Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Unreliable Narrator

A writer asks: How do you make an effective unreliable character?

The narrator, Greg Lockland, in The Pacific Between is a semi-reliable character. Not that Greg lies a lot, but he doesn't always speak the truth, or he omits information (out of embarrassment, etc.) or he has his own version of the truth to tell. So how does it all work?

Here are some pointers:

A) Learn from the masters. Catcher in the Rye, Fightclub, etc. etc.

B) by nature of first person narrative, your narrator is already semi-reliable because the audience can't completely trust the narrator, can they? It's always colored by the narrator's POV, his own judgments, his thoughts and his world views. If they do, there must be a reason. So I'd say by default the 1st person narrator is not entirely reliable to begin with.

C) I don't think people are going to see unreliable narrator as a source for plot holes or inconsistency, but more like mystery and intrigue. If you write it well, the readers will be drawn to the character even though they may not completely trust him/her. And often it's not that the narrator is lying, but more like he's either omitting certain information (out of embarrassment, etc.) or telling his own version of the story (you mentioned Rashomon).

D) You can use other characters to shine some light into the story, or reveal the contradictions (at the same time create conflicts), or cast some doubts on the narrator's testimony. Say, the wife accuses the narrator for being a cheater and a liar, while the narrator keeps saying she's wrong. Now the readers will have to decide who is telling the truth... thus you have an intriguing plot going on. In real life, it's the same thing... we can't always tell if the other person is telling the truth or full of themselves. So we can only take their word for it, or find other ways to verify the information. Same here... you need to give the readers a way to find the real truth.

E) Focus on the external and not the internal. Internally the narrator could be unreliable, but externally, he observes. And by those observations the readers could get hints of what really is going on.

F) Read.

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