“You think you can catch Keyser Soze? You think a guy like that comes this close to getting caught and sticks his head out? If he comes up for anything, it will be to get rid of me. After that… my guess is you’ll never hear from him again.“
— Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), The Usual Suspects
Few literary techniques can be as interesting – and few as frustrating for beginning authors – as the unreliable narrator. When someone (usually a fellow writer) accuses me of over-intellectualizing the craft and comments on how useless all my book-learnin really was, I bust out the unreliable narrator as proof that a good author must learn at least a few things about literary technique. Every reader is familiar with the unreliable narrator, and every reader responds to it – even if they don’t know the name, and often don’t recognize their own response.
As a concept, the unreliable narrator is simple. You’re sitting on a park bench, and a stranger sits down next to you. He begins to tell you a story. You as the listener, are doing two things: you’re listening to his story to try and follow the narrative strand, but you’re also (consciously or unconsciously) measuring the things he says to determine whether you can trust him as a source. You’re measuring how reliable a narrator he is.
Is the snitch trying to pin a job he pulled on an innocent patsy? Is the frat boy telling you what a slut that girl was actually in denial about committing date rape? Was your husband secretly cheating on you, and this whole story about the flat tire a bald-faced lie? Does this blogger actually know anything about literary technique, or is he pulling all this out of his ass?
For an author, telling a story from the perspective of an unreliable narrator can introduce layers upon layers of complexity into a story that might otherwise be dull. Books like Nabokov’s Lolita or Palahniuk’s Fight Club would not only be dull, they could hardly exist without the unreliable narrator.
Where many beginning authors get into trouble, however, is failing to recognize where their narrator may be read as unreliable. Works written in the first person are especially vulnerable to this. I’ve seen authors respond with a blank look when told that their narrator comes across unreliable – or worse, respond with anger: “No, everything this narrator says is true!” What’s important to remember, to my mind, is that the unreliable narrator plays upon a natural (though likely learned) human behavior: cynicism. We all know the world is full of snake-oil salesmen, self-appointed experts (*ahem*) and politicians, and so we instinctively measure every speaker – whether we mean to or not.
So when your straight married narrator says “I only stopped in that gay bar to ask for directions,” the reader’s bullshit alarm is going to go off. When your poverty-stricken narrator says “I pulled the plug on my wealthy mother because it was what she wanted,” it is human nature to wonder whether the narrator might be lying to the reader – or perhaps lying to herself. If that’s what you want, great. If not, it’s easy enough to counteract the unreliable narrator – tell the story from the third-person perspective, so we can see the character’s innermost thoughts, or throw in some objective fact to corroborate the story – maybe Wealthy Mom has a DNR order, or Straight Lost Guy’s GPS just went on the fritz and the gay bar is the only business open at a five-way intersection.
The important thing is to recognize the technique and where your reader is going to get suspicious – and then put that to use to get the reaction that you want. You could craft a pretty compelling story around the poor woman who pulled the plug on mom and inherited millions, whose family and the reader see as a predator until she finally finds that DNR order she’s been insisting mom signed. It wouldn’t be the first good story crafted entirely around the unreliable narrator – just ask Verbal Kint.