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So in my latest works I've decided to make my narrator, whom is my main character as well, pretty unreliable. How do I get this across to readers? I read a few short stories online that were pretty convincing but I'm not sure I can milk it for a whole novel. Any ideas?

  • Have a look at 'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens for a classic example. – S. Mitchell Oct 12 '15 at 18:50
  • Unreliable as a reporter of events, I assume you mean? So what he writes might not be what actually happened? – Monica Cellio Oct 12 '15 at 22:02
  • Yes exactly. I want a way for readers to get an inkling he may not be reliable, so it makes them really question the story. – Schoonz Oct 14 '15 at 17:19
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The readers only know what you tell them. If you want the reader to realize your narrator isn't telling the truth, the truth must get to the reader around your narrator.

  • Your narrator can be caught in an outright lie by another character, and has to either admit to it or weasel out of it.
  • An event or series of events occur (the narrator gives a note to a girl he has a crush on, he spends all day thinking about her) and the narrator is confronted about them, and then lies (he says he doesn't have a crush). The readers see that he's lying, but the other characters don't.
  • An event or series of events occur and the narrator lies to himself about them. ("Just because I thought he was handsome didn't mean I was gay. I can admire all the effort he puts into his workout and it doesn't mean I'm into him like that.")
  • An event or series of events occur (the narrator steals her sister's shirt, wears it, and ruins it), and the narrator lies to the reader about it. "I deserved that shirt because I lent her my skirt last year and she never lent me anything back. I gave her the money to buy the shirt and she won't let me wear it."
  • The narrator perceives reality in a way which is obviously not the way the rest of us do. ("The sun's rays pierced my skull and began cooking the dendrites between my brain cells. It was all I could do to put on my yellow hat, which reflected the UVQ rays back out into space.")
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    Good examples and excellent variety! Well said. – Josh Oct 13 '15 at 21:49
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I know this topic is over two years old but I feel the need to address it anyway. The major difference between fiction and non-fiction is that in fiction all narrators are to a greater or lesser extent - unreliable. Fiction is not about facts. By definition fiction is one person recollection, the way one person sees things.

It is literally 'a point of view'. We're telling stories. This has happened to me so I assume others have experienced the same thing. You're at a family reunion telling some mildly amusing story from childhood and your mother says, "That's not the way happened."

Forrest Gump (film) is a masterclass in narration. Tom Hanks sits on the bench telling his life story to a series of strangers. Every time the story gets ridiculous and listener departs Tom provides proof that he was telling the truth.

Unfortunately, many peers will identify nuanced unreliable narration as 'plot holes' or 'errors'.

Unreliable narration is easily picked up by readers because readers (as opposed to other writers) assume you know what you are doing.

e.g. The narrator says his father was a Racing car driver who died in a crash during the Indy 500. Later during a scene his mother is heard on the telephone cursing the narrator's father because the maintenance check is late.

Readers will catch on very quickly.

If you write using scenes and transitions you can SHOW one version of events in scene which is at odds with the narration during a transition.

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You might try reading 'The Girl on the Train.' It is told in the perspective of a woman who can't quite remember details correctly, frequently lies, and ultimately is unreliable. Perhaps take the approach that the narrator/main character lies to themselves in order to cope with situations in their life.

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