Unreliable narrators have been admired by readers and writers alike since Holden Caulfield set the gold standard—and they’re more popular than ever in today’s bestsellers. Here are 8 reliable ways to make your characters just unreliable enough to keep readers guessing.
The unreliable narrator … Ah, don’t you love that unsettling, page-turning, blockbuster-making literary device? An unreliable narrator makes for the bad boy of novels—ensuring a delicious but uneasy read, an on-the-edge wondering of what might happen next.
Usually, we feel we’re in good hands with whatever main characters we’re spending time with between the covers. We can count on them, we think, to tell us the truth. But then comes a protagonist you’re just not sure you can entirely trust, and the dark and compelling journey begins. How, as writers, do we take our own readers on such a ride?
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8 Tips to Writing Unreliable Narrators
Every human being is, to some degree, an unreliable narrator. When we tell our stories to others, and even when we tell our stories to ourselves, we create our own version of events and of our lives as a whole. We don’t necessarily mean to deceive. But we can see and understand our experiences only from our own viewpoint—a shifting viewpoint at that. Facing the truth is a messy business. It involves denial, and pride, and the fact that understanding takes time; it relies on perspective (or lack of it), and the pesky fact that we can only face the truth we can stand to face at any given moment.
Every one of our characters is unreliable, too, whether we intend it or not. They can see only through their own, flawed eyes, same as us. Their singular opinions, blind spots and insights make them uniquely themselves and help lend your work the all-important “voice.” Our characters’ innate unreliability gives them the layers that make them realistic. When creating my own unreliable narrator, Dani Keller in He’s Gone, I didn’t see her as being willfully dishonest in the way she tells her story. I saw her as struggling with a hard truth that she hadn’t even entirely admitted to herself yet.
And then I turned it up a notch.
Because, while every realistic character should and will be unreliable in part, there are times when you want that unreliability to do more than paint the shadings of a convincing character: You want it to propel plot. There’s nothing like a question in the reader’s mind to get the pages turning, and when the question is about who the narrator actually even is, you can guarantee a need to find out.
Whether you want your characters to be deliberately deceitful or not, crafting an unreliable narrator has to be done with deliberate care. Like any relationship, the one between reader and writer requires respect and trust, and if you lose either by going too far, your reader is likely to break it off and move on. The aim in creating an unreliable narrator is to generate just enough suspicion, to withhold just enough information, without losing the reader’s connection to the character.
So, how do you let the reader know that there may be more to the character—and to the story at hand—than even the character himself might admit?
1. Make your character a liar.
Lying: It’s the most necessary element of an unreliable narrator, and may even be as close to a definition of the term as you can get. An unreliable narrator—well, he can’t be trusted to tell the truth. One way or another, he has to deceive the reader. The most obvious approach, then, is to make it who he is. Holden Caulfield, one of literature’s most well-known unreliable narrators, admits that there are things he doesn’t want to talk about in the very first paragraph of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. He’s told his brother only half the story, he confesses, and calls himself “the most terrific liar you ever saw.”
Paul Lohman, the voice that drives Herman Koch’s The Dinner, also immediately warns us not to trust him. In the first lines of the book, he states that he won’t reveal what restaurant the titular dinner takes place in, in case people will go to see if he’s there. Mark Haddon takes another approach in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. By the time his autistic narrator, Christopher Boone, tells us that he cannot lie and that everything he has written is true, we’ve come to understand how impaired and literal his perceptions are. We cannot believe his statement, because his truth is not likely to be ours.
When your main character is a liar, the reader immediately knows to be on guard. It’s insta-unease. Whether your character admits this fault outright, contradicts himself regularly in the narrative, or proves to be a liar by his actions, dishonesty is the hallmark of an unreliable narrator.
2. Lie by omission, too.
Rosemary, the unreliable narrator in Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, also lets us know that we should be wary of her—not because she tells lies, but because she’s withholding critical information. She tells us that she’s spent most of her life carefully not talking about her brother and sister. Certain pieces of the narrative are delicately cloaked, as well, so that the big reveal about her sister comes as a shock. “Three children. One story. The only reason I’m the one telling it is because I’m the one not currently in a cage,” Fowler writes, and we are left to wonder what “cage” even really means. Is this a literal cage? A metaphorical one? The lack of clarity lets us know she’s keeping things from us.
In Lionel Shriver’s disturbing We Need to Talk About Kevin, Eva Khatchadourian is also holding back the facts. We are left to wonder about her husband in the letters she writes to him. Where he is and why they are separated are both obviously and deftly sidestepped, so that we’re sure she’s keeping mum. In my own He’s Gone, Dani, too, withholds information. She struggles to remember each moment of the night her husband vanishes, but only later admits to having taken pills that inhibited that memory.
When your character hints that he knows more than he tells, reveals the truth a little later than he should, or has gaps in memory, your unreliable narrator can successfully shake the reader’s trust.
3. Muddy the motivations.
In Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Nora is intrigued by the Shahid family. Or, wait—is she obsessed? We hear how close Nora is to them, and yet much of her relationship with them is based in fantasy. She loves them, but doesn’t that love seem ever so slightly … vicious? Is she out to help them or harm them? Her muddy motives set us questioning, and leave us unsettled. We’re not exactly sure where she stands.
In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Eva also appears to be fiercely honest but proves to be increasingly disturbed as she reveals her complex thoughts about her son and motherhood. Is she someone who has loved her son and done her best with a child who was inherently evil? Or has her own rejection and dislike of him contributed to the outcome? Malicious or maternal—Shriver gives us both in Eva.
