Using an Unreliable Narrator

two-faced illusion
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It is said that there are three sides to every divorce: his side, her side, and the truth. This colloquialism alludes to the fact that people will slant their narration of events to suit their own perspective. Really, it goes beyond that because there are times when a participant in an event is not just biased, but incapable of seeing the whole picture because he or she does not have all the facts or is so set in their own view they will not see it any other way.

A writer uses narration to give the reader information that is not being directly observed: backstory, private thoughts, or events that have happened “off screen”.

Readers get used to the idea that everything told in the story is credible and trustworthy. And yet that’s not always the case because there can be a tricky type of narrator, the unreliable narrator. There are various reasons why an author might make a narrator misleading. Some characters are villains, who do their best to fool readers and lead them down a false trail. However, characters can also be unable to provide readers with objective information because they are naive, insane, unaware, or mistaken. Or they just can be show-offs and pretenders who exaggerate their merits and want to be better than they are in reality.

A narrator’s unreliability is sometimes obvious but can be largely hidden, revealing only hints that something is amiss.

If you are writing crime fiction or a mystery an unreliable narrator is a useful tool to add intrigue. This can ensure that readers stay enmeshed in a story through to the end, when they finally learn how the narrator deceived them. Then they will likely say “Wow! I didn’t see that coming!”

You don’t want this device to become a hallmark of your writing or your readers will enter every book expecting this subterfuge.  But tossing this kink in every once in a while can be fun.

If you’d like to study out how this technique is best used, I recommend these characters (and books) as examples of unreliable narrators:

  • Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye)
  • The Narrator (Fight Club)
  • Humbert Humbert (Lolita)
  • Alex (A Clockwork Orange)
  • Chief Bromden (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
  • Nick Carraway (The Great Gatsby)

Here’s a piece of flash fiction I wrote that uses misdirection in the narration to bring about a surprise ending.

Act of Kindness

He sat staring at the small semi-automatic pistol laying on the kitchen table. He had been staring at it for a long time. Thinking. Deciding. He knew what needed to be done. He could see the fear and pain in her eyes each time she looked at him. Her pain had to stop. He hated what was happening to her, but he was powerless to prevent it.

He picked it up, a shiver ran up his arm and a small voice nagged at him in the back of his mind, “Wrong.” it said, “This is wrong.” Normally, he would agree. But life had taken a turn. She was suffering. He had to stop the suffering. He would help her.

“I wonder if this will hurt her.” He whispered as he fingered the gun, getting accustomed to the hard, coldness of it. “Not for long, then she will be better. No more pain.

He pushed the tears and the uncertainty aside, stood up and walked out the front door. He marched up the forest path to her favorite place. She liked the serenity of the clearing in the deep woods and the tall, straight poplars. His feet crunched in the dry leaves, doubt welled, he pushed it back and marched on. It had to be done.

He rounded a bend and saw the lounge chair she liked to sit in and think.

A single shot rang through the woods.

It took them 3 days to find his body.

A Closer Kingdom
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