3 Ways to Create an Unreliable 1st-Person Narrator

Everyone lies sometimes.

Last week, my book club met and it was all I could do to make it through the book. Why oh why didn’t I like it, I kept wondering. Then a friend in the meeting called the narrator unreliable and it all made sense.

I may be the only person in the US who isn’t in love with the unreliable narrator. In part, I think it is because this is so hard to do well especially if the story is told in the first person.

We all lie to ourselves. I think it is human nature. But an unreliable first person narrator is hard to pull off. Here are five ways you can make it work.

Desperate to Believe

One way to pull it off is to create a character who is absolutely desperate to believe the story that they are telling. This could be a woman who can’t face the death of her child, a man whose dishonesty led to the suicide of a co-worker, or a parent who simply cannot contemplate the evil deed done by their only child.

Can you see why each of these characters would need to believe the lie that they are telling? And they have to buy into it 100%.

Tricked into Believing

Another way to make it work is to create a narrator who has been tricked into believing something. Think about the various family fictions that people believe because that is what they are told. They don’t question how a penniless grandparent became wealthy. Or an incredibly loyal person, who believes other people are as loyal and honest as she is, at first believes that their employer is properly disposing of hazardous waste.

There are other people who know the truth and eventually it comes out but it is a slow struggle.

Make Her Snap

One thing that can make a narrator unreliable is if they act out of character especially if their actions would seem irratic and dangerous if anyone at all did them. What if your character is pushed to the breaking point and, out of rage, does something extreme? A tantrum in a restaurant? Something breakable heaved across the office? A nasty message left on the company web page?

This Writer’s Digest post really gave me a lot to contemplate and added having a character snap to my list. That said, I don’t know that I’ll ever be a huge fan of the unreliable narrator.

–SueBE