Recently, I have begun a writing project that revolves around the first-person, largely varying thoughts of an unreliable narrator.
If you don’t know, an unreliable narrator is, essentially, a narrator in a story that lies directly to the reader. Meaning that the reader might be watching something going on that is far from the truth – which, of course, would seem odd, right? Because the main character who is speaking to the reader is supposed to inform that reader of the truth… right?
Of course, it is a rather nonconformist way of writing… which is why many people who are reading a story written in such a way don’t even notice the fact until the end of it has neared (which often makes the book being read even greater than it already was, in my opinion – more mysterious). And sometimes, a person may never find out whether or not a narrator is unreliable. Take Nick Carraway from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for instance: there is much debate over whether or not this character was created to be unreliable – to have the reader turn the wrong direction while reading, only to realize something scandalous later on which was in actuality right in front of one’s eyes the entire time. In order to create this type of character (if he, in fact, did mean to create him), Fitzgerald makes Carraway out to be a very honest person at the beginning of the story (the character quite literally says that he is the most “honest” person he’s ever known). This effectively puts the reader’s mind at ease… later, however, that same character describes other figures in the story with bias either to or against them (for example, he obviously favors Gatsby over Tom), and he is also intoxicated during parts of his narration. But the reader, thinking back to the first chapter wherein Nick tells his rather dishonest tale of honesty, thinks nothing of these events, and unknowingly goes along with Nick’s views of the other characters: Gatsby is a good guy, and Tom is a lying bigot.
Now don’t get me wrong – my unreliable narrator has been an insanely fun and entertaining character to write as – but it is also very difficult. And I have been able to pinpoint a couple of reasons why:
- It is hard to know what my character is like in actuality. Of course, the fact that she is a sociopath does not help this at all, but I feel as though this might be a problem with all unreliable narrators. It is difficult even for the writer, in my opinion, to completely know what is going on in an extreme (meaning much more unreliable than Nick Carraway) unreliable narrator’s mind at all times. This means lots and lots of planning must be done in order to get the character right. And, of course, on the first draft no one’s going to get it right – which is why there are other drafts. And more character planning. And more plotting. And in the end, that one tiny scene might be just a little bit unclear for the writer, but that’s okay. Maybe it is the type of scene that should really just be left up to interpretation of the reader. Maybe sometimes it’s better that way. But then again, maybe it’s not… which makes the process even more difficult.
- It is hard to know how to write a likable person who lies to the reader. The reader wants to know the truth, and if he finds out that the truth is not being given to him, that character might completely lose her spunk. But, if the narrator is written the right way, she could grow even more as a character, as a person – and in effect, the reader might like her a lot better. And this is where I am going to leave it up to you readers: What makes a good unreliable narrator, in your opinion? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and have a great writing/reading day.
(Also, as a side note: Unreliable sociopaths have proven to be really hard to write. If anyone has any thoughts on this specific process, feel free to comment about this as well.)