unreliable narrators

An unreliable narrator is a main character who has a secret, and keeps that secret from the reader for quite some time. Or it is a character who feeds the readers lies about him/herself or about the other characters.

I’ve realised I have two stories with unreliable narrators.

In one, a novel, the narrator has been mentally doctored, so in effect probably has an excuse not to remember everything truthfully. That said, he does not reveal a major detail about himself. It has been his character, for a long time, to keep this detail an utter secret. He loathes talking about it, and goes through extraordinary pains to keep it a secret. I thought it would be natural to also keep it a secret from the reader. Yes? No? What do you feel about this?

In another story, a character knows something that a second character very much wants to know. But it isn’t in this character’s nature to reveal such details about herself and about someone she protects. In fact, she thinks the man’s curiousity is amusing, but she thinks the subject of his curiosity is utterly unimportant. At what point in the story would you like to know as reader? When the man first asks her or when she chooses to reveal it?

In both cases, neither ‘secrets’ are vital to the plot of the story, but they are part of the character’s personality. Do you think personality is enhanced by revealing the secret early on or by keeping it a secret for a while longer?

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7 comments on “unreliable narrators

  1. I like unreliable narrators. My favourite are the sort who for whatever reason can’t/don’t understand the events fully, but still provide enough information for the reader to work it out. An obvious example in SF that springs to mind is Flowers for Algernon. A more general example would be a child’s PoV relating grown-up events they don’t really understand yet (divorce, abuse, etc) but makes the reader more painfully aware of their situation than they are.

    In relation to your actual questions, however, if the information isn’t super relevant to the plot and doesn’t introduce tension (would it be more exciting for the reader to not find out until later, even if it’s not vital info?), then I would get it out as soon as possible. Only drag it out if it adds something to the plot.

    • I’d like to think it adds to the tension in the personal thread of the story, which is more like a subplot.

      I dunno. I think there are arguments for and against both options.

  2. I think part of the enjoyment of reading is not knowing stuff, and then getting a huge surprise. The secret of good writing is to have the reader say, “Why didn’t I see that coming!” not “WTF?!!”

    I guess when the reveal comes is up to you. Maybe best to run it by a few beta readers.

    I agree with Tsana about the third kind of unreliable narrator. They can be fun to write – Blaze was one such in The Aware. All the clues were there but she couldn’t see that the man she was falling in love with was a priest.

    • Yes, I like the innocent narrator. My story Little Boy Lost (that received a honourable mention in Elen Datlow’s Year’s Best Horror) uses this quite a bit. It’s a good way of creating a scary situation where you could fully believe a character would blunder on, because you might understand what’s about to happen, but the character is too naive to see it.
      The facts my characters in the two stories I’ve mentioned are things both characters wouldn’t reveal unless under considerable pressure.

  3. Do you think personality is enhanced by revealing the secret early on or by keeping it a secret for a while longer? Depends on the plot line. And as to the reveal, me thinks the mode of the reveal tells (shows) much about the parties involved from their reactions. Just a thought.

    • Yes, I think this is why keeping the secret in in character, especially in the character I first mentioned. He’s one secretive bugger.

  4. in my opinion, unreliable narrator is like a secert agent who is studying and reviewing his lesson at the moment not to reveal his true self in his/her story telling. he/she never reveals the fact about the past and through giving importance to the current condition of his job complicates the content of narration. it has a good correlation with represented subject matters on eyes of learned readers in creating suspense.

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