Narrative Voice:  Creating Your Unreliable Narrator

February 4, 2021

Which of your characters is going to lie to your audience, and why?

Firstly, it's always important to remember that no baddie ever actually thinks they’re the baddie. They are always hero of their own tales, so create them to believe that. Take Loki, from the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. His character arc is a great example of someone going to increasingly more desperate ends to prove himself and be accepted, and at no point does Loki consider himself the Villain—he is the ignored and bullied little brother, the victim of gaslighting and lies, the wronged rightful heir, the trapped and enslaved minion of Thanos, the desperately hurt and angry child trying to come back to a home that no longer values what he thought it did. We only see Loki as the villain the MCU because the point-of-view (POV) of the films tell us he is.

Why use an Unreliable Narrator?

For one thing, it’s juicy. While it’s hard to pull off right, when it works, it really, really works.

Whether this unreliability is pays off through your readers' slow, dawning realization that something is off (Fight Club), or a grand reveal at the end of the story (The Sixth Sense), or even a revelation that changes the context of a truth told at the start of the story when nobody took it seriously (American Psycho), there is something satisfying about a really good Unreliable Narrator.

So how do you do it?

Deliberately feeding your readers misinformation, filtered through the POV of your narrator, is the best way to create a believable Unreliable Narrator.

  • Remembering our lesson about your narrator knowing only what they know, you can add another layer to their internal voice: a filter the character uses to decide what they want to hold back from the reader.
  • Your narrator should also be unreliable from the very start—your reader may not twig to it right away, and that’s fine, but they have to be consistently unreliable.
  • Try to find ways to use the reactions and emotions of other characters to reflect this unreliableness, to help the reader figure it out on their own without explanations.
  • Except, of course, when they’re really not reliable. Dropping small hints and little moments (for example, where a boast or a lie by the narrator is one step too far) will not only help the reader reassess what is and isn't real, but also gives the reader some of that information they need to figure out that the narrator is not to be trusted.

However...

The one thing you cannot do to you reader is lie to them.

You can trick them, sure, by having the narrator lie (or at least, omit the truth). But you, the writer, you cannot lie to the reader. You cannot betray their trust in you as a storyteller with a cheap, thin, weak twist ending that you didn’t work to earn all the way through the book. Whatever groundwork you lay for your Unreliable Narrator, it has to be solid. (Imagine if you went back through The Sixth Sense and saw the ghost move a chair!)

In summary

Writing an Unreliable Narrator is really not much different than writing a reliable one. But it can make for a much more powerful reading experience. The only difference is that you had to add a second filter onto the mechanism/character you’re transporting the story through. The first filter is the character’s hegemonic (their primary or mainly visible) context, as discussed in the first post in this series, Who Is Telling Your Story, and the second is a layer of lies the character understands and relates to the reader, whether consciously, unconsciously, by circumstance, or by omission.

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Narrative Voice: Who is Telling Your Story? is the first post in a five part series. 

Also in this series:

Part 1: Who Is Telling Your Story

Part 2: Using More Than One Narrator

Part 3: Creating a Narrative Voice

Part 4: What is an Unreliable Narrator