How to Write Convincing Unreliable Narrators

Photo credit: erichhh
I really enjoy unreliable narrators, something I've mentioned on the blog here before. There's something especially memorable and impactful about discovering partway through a book that the one character you've trusted implicitly—the character telling the story—has in fact been lying to you, or not telling the whole truth.

Of course, pulling off a convincing unreliable narrator who keeps secrets convincingly isn't as easy as it sounds (and it doesn't sound easy to begin with). It can be tough to toe the line between keeping whatever secrets your narrator is keeping and doing it in a way that both makes sense to the story, especially in hindsight, and fits the character without being overly convenient.

So how do you do that? The main keys that I've found revolve both around character and realism.

  • Character. In order to pull off an unreliable narrator, why they're unreliable has to make sense for their character. A character who values honesty above all else isn't going to skew the facts of the story on their favor, for example. Unreliable narrators, especially those that are being purposefully unreliable, are often smart, strategic characters with quite a bit of charisma—which is necessary for the character to convincingly deceive the readers until the time comes for the reveal.

  • Realism. This is an issue I see in published books even, from time to time, and it tends to cause a lot of griping from readers, and understandably so. Sometimes, when a POV character is keeping a secret, they mention the secret all the time. They remind readers that they have a secret but don't say what the secret is. I'm filing this under realism because, quite frankly, this isn't realistic. The whole point of having a secret is not talking about it—that's what a secret is. So to reference a secret and not say what it is becomes a tease that makes little sense in context—and it tends to turn readers against the narrator. 

With both of those elements tackled, you'll be well on your way to creating a stronger unreliable narrator.

What tips do you have for writing convincing secrets and unreliable narrators?

Twitter-sized bite:
How do you write a convincing unreliable narrator? @Ava_Jae shares a couple tips. (Click to tweet)

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