Unreliable narrators are nothing new in fiction. Authors across the genre spectrum have found it to be a useful narrative technique, a way to turn a story on its head and give the audience both a taste of something out of the mainstream and a deeper outlook on the narrator as a character.
One of the most notable examples found of this style is Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”. First published in 1955, it follows the story of Humbert Humbert, a middle aged man who tells the reader of his attraction to a prepubescent girl. The use of an unreliable narrator here is unparalleled – Humbert paints Lolita as a seductress, a girl wise beyond her years (a common pedophiliac rhetoric) in an attempt to get the audience to sympathize with him.
In a more modern example, “American Psycho” draws the reader in a similar way. The protagonist, Patrick Bateman, recounts all of his strange forays into sex, drugs, and yuppie culture, with a twist of insanity that keeps people reading. The trend has held on strong since then – from “Gone Girl” to “Fight Club”, to the classes of any college level creative writing workshop, unreliable narrators can be found everywhere (though they are most often present in the genres of suspense, thriller, and mystery.)
As interesting as the technique is, however, it’s easy for an unreliable narrator to go south.
Examples can be found in the very reviews listed on this blog. “My Summer Home”, a short story I reviewed in late February, shows the shallower end of the unreliable narrator pool. The unnamed protagonist is interesting in the way that she so wrongly perceives both herself and the world around her, but she constantly digresses into different subjects. It’s difficult to keep up with her near frantic train of thought, as her mind buzzes back and forth between the past and the present, what her reality is and what she imagines it to be. An outlook into a damaged mind can be interesting – yet, no matter how realistic, a front row seat into psyche like this can quickly have readers turning in the other direction.
So how do you write a narrator that can’t be trusted, yet still have the reader’s attention?
Advice tends to vary. Published author Deb Caletti suggests that making your character a liar is the best course of action (including having them lie by omission), while author and blogger Amanda Patterson points out that completely honest narrators can be unreliable due to their limited outlook on life or mental status, like Scout from “To Kill a Mockingbird” or Charlie from “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”. Both authors disagree with Arlene Prunkl, a freelance editor who outright states that no good unreliable narrators can be written from a third person perspective, insisting that readers will perceive this style as being ‘mislead’ by the author instead of the narrator (which isn’t always the case, considering that the “Harry Potter” series is told from a third person perspective, and Harry is often found to be an unreliable narrator in his own right).
What these three do have in common though, is a piece of advice any fiction writer should follow: Know your audience. At the end of the day, what a reader absolutely hates is to be cheated. Unreliable narrators need to be handled with a gentle hand – a sudden twist revealing that they were lying the whole time, with little to no buildup or foreshadowing, can leave any reader feeling disappointed, and off balance. A delicate touch is needed: a hint here, the reaction from an outside character there, and it is possible to create an unreliable narrator that shines past their unreliability.
“8 Tips to Writing Unreliable Narrators” by Deb Caletti
“The 9 Types of Unreliable Narrator” by Amanda Patterson
“Truth and Lies in Fiction: How to Write an Unreliable Narrator” by Arlene Prunkle