Lying to the Reader

When an author is considering how to tell a story, one choice is an unreliable narrator. The attraction of such an approach is obvious. The protagonist becomes a filter for the events that happen, setting up at the very least a terrific novel-ending twist. So why don’t more authors adopt this approach?

I’ll start with some common sense. A person is unreliable for a reason. In our real lives we all know relatives or the like that distort the truth. This can occur with a black sheep in the family, a person prone to exaggeration, or someone who’s not quite right in the head. All three can be combined in the same person. The verdict among those who know such a person is: he is very entertaining, but I wouldn’t trust him with a dime.

That is why the famous unreliable narrators in literature tend to be scoundrels, such as Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley or Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Just like your black sheep relative, they are trying to con the reader. Indeed, with both heroes the power of the storytelling derives in large part from the simultaneous loathing and fascination the reader feels toward him.

Such a personage clashes with another imperative: the reader’s desire to stick with a protagonist through the book. If it becomes apparent that the heroine is lying repeatedly to the reader, the implicit author-reader trust is broken. If the heroine has not endeared herself in other ways, the reader may put down the book in disgust.

As a result, managing an unreliable narrator is a difficult task for a writer. It requires delving into the mind of the character to such an extent that her perverted view of the world makes sense to her. Yet you can be tactical about what bends her prism. First you need to decide: what is she protecting? If she is trying to block out a life-changing event from the past, you can have her cry out against similar events in a way that exculpates herself.

Let’s say a man cheats repeatedly on his wife, the best woman he’s ever met, because his jet-filled career once filled him with an inflated view of himself. He could decry other men’s foibles, march in #MeToo rallies, and other means of atonement, all in the doomed hope that she will forgive him someday. At some point the reader starts to realize that the guy is going overboard on this stuff. That’s when you make the reader realize how desperately unhappy he is in his second marriage.

Exercise: What do people lie about and for what reason? That is the starting point when planning to write through an unreliable narrator. First pick out what the character means to hide from the reader, whether in the past or ongoing during the novel. Then decide what hints should escape, clueing in the reader that the character is not on the level.

“A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies.”
―Alfred Tennyson

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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