I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase, “Suspend your disbelief.” I’m also sure that you, like me and many others, have a limit to how long you’re willing to detain it from going grape-pit on the story in question.
An unreliable narrator is one you can’t trust. They keep information from the reader or create an uncertainty about what is true and what isn’t. Some people think fiction and deception go hand in hand…but readers don’t often like to feel screwed with.
I have read a few books and short stories with unreliable narrators, some of which I loved. If you have ever tried to recount a story, you might have found some of the details you thought you remembered different to how other people recall it. The same goes for first-person narrators in fiction. However, too much uncertainty is a turn off.
If the narrator states that this story may have been real or may have been a dream, will the reader be as engrossed? If the narrator can’t discern truth from fiction, can the reader relate to the story or empathise with the situations?
I find that if a narrator in a story is too muddled, I’m muddled. If I’m confused about where the story is going or what I am reading, I don’t want to continue. However, I think that unreliable narrators in stories can work if written well.
1. The unreliable narrator’s story should be plausible. Even if they say that they once flew to the moon, you have to make it plausible. Think Wonderland or Narnia. Falling down a hole or walking into a wardrobe? You have to make the improbable work for you.
2. You need other characters to balance out your story. If the reader has the distinct feeling that this is the tale of one of your characters going nutso and running around in their own mind, it won’t work. If you draw focus into the actual story and make the characters in it realistic and relatable, then regardless of some uncertainty in the narrator, the story will begin to stick.
3. If you are going to have an unreliable narrator, ask yourself why. Is it just to screw with the reader and hold back information? You might think you are being clever but really it’s just irritable. Perhaps your character has some memory loss or maybe they change some details of the story to protect themselves emotionally.
Unreliable narrators - it’s a tricky ground. I’m in no way innocent when it comes to the question of truth and extended truth with characters in fiction. What’s your stand?