The Unreliable Narrator is a character who tells the reader a story which cannot be entirely trusted, or taken at face value. The narrator might be deliberately deceptive, or they may be telling a perfectly reasonable story according to THEIR worldview, their reality, which may not be the reader’s. Perhaps they are working from a misconception because they are not privy to all the relevant information.
Basically, the unreliable narrator storytellers cannot be entirely trusted to tell YOUR truth.
Here’s a piece of homework – think of a story with an unreliable narrator. I’ll start you off. “Clockwork Orange”. “Life of Pi”. “Rebecca”. “Gone Girl”. Justine Larbalestier’s “Liar”. Quite possibly Alice, of Wonderland fame (I mean, she dreamed it ALL…) That’s a start. Cast your mind over books you have read. Add them to the list.
If you are creating your own unreliable narrator, there can be pure exhilaration in doing it, doing it well, and knowing that at some point the reader will gasp sharply when they realize that the things they have been led to believe are real and true… may not be. It is a very delicate web to weave, but when done properly it is an amazing dance between the writer and the reader, and these are books that are remembered for a long time after they are done.
There are a number of ways of doing this. The hardest one is the clue layering all the way in, right from the start, nudging the reader along inch by inch until you pull the curtain on the reveal. The dangers there are obvious. It is possible to give too many clues, leaving the character way too open to being unmasked too early in the game.
It is possible not to give enough clues so that the reveal comes out of left field and the reader feels ambushed by something that was never properly foreshadowed.
The writer can be subtle about this, giving out information through the reactions of other characters (indicating that something about the narrator’s thoughts or actions is considered ‘off’ in his context and circumstances), or simply by placing the narrator within a setting where it is clear that the perceptions being conveyed to the readers are filtered through a lens of a very different set of convictions or a worldview and the things the narrator perceives as being good or right… may not be entirely correctly perceived.
In this sense, the character does not exactly LIE to the reader, he or she simply presents their own version of the truth. This can be tougher than it looks, particularly when the author is not the narrator and does not necessarily share any views that the reader might find abhorrent. It is important not to confuse the voice of the narrator with that of the author. A good author can project an entirely different person with a remarkable degree of verisimilitude.
Facts are empirically provable, but truth is not so easily pinned down. Truth is perceived rather than proved. One person’s truth may not be another’s – a deeply religious person’s truth is that God is responsible for absolutely everything and is all-powerful, while an atheist prefers to trust this world rather than the next. You define yourself as a good person by doing what you perceive are good deeds. That is a fact. But whether you do those good deeds because you are hoping for a reward in Heaven, or because they are in themselves reward enough in this world and you have no expectations of ever seeing another, that is your truth, and your own truth governs how your perceive your life, your world, your experiences, and how you convey your ideas to someone else.
Person A might well consider Person B an unreliable narrator simply because the two of them do not necessarily inhabit the same truth sphere, even though they are both physically very present in the same world. Both persons are telling the truth – their OWN truth – and both persons might be perceived as bending that truth, or actively lying about important things, by the other. They are being perceived as unreliable narrators. And in some ways it is the reader who governs the unreliability of the narrator – simply by providing their own set of lenses through which they might view a particular story. Readers will always find in any story worth its salt far more than the author ever thought they put in there.
All fiction is by definition a lie. None of it “really happened”. But you as the reader get to decide which of the characters within any given story you actually trust to provide you with the inner scaffolding of meta-truth with exists within the narrative you are reading.
And if you’re the writer, you have to decide what aspect of your story is the ‘true’ one, the right one, and which you will present to your readers as subtly skewed… and then you have to trust those readers to perceive it. You get to shine the light of your choice on your story – and you hope that, in the minds of your readers, you get to cast the shadows you wanted.
Within your story, however, on a more granular level, you will sometimes make the choice of having a character tell a blatant untruth at some point.
Why do people lie?
There are people who are incapable of stopping – whose entire lives are built of lie upon lie, one making the next one necessary, and they are just placed one on another and mortared in place until there’s a wall of lies it is impossible to work your way free of even if you tried. There are people who might do this because they want to trap others behind that wall, and there are people who build it to protect some inner core of themselves. Either way, it’s an inevitability, in the end – it’s like pushing a snowball down a hill and watching it get bigger and bigger and bigger and obliterating everything in its path in the end – but that final result is not entirely your fault. All you did was push the snowball off the hill. Everything else it did by inertia, by itself. Unless the character in question is a certifiable sociopath, though, this is a tough row to hoe. Keeping a wall of lies straight is not the easiest thing to do. While some of them are solid they are also very vulnerable to the presence of the smallest inadvertent truth.
There are people who will lie out of compassion – the “it will be all right” lie, to someone who is mortally wounded or who is dying of an incurable disease, the “it’s better this way” lie when some unspeakable tragedy occurs and you’re trying to make it lighter by implying that a greater tragedy would have happened had events fallen out otherwise. That sort of thing.
There are people who lie in the heat of the moment and then have to live by that lie. There are people who will lie to protect themselves. There are people who will lie to protect others to the point of damning themselves.
There are people who will lie for personal gain, who will sell second-hand lemon cars or bad mortgages or shady investments to gullible or vulnerable people. There are people who will not so much lie as simply not speak of something to a third party (who may or may not have a right to know).
There are people who will lie because they don’t like their truth and they simply speak of it in terms that they can live with even if those terms are not real or true. Self deceiving is all too easy because you are lying to yourself and you have no outside way to verify that information..
There are people who will lie for gain, or for pity, or for love, or for incandescent hate, or for indifference. There are people who will lie for the joy of hearing themselves do it.
The first lie told begins a story. The rest of the story… is a search for truth. Not, necessarily, the facts. Just the truth.
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