Provide your narrator with conflicting desires and disparate drives. Keep the reader guessing about your character’s true mindset. When those motives shift, so does the ground under your reader’s feet.
4. Make your protagonist more clever than she seems.
In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn paints both Nick Dunne and Amy Elliott with an innocent brush—at first. Even if their stories of married life don’t match up, Nick is initially sympathetic, if not harshly straightforward, and Amy is all innocence, if not girlish and naive. The first words we hear from her are giddy and musical: “Tra and la!” Is that a person capable of doing any real harm, save from annoying you to death? Would those words ever come out of the mouth of a sociopath? We think not, until Amy’s intricately planned treasure-hunt traps are slowly revealed.
Another example of sly and surprising narrators can be found in Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. This is a story that’s told from a host of unreliable narrators, all of whom are a bit eccentric, dramatic and even flaky, the kind of attributes you’re sure will add up only to mishaps and misunderstandings—that is, until shrewd purpose and calculated scheming are divulged.
When you craft a seemingly guileless narrator who hides true cunning, you have an unreliable narrator your reader has mistakenly fallen for.
5. Use your secondary characters.
It’s true in our own lives, and it’s true in our fiction—catching someone in a lie can be more unsettling than having someone admit to one. A reader can “catch” a narrator in a lie through a writer’s use of secondary characters. Most simply, a secondary character can reveal that he’s the victim of your narrator’s lie. Better yet, a secondary character can reveal a truth that your narrator hasn’t yet told. In The Dinner, Paul’s brother, Serge, reminds Paul in dialogue about a shocking wrongdoing of his from the past. Since Paul never mentioned that little fact, he’s been caught.
The manner in which secondary characters treat your protagonist can also speak to her unreliability. Their personal histories with your narrator may expose a side to the narrator the reader hasn’t seen. Whether it’s a relative, a neighbor or a law enforcement officer, a secondary character with the inside scoop can alter a reader’s perspective. Christopher’s arrest and his treatment by the police in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time suggest he might not be as innocent as he seems. A police interrogation also serves to expose a lie in He’s Gone. Whether it’s through casual dialogue, a confrontation or a dramatic event, consider how your own secondary characters might help convey who your protagonist really is—much to the shock of your unsuspecting reader.
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6. Add in an unpredictable act.
When a thoughtful, responsible or otherwise dependable character suddenly does something highly questionable, he becomes unreliable. Imagine that your previously predictable neighbor, known for mowing the lawn every Saturday, lights it on fire instead. In real life, this would forever change the way you saw him—and would also make you eye him carefully whenever you met at the mailboxes. What is he truly capable of? Who can say?
So it is in fiction. An erratic move on the part of your narrator will handily unnerve your reader.
In We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Rosemary is a kind and careful person. But after she throws a milk glass on the floor of a restaurant, causing a scene that gets her arrested, we’re never quite sure just what else she might do. Nora, the “straight-A, straight-laced, good daughter” teacher narrating The Woman Upstairs, also does the unpredictable when she disrobes in her friend Sirena Shahid’s art installation. In He’s Gone, Dani, also a thoughtful, straight-A good daughter, heaves the clay bust of her missing husband off the end of their dock on Lake Union.
It’s worth noting, too, that your narrator doesn’t have to be good to catch readers off guard with something bad. Instead, the shock might come when the bad do worse than your readers ever suspected. What’s important is that some surprising, revealing act makes your reader view your protagonist with heightened suspicion.
7. Make your protagonist a bad guy … or don’t.
Quite a few unreliable narrators are unlikable and even sociopathic. You wouldn’t want to have dinner with Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, or with Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, and even the bestselling story of the dinner with Paul Lohman makes a reader squirm. Often, an unreliable narrator is a manipulator, a narcissist or a person who’s losing (or has lost) her mind.
But not every unreliable narrator is evil, dangerous, unhinged or even just plain unsympathetic. Some are simply telling their own truth as they see it, or are working understandably hard to justify a bad situation. Their reasons for being less than forthright might come from a personal struggle, a trauma, memory loss, a hesitation to divulge family secrets, or their own slowly dawning acceptance of their situation.
Even nice people lie sometimes, and even good human beings hide hard truths.
Make your unreliable narrator a deliciously dark villain, if you wish. But also remember that a likable and unreliable character makes for especially complex fiction, and for a realistic, compelling read, as well.
8. Keep it believable.
Fiction is most powerful when it comes from an honest place—even when your narrator doesn’t. When you’re toying with the trust of your readers, it’s especially important to keep it believable.
When Rosemary throws that milk glass and gets arrested, the scene works because it’s a milk glass and not a machine gun. The small moments with Paul Lohman at dinner are so utterly convincing—his insecurities, his feelings about everything from corn salad to a waiter’s pinky hovering just over his food—that his larger acts feel credible. Holden Caulfield’s voice is so emotionally on point that both his past and present make sense. Stay in the realm of the real with telling detail and authentic voice, and don’t drift to melodrama.
The unreliable narrator is an effective technique that makes for such a rich reading experience because we are all familiar with our own deceptions, confusions and egos, and with the times we wish the truth were different. The humanity of your protagonist is key. If the little lies and the tunnel vision and the character flaws that you create are those we know from our own lives, your reader will stay connected to your character. Finding the truth in the untruths will elevate your story. An unreliable narrator is not just a device, but also the skilled portrayal of a realistically flawed human being.