In the first post of this four-part series, I wrote about focus in point of view and how a first-person narrator often establishes the reader as a confidante of the protagonist—maybe even a friend. But what happens when your friend is lying to you? In such an instance, you may be dealing with what we call an unreliable narrator. An unreliable narrator can be tricky to understand and trickier still to write effectively. The basic concept is this: An unreliable narrator is one capable of lying to the reader or, often, themselves. Either way, they present a worldview that may not be consistent with the objective reality of the story.
Why use an unreliable narrator? There are a number of reasons. You may use it for characterization, depicting someone who does bad things but frames it all as necessary and justified. Or to keep readers off-balance, making uncertainty a source of tension. You may use it to craft a clever twist. A skilled writer can find many reasons to be deceptive, and as a book editor I’ve seen pretty much all of them.
The question when it comes to the unreliable narrator is not so much why as how.
How Does the Unreliable Narrator Work?
In the first article in our series on point of view, we discussed the benefits of limitation and how first-person limits the reader to the insights and observations of its protagonist. If an unreliable narrator states that the sky in her world is bright pink, or that her teachers are trying to eat her, then readers have no access to any other perspective that might prove otherwise.
So if that perspective is our only insight into the world, how can a narrator be deemed unreliable? Isn’t the first-person narrator’s truth the only truth there is?
But compare this to the real world. The fact that someone is telling us a story doesn’t mean that the telling is accurate. If your friend recalls the time you both went to an Italian restaurant and suffered the indignities of a rude waiter, when your own recollection is that it’s your friend who was out of line, then you know her version of events is at best incomplete. It may not be an outright lie—your friend may genuinely remember it that way—but it’s also not the whole truth.
That’s how the unreliable narrator works. If a kid is being bullied but insists that the bully is just playing around, then readers see a contrast between what we’re told and what we’re shown that indicates, perhaps, that the kid lacks confidence, or that he tries to ignore his problems. If the narrator above bases her belief that her teachers are trying to eat her on evidence that feels flimsy, then we may start to question her view of the world—including that pink sky. A clever writer finds just enough inconsistency to sow the seeds of doubt—or, alternatively, leaves enough clues so that when the narrator is revealed to be unreliable, it makes sense.
Unreliable Narrator with a Third-Person Point of View
The first-person perspective is uniquely adept at unreliable narration, but it’s not the only approach. When we venture into third-person point of view, we’re no longer talking about an unreliable narrator, exactly. That’s because the narrator isn’t the character—instead, the narrator is an observer. But in a close third-person limited perspective, the narrative voice can still be deeply influenced by the character, and the possibility thus exists for a substantial contrast between what readers are told and what they actually see or what’s implied.
Suppose we had a character described as follows:
Troy was a kind, calm, rational man—too rational even. He hadn’t even lost his temper when that moron Larry burned the edges of his turkey burger. Again. Like a complete idiot. The bastard didn’t even apologize, but still Troy only punched him twice.
Our close third-person perspective makes it clear how Troy sees himself. But readers understand that however calm and rational Troy may believe himself to be, the reality is very different. Not only do we hear his anger in words like “moron,” “complete idiot,” and “bastard,” but he resorts to physical violence for what common sense tells us is a pretty minor offense. The objective facts of the scene—that Larry burned the turkey burger, and that Troy punched him twice—are interpreted in two entirely different ways by the narrative voice, belonging to Troy, and the reader. That’s the contrast that enables us to see an unreliable narrative, even though Troy isn’t strictly our narrator.
Utilizing that contrast, and maintaining it, is important. When writers try to employ an unreliable narrator without understanding how it works, we run into problems. The basic caution is this: Being unreliable is not simply lying.
Imagine a mystery novel written in first-person in which all the evidence points to the lonely pastor as the killer. At the end of the novel comes a dramatic twist: The narrator made up virtually all of the evidence we’ve seen and read about, and in fact, there was never a murder at all. Readers may not see that coming, but that doesn’t mean it’s an effective twist, or a convincing use of the unreliable narrator. If you’ve not set up the unreliable narrator through some level of contrast between reality and perspective—if it’s random and sudden—then readers don’t feel fooled. They feel cheated.
Your narrator may be unreliable, but you, the author, are not. You need to play fair with your readers’ investment. That means either using contrast to make unreliable narration a consistent part of the story or setting up throughout a novel the clues and discrepancies that will make the revelation of an unreliable narrator convincing.
Tips on Writing an Unreliable Narrator
Here are a few questions to keep in mind:
- What’s the purpose of the unreliable narrator? Like any tool in fiction, the unreliable narrator requires a reason for being. What do you gain from a voice that doesn’t tell readers the whole truth?
- What’s the point of view of your story? Unreliable narration works well in first-person and third-person limited. However, with multiple perspectives (as in third-person omniscient) comes a more well-rounded view of reality. Characters may see the same event in different ways, but it’s difficult to be unreliable with multiple perspectives.
- What is reality? Whatever you convey to the reader, it’s important that you know at all times the reality of your world. If you don’t know the truth, then your character’s perspective can’t contrast with it effectively.
So use the unreliable narrator—but do so with care.
Of course, it’s always helpful to find inspiration in the work of other authors who use such tools effectively. Let our readers know what you think: When have you been most impressed by the use of unreliable narrator?
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s part of The Writer’s Ally team as a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, for which he’s currently accepting new clients.