I’m in the process of editing pieces for an anthology that I’m putting together with a group of other writers and editors in the Los Angeles area, and one of my accepted submissions has an author who is struggling with unreliable narrator, which is a requirement for this anthology. (More on the anthology itself in a future post, I promise.)
I am having a lot of difficulty making the narrator more unreliable. Do you have any suggestions? I am really struggling with this, it is my first time going through this process.
I wrote him a note and then thought it could be useful to share my answer here, too.
Honestly, I have had a lot of trouble writing unreliable narrators, too, so don’t be discouraged. The easiest way to make a narrator unreliable is do one of three things:
1. make him/her too young to really understand what’s going on (Huckleberry Finn and, in the case of mental youngness, Flowers for Algernon)
2. have him/her purposefully lie or not tell whole truth (The Usual Suspects and, because it had multiple conflicting narrations, Rashomon), but make it apparent to the reader that your narrator is lying
3. give the narrator a physical problem that affects his/her memory or brain (Memento and Fight Club)
A word of caution on the last one, though: having an insane and/or mentally ill narrator (or character, for that matter) does not automatically make him/her unreliable. In real life, mentally ill people tend to tell the truth more often because they know they’re unlikely to be believed anyway, and that in itself is enough of a hurdle.
Even though I dislike “it was all a dream” narratives, they’re not implicitly unreliable, either, because the narrator is telling you the story in good faith. S/he would be unreliable, however, if s/he knew it was a dream and presented it as fact anyway. The point is that, usually, in the context of the dream itself, the narration is true. Likewise, high fantasy stories (The Lord of the Rings and the King Arthur legends) are not usually unreliable because the narrators tell the truth in the context of the story. That is to say, the stories are internally consistent.
The way to make a narrator unreliable is to make what surrounds them (what’s actually happening) and what they’re saying surrounds them (what they’re saying is happening) internally inconsistent.
I hope this helps. If you need more specific suggestions, let me know.
A lot of writers have trouble with unreliable narrators (and unreliable characters more generally speaking), so I hope this helps some of you who want to tackle the unknown in your writing.