The biggest problem of the unreliable narrator is the lie. Not the mistake, the omission but the outright lie. This is problematic because this form of misinformation doesn’t always give the reader a chance to outthink the narrator or try and guess an outcome. It also serves to make the entire narrative unsound because if the narrator told an outright lie about something important how do we know they didn’t lie about everything? Do we have a fiction or do we have a fiction within a fiction. This doesn’t mean our unreliable narrator can’t lie to the reader but we have to be aware of the potential problems of doing so.
The most obvious way, but what can also be the most complicated way, is to sow the hints of the lie. The small but contradictory details, suggesting that the character is either a liar or someone with the ability to perform, the explanation that doesn’t quite sit right. We can call these narrative sleight of hand and this is complicated because we have to find the balance between a hint and being obvious.
For example if someone comes out and says ‘they couldn’t possibly have been there’ the reader will immediately jump on it. But say we have the narrator say they were somewhere and then later on another character mentions in passing seeing them somewhere else at that time we have a hint. The distance can mean that a reader might have forgot exactly where the narrator said they were, they might remember but not make the link instantly, or they might get an inkling something is going on but no focus has been put on the comment so they don’t immediately assume there’s a lie. In this instance they may even think the character who mentioned it is lying.
We could also drop pieces into a story that suggest the character is lying, such as hints of where they got the idea for the lie. Perhaps a mention of the some detail similar to something they said; someone telling a story with something similar in, a poster advertising something that relates to their story, the classic family heirloom is a piece of junk maybe they don’t know cue their disappointment.
Their reactions can be a big part of suggesting a lie because, as I mentioned in an earlier article, context is key. What we might take for a disappointed reaction early in the story when we learn new information later in a story might take on a new slant. Were they disappointed the heirloom wasn’t worth anything or were they reacting to getting caught out?
Gradually crumbling a lie rather than the sudden reveal can be more effective than the sudden reveal because it can read as a natural progression rather than plot convenient and lowers the risk of the reader feeling cheated. It doesn’t mean we can’t have a reveal appear sudden having laid subtle hints but the lie with no hints is very difficult to pull off. However, we don’t have to have a narrator outright lie to be unreliable they can lie by omission too.