character tells another, and what the author—in a character’s voice—tells the reader.

Do we take the word of a liar? Often.

A while back I found myself in an intense conversation with my friend’s precocious son. He was 12 or 13 and he brought up Nabokov’s ‘Lolita.’ At the time he was a budding, classic movie buff, and now—at nearly 18—he is a full-fledged authority on FILM. But back then, as we waited for pizza to arrive, he told me he was reading ‘Lolita.’ It may be Nabokov’s most famous book, but, to me, it’s not his best and I believe that my young companion was more focused on the film than the book.

I asked him an open-ended question, “What do you think the book is about?” And he spouted a canned response right out of an erudite article he’d read in a film journal. It was one of those answers that take a long time to say very little.

“Um…” I replied. “That’s not what I think. I think that Nabokov created the ultimate unreliable narrator in Humbert Humbert. The character seduces the reader into thinking that his actions are justified, or OK, or reasonable when they are not.” Nabokov’s genius was to create a character that almost pulls off that terrible task.

Mysteries written from the point-of-view of the killer, often attempt to create the same kind of smoke scream around the killer’s version of the story. It’s an interesting way to tell any story and a charming liar is always a good place to start.

Know any charming liars in your real life?


I had no idea that lie detectors were such a big business in NYC. Even reviewed in Yelp!


  1. Lolita is a special case because Humbert is the only narrator, but I think we all create such unreliable narrators when we write interesting villains. We are all the heroes of our own stories, and villains, /good/ villains are no different. Teasing out the lies they tell themselves is half the fun. 🙂

    • Candy Korman

      Agreed. All of us—even the worse villain— is the hero of his own story!

      I’ve shied away from writing from a pure evil point-of-view but I think that the self-justifying we all do is a good preparation for that kind of narrator. I will try it one day!