How Do You Pull Off A Successful Unreliable Narrator?

I just finished reading a certain best-selling book that included an unreliable narrator, and it got me to thinking about how you pull one of these off. It’s no easy task. I tried it. Unsuccessfully. I ended up rewriting the manuscript a different way, and as much as I liked the idea of the unreliable narrator, the MS was better without it.

Here’s a funny side note. Agents and editors are always saying they want unreliable narrators, but it’s not like you can tell them in your query that you have an unreliable narrator. That would defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it? They’d already go into it not trusting the character. Hmm … I wonder how you’d go about conveying that you’re giving them what they want without giving away the twist.

Anyway, back to my point. I’ve read several books where the author successfully pulled off an unreliable narrator, and I’ve pinpointed a few ways I think they make it work. But I’d love to hear if you know of more!

Written Accounts

Having the character put something in writing seems like the easiest way for them to lie to the reader, and it’s also the tactic I’ve seen used most often with an unreliable narrator. It’s still tricky, though, for that very reason: it’s been done. Maybe not too often yet, but I can think of at least two recent examples–one young adult and one adult–that used written accounts to mislead the reader. There’s something about a personal account that feels true to a reader, even though subconsciously you probably realize that the character doesn’t have to be writing the truth, you don’t have a reason to think they aren’t–until the author drops the bomb on you at some point in the book.

Traumatic Past

Here’s another person you can’t entirely believe: someone who doesn’t even know himself/herself. And yet this type of story still takes some masterful planning to pull off. You can’t just plug in a blank spot in the character’s memory. And for it to work, you can’t be outside the character, showing the reader what is different in the world the character sees versus the world everyone else sees. For the reader to trust the character, we have to be lost with them. While the first unreliable narrator is much more of an external authorial device, like “Ta-da! You didn’t see that coming!”, this one drags you in deep so that you feel more like we–the character and the reader–didn’t see that coming. It’s like the “Sixth Sense” effect. If you haven’t seen that movie, I’m sorry, but I think it’s been out there long enough I shouldn’t be spoiling it.

Deep Backstory

I wasn’t sure what to call this one, but sometimes the information the character withholds is so far in his/her past that it is understandable he/she wouldn’t think about it in the present. Or maybe the character has been trained to bury any thought of it (say, a secret identity). Is it frustrating to the reader when you get to the twist? Maybe, but I don’t mind a good twist if the author is able to explain why the character concealed it from the reader. This one is especially tough to pull off without leaving the reader feeling tricked, though. I’ve read a few that do it well. I’d tell you what they are, but then I’d spoil the twist :).

Other Ideas?

What other tactics have you seen work? I’m not looking for specific titles because then I’d know they’re unreliable! I’m looking more for generalizations like the above. Because maybe I’ll try an unreliable narrator again someday, in a story where he/she would be a fit …

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About Michelle I. Mason

I'm a full-time writer, focusing mainly on middle grade and young adult fiction with some freelance PR writing and editing on the side. I'm also a wife, mom, Christian, violinist, avid reader and St. Louis Cardinals fan. And I watch way too much TV.
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2 Responses to How Do You Pull Off A Successful Unreliable Narrator?

  1. Marianne says:

    One thing I’ve seen done several times in YA that it’s not so much the narrator that’s unreliable as his or her parents. Teenager protagonist is living their normal life and find out that they were kidnapped, or adopted, or put into the witness protection program when they were very young. Parents never told them because they are the kidnappers, or are trying to protect the child, but protagonist finds out and goes searching for the missing piece of their life. Then there is usually some twist or dramatic moment at the end that leads to understanding why the parents made the choices they did and making peace with what they have now.

    • Ah, yes, the evil (or seemingly evil with good intentions underneath) parents. It’s so much easier to put the twist at someone else’s door. But I love these kinds of books, too. I pay such close attention to details that anytime an author can catch me by surprise, I’m sold!

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