Unreliable Narrators

Unreliable Narrators

We love to hate them: those unreliable narrators, the ones who are telling us one kind of story when another is unfolding behind the scenes. We have to be detectives, sleuths, Nancy Drews, in order to pick apart the true story and discover what's really happening. We can see narrators like this in Henry James' classic The Turn of the Screw: is the house really haunted by ghosts, or is the babysitter going insane? In more modern examples, we can see teenage narrators who don't want to tell us what's really going on, or traumatized narrators who don't want to tell us about their pasts. Think of The Perks of Being a Wallflower; in that case, the narrator is keeping secrets not only from us, but also from himself.

The funny thing about the mind games these narrators play with us is that we just can't get enough of them. We love being manipulated; we love being lied to. It might be because we love the work of sifting through the clues and discovering the truth on our own. An unreliable narrator is as good as a murder mystery; we want to discover for ourselves who the culprit is.

So how do we create an unreliable narrator of our own? There are a few simple steps toward making your narrator more complex, more shifty, and ultimately, more satisfying.

1) Think of a secret, any secret...

Narrators can only be unreliable if their version of events includes something they don't want others to know. You must build a character with a secret. The funny thing is that it can be one of a wide variety of secrets. Just because you wouldn't think to keep something a secret doesn't mean someone else isn't deeply ashamed of it. So a better-looking twin, a mother who never hugged, failing kindergarten, cheating on a test, a disabled sibling -- there's no end to the things out there, shameful or not, that people might want to keep quiet. Give your character something he or she would like to hide.

2) Understand the motivation.

The next step is to actually give that character a reason to withhold that information. We will feel manipulated -- and not in a good way -- if the character seems coy or withholding for no reason. So now we need to understand why the character is hiding that information from us. Maybe it's information that will keep the character from being liked at school, or from getting the big promotion at work. Maybe it's deeply shameful; maybe it's the sort of thing that would keep a person from blending in and seeming normal. What does your character want most in life, and why would this secret stand in the way of that?

3) Drop hints, deceive, lie, drop hints.

Now it's time to start up the unreliability engine. Give us small, carefully placed hints about the character's secret. She never wanted to swim again after the accident. She doesn't like to talk about her brother because she's afraid people will make fun. He has a scar next to his left temple. Start our curiosity engines whirring. Readers will latch onto these clues hungrily, trying to figure out what's going on.

Just remember: don't give away too much! The game should always be a game of dance and drop and retreat. Drop a hint and then back away: your narrator is skittish as a deer, and might be willing to outright deceive us in order to get his way. With games like these, you'll frustrate your reader -- and delight her to no end.