Writing Is A Bad Habit: Just Lie To Me a.k.a. The Unreliable Narrator

A key element to creating intriguing fiction is to have an air of mystery and the unknown during the plot.  It works on the basic premise of human curiosity.  We want to know things, to understand things.  There are many ways to go about this, but one particular device that adds a human element to the mystery is the use of unreliable narrators.

An unreliable narrator is, if you didn’t know, a viewpoint character in a story that does not necessarily tell the whole truth.  The actual facts of any scene they are in or story they communicate to the reader may be distorted or straight out fabricated compared to the ‘true’ plot of the story.  It doesn’t matter the character’s reason for doing so or if it is intentional or not; they are still unreliable narrators.

Why bother using such a character as a mouthpiece?  After all, technically, the writer can simply misrepresent facts in the text on his/her own.  There is a problem with that though.  Readers consider words from the author, such as text that is not attributed to the viewpoint of a particular character, as being, in essence, the word of God, true facts.  If you, the author, as the voice of God, lie about the truth of any situation you describe, you build mistrust with your readers directly and they begin to question the entire narrative that you are weaving.  By putting the source of distrust into a character’s viewpoint, you avoid that intrinsic mistrust with the fictional world as a whole.  Any person can lie for whatever reason; the gods don’t.

Now, at first thought, you still might shy away from the concept of unreliable narrators.  If your Point of View character is your protagonist, for instance, and you’ve established her as scrupulously honest, you might feel it’s a breach of character to interject any kind of mistruth to their tale.  However, remember that just because someone always tells the truth doesn’t mean they always speak the absolute facts.  Maybe they don’t know all of the facts and thus have to make conjectures.  Maybe they didn’t see the whole situation and thus misrepresent it unwittingly.  Maybe their other emotions and experiences color their perceptions, turning the facts somewhat into their own personal truth.  Or maybe you just want to have a point-of-view character who is far from honest.

Even if you don’t intend to have a traditional unreliable narrator, you can still take elements of this trope to interject some uncertainty and drama into a story.  If you go with a first-person perspective or a limited third-person viewpoint, there is always room for uncertainty as the information and viewpoints that you use to transmit the story to the reader is limited.  The viewpoint characters probably don’t know everything or perceive every event, so their recollection is inherently skewed.  You can use that to your advantage to turn what the character (and reader) thought was fact into fiction.

In the end, consider using an unreliable narrator, in any permutation, from time to time.  They can add a dash of uncertainty and drama into any literary concoction!

Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!

One comment

  1. Another good reminder about something that means a lot, in a high-quality reading experience.

    From analysis of my first novel and the reactions readers have reported, the reliability seems to work. My anonymous, limited third-person narrator doesn’t lie, and it shares some insights about the two main characters, but it doesn’t reveal every detail that it knows about them. The MCs are the only point-of-view characters; only one POV is expressed per scene; and because it’s psychological fiction, the characters’ perceptions, insight, motives and truthfulness have different reasons to vary. We don’t know what’s going on inside the heads of secondary characters until it comes out in their speech or other behavior, and then we have to evaluate it for reliability (as in real life). The minor characters are all WYSIWYG.

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