Unreliable narrators are a wonderful way to create an immersive, compelling story full of surprises for a reader, but they can be very difficult to write. Fortunately, we’re here to help! Here are our top three tips for writing an unreliable narrator – read on!
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On to our tips…
Tip 1. Everything, literally e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g, has to be seen through the lens of the narrator’s unreliability. It’s not just their inner monologue. It’s how they perceive the entire world, and their challenges or delusions will and should color the entire story – what they notice, how they describe things, how they engage, what they choose to say, how they interpret what they hear, what decisions they make, etc. It’s not enough to express their unreliability through inner monologue or relation of their thoughts. Especially if you’re writing from a first person or third person limited point of view, if you want an unreliable narrator to work, you’ve gotta go “all in.”
Take depression as an example. If the character is depressed, they’re not going to look out on a sunny day and describe it as lovely and bright – unless to contrast it with their own unhappiness.
Or, suppose your character has hallucinations. Odds are, they’re not going to know they’re hallucinations, especially as they’re happening. In order to “sell” the events to a reader, it’s essential that there not be any obvious tells in the narration or descriptions…at least until it’s time for the character to realize they’ve been hallucinating. The first time it happens, especially, there’s absolutely no reason that a reader should realize it’s a hallucination – and after the first time, the way the first was written should have been immersive enough that the reader will always have to wonder, in the back of their head, “is this another hallucination?”
If the character believes something, your reader should believe it, until evidence starts to stack up that maybe something is off.
If the character sees something, your reader should be reading a description of that thing as the character sees it, until something changes that affects that perception.
In first person and third person limited PoV, your character is the reader’s avatar in the world, and the world should be seen through that character’s PoV…even if that character’s PoV is a card castle of lies about to be blown over. Write what your character experiences, sees, feels, interprets – not what’s actually around them.
Tip 2. Even as you sink the reader into the narrator’s headspace by writing through that lens, you have to keep track of what’s actually happening. In my opinion the hardest part of writing an unreliable narrator is making it clear to the reader that the narrator is unreliable, and clueing readers in to what is actually happening, without breaking out of the unreliable narration. Have a plan for how you’re going to do this going in, and be aware that no matter how careful you are a minority of readers will likely completely miss the point and your work will just not be for them.
There are a lot of ways to get that across. Some will be very subtle (for example, a character believes in magic, but reading between the lines will make it clear there are normal explanations for everything), some easily misunderstood and heavily reliant on metaphor (for example, nightmares, PTSD or flashbacks, that show another angle on the character’s situation), and some are obvious (for example, switching PoV to someone who sees things differently).
In some stories, you may never want to make it clear. The entire point may be to keep the reader unsure – to maintain the uncertainty of what was real and what wasn’t. Or maybe you’ll make it clear just by the preponderance of events that don’t make sense – people saying one thing while the unreliable narrator consistently reacts as if they’re saying another, for example. Like, if your unreliable narrator has a rival, and that rival is constantly saying things like, “hey, do you want a hand with that? I’d love your advice on this! Maybe we could work together!” it’s going to be clear to the reader fairly quickly that no matter how negatively the unreliable narrator is interpreting these statements, something isn’t matching up.
Use whatever tools you’ve got in your toolkit to leave a little trail of breadcrumbs about what is real and what is delusion/misperception…but don’t be afraid to leave a little mystery, either.
Tip 3. Every narrator is an unreliable narrator. All aspects of a person’s personality and background will contribute to their view of the world not matching objective reality (is there such a thing?) and will help the reader to learn about that character. As an author, if you’re writing from a narrow or limited point of view, it’s essential to keep in mind that the PoV character sees everything through the lens of their life experiences. This can and should be communicated through phrasing, word choice, description, inner monologue, dialog – everything. A doctor will know terminology that a mechanic won’t, and vice versa. Some characters will step into a room designed for a specific function and recognize everything in it. Others will be clueless and recognize nothing. This should be in the back of your mind with everything you write.
Of course there is a question of degrees. A character with severe depression who thinks they are worthless is going to be a much less reliable narrator than, say, a patient who doesn’t remember what a stethoscope is called. The more unreliable your narrator, the more their viewpoint will skew, but everyone is shaped by their world and everything they experience will be described through the lens of their personal experience and knowledge.
Take education level as an example. A character with a low level of educational attainment isn’t going to bust out thesaurus words when they’re looking at the world around them. They’re not going to look at their beloved’s eyes and think, “oh wow they’re viridian.” What they will think, exactly, will depend on who they are and on their background. If they’re a farmer, maybe those green eyes will remind them of fresh sprouts in spring. If they’re an alien, maybe those green eyes will remind them of the color of the atmosphere on their home planet. If they’re ancient China, maybe those green eyes will remind them of jade.
If you aren’t changing your narrative approach based on whose PoV you’re writing from, you’re missing out on a huge number of options available for fleshing out a character and helping immerse your reader in the story.
Know your character.
Imagine how they perceive the world.
And write your story through their eyes and knowledge level.
And your reader will see the world exactly as they do, and man, will they be in for one heck of a story!
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