We want those around us to be honest with us, to tell us the truth. Most of the time, anyway. We want them to be reliable in their narrations. But in fiction, great beauty resides within the unreliable.
Author Wayne C. Booth coined the phrase “unreliable narrator” in 1961 to describe that narrative voice the writer employs with the goal of misleading us, the readers. It may not be the easiest thing to manage with success, but when it is it can be put to brilliant use.
So who are these unreliable narrators?
To name just a few, they can be liars, drunks, drug addicts, the insane, the jealous, and the guilty. There are lots more, but we can boil all of them down to two essential types: the intentionally unreliable and the unintentionally unreliable.
Intentionally unreliable narrators mislead you on purpose. Say your viewpoint character recounts the ferocious battle in which he saved a small boy from death by dragging him from a burning house, under fire from a sniper, when in reality he panicked and used the boy as a human shield. He wants to keep the truth to himself and build a more agreeable narrative.
Consider the narrator suffering mental illness. Maybe she’s manic depressive, maybe schizophrenic. She might be telling the truth, but it’s her truth, the truth as she alone sees it. If she narrates her story in which she alone survives the shipwreck and braves towering seas, blistering sun, and starvation, is her story an accurate depiction of the events? In her mind, yes. But her mind might be way off. Maybe she murdered everyone on the ship, but her mind cannot accept the reality.
Let’s go back to that character that used the boy as a human shield and lied about it. Suppose, after a time, he comes to believe his own lies, and repeats the story as his own truth. He has morphed into an unintentionally unreliable narrator.
Who are some other unreliable narrators? Well, children. Not because they are deranged, because I hear that some are not. No, it’s because they are viewing the world through different lenses than we, the adult readers, are. A five-year old will believe that Daddy’s “medicine” really is medicine, rather than rotgut whiskey, because Mommy and Daddy never lie.
In one of the first true mystery novels, The Moonstone (1868), Wilkie Collins splits the narration into first-person accounts by multiple characters, each of them giving a written account of the goings-on surrounding the theft of a sacred jewel. One character, Miss Clack, is the very blueprint of unreliability, as she piles her biases and jealousies onto every little thing, viewing all as affronts to decent society or as personal insults. Collins wrings comic effect from her deposition and the reader (and the story’s detectives) are left with a bucketful of proclamations in need of onion-peeling.
In Stephen King’s short story, “Strawberry Spring,” (1968) the first-person narrator recalls his college days on a campus wracked by a string of murders. He remembers the terror he and his schoolmates felt those eight years ago during a foggy false spring, a strawberry spring. His narration is honest, but he then begins to doubt his own memories when murder strikes again in his new town, during a new strawberry spring.
The art of unreliability lies in layers of truth and perception, challenging the reader to examine those layers for what they are, to consider the sources. This sounds self-evident, as we each evaluate the sources of information we receive from others almost daily.
One could argue that all narration is unreliable, and with good reason. Recall an event from your own childhood. Write it as you remember it. Is it reliable? Memory itself is a tenuous thing, a weak set of electric footprints on a decomposing chip, and the farther in the past the event happened, the more those footprints have been trod upon by others. Compare your recollection to a sibling’s or a friend’s. You will most likely get a version quite different from your own, because each of us filters through our own perceptions.
The writer that can manage the unreliable voice wields a formidable skill indeed.