I recently finished the first draft of a novel. As I let it sit and percolate, I find myself wondering whether the story would be more interesting if I made my narrator, who is also my main character, a little less reliable.
I love books with unreliable narrators. Some of my favorites are INVISIBLE by Pete Hautman…
…LIAR by Justine Larbalestier…
…and INEXCUSABLE by Chris Lynch.
Unreliable narrators add a layer of interest to the story because you, as a reader, are never sure that what they’re telling you is true. I even paid homage to my favorite books by making Stevie, the main character and narrator of my YA novel FLYAWAY, somewhat unreliable.
As I think about adding this narrative layer to my current WIP, I realize that there are three questions I need to ask my narrator/main character in every scene:
1. What do you believe about the situation at hand? A character’s unreliability can stem from several different causes. In some cases, the character may not be telling the truth because he or she is unaware of it. In my WIP, for example, my main character, Desiree, knows that something is different about her, but she has made a wrong assumption about what that difference is. So she is not really lying to the readers, the other characters, or herself; she simply is unaware of the truth. She believes that what she is conveying to the reader is true, even though it isn’t.
Other unreliable narrators, though, are actively hiding the truth. In these cases, it’s important that you, as a writer, know what the character actually believes and why they are obscuring that belief.
2. What do you want the other characters to believe? This question will help you decide how much your character will disclose to others in the world of the novel. In my WIP, Desiree desperately wants to hide the fact that she is different from her best friend, Emmy. So even though readers know that Desiree believes something is wrong with her, they will see her behaving as if everything is normal, especially when she’s around her friend.
Be aware that your narrator might answer this question differently for each character she interacts with in. In other words, there may be some characters that the narrator is willing to disclose her secrets to and others from which she wants or needs to hide it.
What do you want the reader to believe? This last question is the essential one in creating an unreliable narrator. Will your narrator share secrets with the reader, even ones that he doesn’t share with other characters, or will he tell the reader one thing and, by his actions in the story, show another?
In a few weeks, I’ll be diving in to revise my novel, using these three questions as my guide.
Do you like books with unreliable narrators? What are some of your favorites?