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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.
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!)
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.
Narrative Voice: Who is Telling Your Story? is the first post in a nine 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
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