Tuesday, April 3, 2012
An unreliable narrator is one who lies to the reader. It could be a lie of omission, where something is deliberately withheld from the reader. It could be a deliberate lie, or a series of them. It could appear in the form of a character whose perspective you're deeply in, and that person either doesn't have all the answers, or doesn't notice the pertinent plot points.
Now that I type all of that out, I'm not sure I have any reliable narrators in anything I write. I like to dole out what my characters tell the reader, and limit what they reveal to what would cross their minds as a pertinent fact. My characters don't have all the answers, because it's more interesting to me to write people who are driven to find out.
So that's one way to do it. If you're already pretty good with character-driven stories, I would recommend it.
But that's not the only approach. You can write a narrator who's lying to the audience the whole time. If you do that, it's a good idea to balance it out with clues within the narrative about where the lies are, and what's truth. Establish the character's "tells," which give away when he or she is lying. You can have the character fess up later in the story, but you need to establish the motivation for that character telling the truth, or that, too, will be suspect. Unless that's the point of the story.
You can also have different layers of unreliable narrator. Maybe your perspective character is telling the truth, but where he or she is getting information might be suspect. You can make a reader feel really smart by slipping in clues that all is not as it seems that they'll see, but the character doesn't.
The problem with the unreliable narrator is that, if used too heavily, the entire story becomes suspect. Stories are lies writers tell, after all. If the reader is left feeling like the story was all a waste of time, though, disbelief was stretched too far. Just as in suspending disbelief, it's important to have a core of truth at the center of the lies to get readers on board.
When an unreliable narrator is done well, it looks seamless and effortless, and it adds a layer of mystery and dramatic tension. When it's done poorly, though, it's clunky and obvious. As with any other literary device, the best way to find the right balance is to try it out and practice until a beta reader gives feedback to the effect of liking the story because it kept your reader guessing.