The unreliable narrator is the most fascinating protagonist in fiction.
She can't be trusted. The reader may want to believe her, but through behavior and dialogue, the character contradicts herself, make comments we know can't be true and acts in ways that are sinister, suspicious or delusional.
If the story is well executed, you may not recognize she is deceiving you. Usually, the duplicity is slowly revealed as the plot progresses, but sometimes the unreliable narrator isn’t unmasked until the very end of the story. It's a great plot twist to leave the reader with.
Why is this type of narrator so valuable to a fiction writer?
Because he creates suspense. He presents story questions that will cause the reader to turn the page until she gets the answers. Will the dishonest character be unmasked? Is he mentally ill or are these events actually happening?
As you're constructing your novel, you'll need to decide what characteristics your unreliable narrator must have that make his or her beliefs and behavior questionable. One technique is to use other characters to show the true situation.
William Riggan in his book titled Picaros, Madmen, Naifs, Clowns: The Unreliable First-Person Narrator, created categorizes that can help you in building your own character:
The Picaro, a rascal or roguish character, usually of a lower class. An example: Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders.
The Madman, unreliable but sympathetic because of mental illness or post traumatic stress disorder. Example: A Beautiful Mind, based on a true story that chronicles the highs and lows of John Nash, a brilliant mathematician, a Nobel Laureate in Economics and a paranoid schizophrenic.
The Clown, a trickster or jokester who consciously tries to fool people and uses parody and satire for humor. Example: Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.
The Naif, who is immature or limited in intelligence or knowledge. Example: Winston Groom’s novel, Forrest Gump, about a sweet, gullible, mentally deficient man’s odyssey through 30 years of tumultuous American history.
The Liar, a protagonist who is knowingly deceitful or deliberately evasive, often to achieve his goal or protect himself from past misdeeds. Example: “The Usual Suspects,” a movie in which a small-time con man and cripple, Verbal Kint, concocts an elaborate story to convince the FBI that a fictitious crime lord Keyser Soze, rather than Kint, was responsible for a deadly explosion in San Pedro Harbor. We begin to believe him, but in a great twist at the end Kint limps out of the building, straightens and walks steadily to a waiting getaway car.
Most of the time we think of unreliable narrators as scoundrels, or at least unlikable as in Gone Girl, but sometimes we find them charming as in Forrest Gump or endearing as in Stephen King’s The Green Mile, one of my favorite stories.
The Green Mile's narrator is perfectly truthful through most of the book—until the last 50 pages or so. Paul Edgecombe is a likable, ethical prison guard on death row who witnesses both cruelty and compassion at Cold Mountain Penitentiary. He discovers that a large, innocent black man, John Coffey, has the ability to heal people. Edgecombe temporarily frees him to cure people who are suffering from life-threatening illnesses. Coffey’s methods are totally implausible, but we want so much for them to work that we suspend disbelief.
Some considerations to remember as you create your unreliable narrator:
1. Don’t cheat the reader or make him feel tricked. You can’t create a twist at the end without some clues. Make them subtle and hide them well, but you can’t leave them out.
2. Try to put yourself in your character’s head. What traumatic events or life history motivates her? Why doesn’t she tell the truth? Is she incapable of it because of her youth, a mental handicap or delusions? Could she be a spy whom we might admire for her patriotism?
3. Plan your plot carefully. It’s difficult to know how much information to reveal and when to dole it out. You’ll need astute readers to preview your novel and tell you if it works.
4. Your narrator may be truthful in general but may occasionally take on a false persona in pursuit of a noble goal. Example: Batman.
Have fun creating your unreliable narrator, but keep in mind she will need some very good reasons for behaving the way she does, you’ll still need a character arc for her and you’ll need to abide by other elements of the craft.
Think of it as putting together a challenging puzzle. You’ll have to keep track of all those little pieces and make sure they tightly fit together to get the picture just right.