5 Tips for Writing an Unreliable Narrator

One of my favorite elements in stories is the use of an unreliable narrator. As a reader, you want to implicitly trust what the narrator is telling you, but I like when I feel as if I have to piece together the truth for myself. If this appeals to you as well, check out my tips for crafting an unreliable narrator.

1. Give Them a Vice

When I say give them a vice, I don’t mean make them clumsy or someone who can’t resist buying a pack of Oreos at the grocery store.

Although I get it.

What we’re looking for is something debilitating, an addiction. Drinking, drugs, anything that might skew their memories. One of my favorite examples of this is Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train. Rachel is an alcoholic, devastated by the end of her marriage, and she frequently loses gaps of time due to her drinking. She even admits to not remembering certain events, so as the reader, we have to go off of her guesses or what other people have told her happened. Of course, the reader then has to assume that what others tell her is the truth, even if it conflicts with what Rachel remembers. Therein lies the brilliance of the character–there are so many people with so much to lose, we need to decide, as the reader, who to believe.

2. Make Your Narrator the Product of Trauma

This is a tactic I’ve used in my own writing. I once ghostwrote a book about a young man who is under an immense amount of stress after his best friend dies. But things aren’t what they seem and when his friend reappears, the reader isn’t sure if the young man is losing his mind due to stress or if there is something else going on entirely.

It’s totally normal if these things start talking to you, right?

Another thing about trauma is that the human brain can block out past traumatic events as a coping mechanism. Use this to your advantage! Even if the narrator does remember a traumatic event, they might not be truthful about it with the people around them, which can leave your reader wondering if the narrator is being truthful to the reader. We all have stories we tell others in order to craft a certain narrative; let your character do the same.

3. Use the Secondary Characters

In Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn, the narrator is a high school student named Nick who is in anger management after hitting his girlfriend, Caitlin. Nick maintains that he only slapped her across the face once, but the way his former friends and the rest of his classmates treat him imply that it might have been more than that. Use these secondary characters to your advantage. Your narrator might have a certain story of how something happened, but you can make them unreliable by examining how the other characters in the story treat them. Do they believe your narrator? Or do they know more than the narrator is letting your reader know?

4. Lie by Omission

Let your unreliable narrator lie to the reader by omission. You could have them frequently reference something in their past like “that thing that happened on Halloween” but don’t let them elaborate. That’s going to leave the reader wondering what happened, especially if that event seems to have affected the present. Leaving out details will leave the reader wondering if they can trust the narrator to tell them what’s true or not. Trust is sort of a two-way street when it comes to the narrative; if the narrator doesn’t trust the reader with the truth, then the reader won’t feel they can trust the narrator to tell the truth.

5. Make Your Narrator Nuts

My favorite recent example of this is Joe Goldberg in Caroline Kepnes’s You. We know from the first page that Joe is a stalker and is slightly off his rocker (to put it mildly). Joe is honest with the reader, but because we know he’s crazy, we can’t trust his version of the truth. His perception of interactions is skewed by his mental state, making him very unreliable. Of course, that’s what I found so compelling about the narrative (to read more of my review of this book, you can click here).

We all knew this is how Dan Humphrey was going to turn out.

Here’s to you and writing your unreliable narrators! Did I leave out anything you’ve found helpful? Let me know in the comments!

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