Not all fictional narrators are trustworthy. Some have other plans about how a story should be told. These untrustworthy fictional souls use manipulations, omissions and mischief to try and misdirect their reader.
Last year I wrote a draft with an unreliable narrator and I had so much literary fun. However, I came to realise that working with these characters is an experience and there are pitfalls. There is potential for you to enjoy yourself a little too much and hours later have to lie down in a darkened room, with a cold compress on your forehead, listening to soothing whale music.
There is also the potential for what I like to call the, ‘unreliable narrator hangover,’ which I will explain later. Basically you need to know how to survive working with the untrustworthy imaginary folk.
David Lodge, in his book, The Art of Fiction, describes the purpose of the unreliable narrator:
‘The point of using an unreliable narrator is indeed to reveal an interesting gap between appearance and reality, and to show how human beings distort or conceal the latter. This need not be a conscious, or mischievous, intention on their part.’
The unreliable narrator is always written in the first person.
For us, as writers, the ultimate goal is to create a likeable character, who the reader can empathise with, whilst at the same time getting the character to LIE to them. *Squeal* Oh my goodness – literary fun doesn’t get much better than this!
*Wicked smile and whispers, ‘liar liar pants on fire!‘*
I reckon all the famous novelists whispered that whilst thinking about unreliable narrators – sigh!
So, how do you survive writing the unreliable narrator?
- Don’t get carried away with fooling your reader. They like a few subtle hints that they are being deceived. This is the golden rule with unreliable narrators. Readers either want to suspect a character is pulling the wool over their eyes or they want to flick back through the novel, once finished, to acknowledge there was trickery taking place. Don’t make a fool of your reader.
- There must be a reason why your narrator is unreliable. Something is fuelling their behaviour. What are they hiding? Who are they protecting? What do they not want you to see? What are they going through to make them behave in this way?
- Remember that sometimes we trick ourselves. We curate our reality in such a way that we hide all the stuff we don’t want to face up to. This means you can have an unreliable narrator who is quite simply trying to deceive themselves. Not all unreliable narrators are evil.
- Work hard to create a likeable character. This will help pave the way for deception. Sprinkle in some coolness and add a teaspoon of vulnerability!
- Make sure you keep track of the deception with a good plot plan. Once you start chanting, ‘liar liar pants on fire’ at your laptop you can whip up a dangerous concoction of writing excitement and mischief euphoria. This leads to you straying from the plot and getting carried away. Based on experience it’s quite difficult to stop yourself when you are in the ‘deception zone.’
- Once you have finished writing a story featuring an unreliable narrator have a good break from writing. The reason I say this is the ‘unreliable narrator hangover’ means you will excitedly rush into creating another story WITHOUT an unreliable narrator and because your writing brain is geared up for deception, you will unconsciously start weaving in some LIES! These characters are powerful fictional beings and they will get inside your mind.
Are you a fan of unreliable narrators? I love this article from author Sophie Hannah, titled ‘The Most Unreliable Narrators,’ She says:
‘I generally like, and side with, unreliable narrators. Why should they tell us everything, in a straightforward manner? What have we done to earn that privilege? By the end of the novel, when they’ve decided they trust us because we’ve stuck with them for so long, that’s usually when they finally give up their secrets, and we should consider ourselves lucky to be confided in even at that point.’
Have fun out there!