Unreliable Narrators in Fiction Writing

There’s a very easy way to gain an edge on 99 percent of the writing competition. It’s a simple thing, really, one that any writer, no matter how experienced or inexperienced, can take advantage of and use. It can be used over and over, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be repetitious.

It’s called literary theory and it’s been around for a long time. Anyone who’s read The Communist Manifesto or any of Salman Rushdie’s non-fiction essays has been exposed to it. Literary theory often appears in the form of critical texts, most often written in response to a work (or multiple works) of fiction. The authors dissect and examine the themes and attitudes of the works of fiction and create theories based on them.

One piece of literary theory that works as a starting point is the unreliable narrator. Go out and find Wayne C. Booth’s writings on narrator reliability. Google it if you must, but find anything you can on narrator reliability and digest it. The next time you write a story, especially from a first-person perspective, remember what you read about narrator reliability.

What is an unreliable narrator? It’s not just a narrator who outright lies to us, the reader. It’s a narrator whose values and beliefs sharply contrast with the writer’s. Typically, the narrator’s psychological instability or biases are what make him/her most unreliable.

Take Huck Finn. Huck Finn tells us in his story that he’s probably going to Hell because he’s going to free Jim. Freeing a slave, in Huck’s eyes, is a sin. Did Mark Twain believe Huck was going to Hell? Of course not.

Can you create an unreliable narrator? Can you trust someone who isn’t like you to lead your readers somewhere you may not necessarily go? It’s a concept that’s been looked at often throughout history, but it’s something very few writers actually have any knowledge about. Truly, it wouldn’t be ridiculous to suggest that at least 95 percent of the authors today do not realize they may have created unreliable narrators.

Why is your narrator unreliable? Look closely at what you’re trying to say in your writing. Your narrator should be unreliable for a reason. He/she should have a purpose for not being believable. When your narrator has a reason, you become consciously aware of him/her as a character.

There are a thousand other critical theories you can look at and use. Narrative Theory is only the tip of the iceberg, and it’s a great starting point for writers who are looking to add more depth to their work.

Ken Brosky is an author and editor. His first novel, Grendel, is available from Harbor House Books. He is also the editor-in-chief of Brew City Magazine, a literary Web zine.