We can have our narrator outright lie, be selective with the truth or we can blend truth and lies. Arguably this is another form of lie by omission for instance, if a character says they work at a hospital the odds are people will assume they’re either a nurse or a doctor but there are many other roles at a hospital and if a character doesn’t specify theirs they didn’t lie exactly. We might even argue they didn’t lie at all depending on their intent. Did they mean to mislead the person as to their role or were they just making a casual remark? After all there’s no requirement to be specific but this vagueness suggests unreliability. They might not have intended to mislead but they did while telling the truth.

In this instance it’s purely a case of misinterpretation which is popular in comedy of error stories. In these stories someone often says or does something that is misinterpreted by another character who in turn does something that is misinterpreted by the original character. A popular version the misbegotten romance where a cast of characters are chasing each other around: A likes B, B likes C, C likes A and so on. Or at the other end of the spectrum we have the deliberate vagueness often used in crime stories and thrillers by a morally ambiguous or villainous character. A common instance would be a villainous character using vague, but not always obviously so, answers to gain someone’s trust and then betray it.

Yet another way this can be used is by the character with good intentions but a reason to be vague. For instance, the character who is running and hiding from something. In these types of stories this character doesn’t have to be villainous or even morally grey they simply have a reason not to be entirely truthful, something they may not be comfortable with. For example the character who may, literally or figuratively, be on the run from a traumatic past. Their intention might not be to deceive only to protect themselves or avoid discussing the trauma (there are many possible reasons for this). Often their past trauma will show in every aspect of the story from the way they behave to the way they perceive people. Are they lying if they’re not direct about their trauma? No. Are they a reliable narrator? Not entirely.

At this point it’s important to note that even if a character is entirely honest about the things in their past that shaped them they can still be an unreliable narrator. They can reveal their past trauma but this trauma can affect the way they perceive other characters. For instance, a character who has been betrayed in the past may anticipate betrayal. Suddenly every other characters’ good intentions are marred by suspicion. Are they being honest or are they setting a trap? Their view of other characters is unreliable therefore they’re an unreliable narrator.

It’s also important to note that any first person narrator is unreliable due to personal bias (See past articles)

But if they’re unreliable because of their perception not their intention how do we show this?


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Published by Jesse

I'm a writer and academic specialising in fantasy fiction and creative writing theory. I'm allergic to pretentiously talking about fiction and aim to be unashamedly ‘commercial’. Surely all fiction is commercial anyway, or what’s the point in publishing it?

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