by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
I'll write this post from a reader perspective since I haven't used unreliable narrrators in my books, and I'll keep the post general so there won't be any spoilers.
I just finished reading a book where the narrator was unreliable throughout the book. Although reading books with unreliable narrators can be a lot of fun, this book was honestly kind of tiring for me. I kept looking for signs that the narrator was believable...or wasn't. (Narrator was an alcoholic.) It made for an interesting read, but it wasn't what I'd call relaxing. (Is the narrator drunk now? Is the narrator in denial? Is the narrator sober?)
Usually, I'm fonder of situations when I think the narrator is reliable and find out later that they're not. Otherwise, I spend a lot of the book trying to figure out who I can believe.
When it may be easier to get away with an unreliable narrator (without frustrating the reader):
When the narrator is unreliable because of age, species, etc.. Readers understand that children are looking at the world from a different perspective. I've read books where animals narrated. I've read books where persons with mental challenges narrated. Readers understand these narrators view the world through a different lens.
When you use clues. If you're using an unreliable narrator who readers think is reliable, but actually isn't, I'd advise sticking in plenty of clues that that's the case. It's fun to have the wool pulled over your eyes (a few movies and a couple of mysteries come to mind), but it's no fun to be completely tricked. It feels like cheating on the writer's part if there are no small hints that the narrator is unreliable.
When the book is written from a first person POV. Then it seems less of an authorial manipulation and more of the character being sneaky or deceptive. In fact, it may be even easier to drop those clues to the narrator's unreliability when the story is written in this POV.
When the narrator is consistent. That can mean consistently unreliable, as long as they're not hopping back and forth through the whole story. They can even be consistent when they grow or change as characters, as long as the impetus for the change is believable.
When you don't reveal the narrator's unreliability immediately in the story (although, as mentioned above, you'll need to sprinkle in clues so it's fair to the reader.) We can probably all think of books or movies that end up with a major plot twist at the end of the story when it's revealed the narrator is a ghost-murderer-lunatic-etc.
If the narrator is likeable. As a reader, I'll put up with even an inconsistent, confusing, mess-of-an-unreliable narrator if he's likeable...or at least interesting.
In some respects, all narrators are unreliable. We all approach life with our backstories influencing our perceptions. If it's done well, unreliable narrators can really add an unexpected and fun element to a story.
Have you ever used an unreliable narrator? Do you enjoy reading books that feature them? Any thoughts about pulling it off well?