A narrator’s unreliability often comes as much from their perception as from their intention. They might intend to paint themselves as better people, or they might perceive themselves as better people than they are. The same goes for their perception of the characters around them (see past articles). But how do we show this conflict without explaining it?
The obvious way is to show the contrast between a character’s actions and the narrator’s perception of them. Though it’s obvious it’s not always easy. The problem comes from making it believable that our narrator will interpret actions the way they do. For instance, if someone keeps helping the narrator but the narrator maintains a suspicion of them, why? To make this convincing we have to show or tell what the narrator’s perspective is that causes this interpretation.
One common one would be the narrator with a backstory that makes them suspicious of people, even people helping them. If our narrator is a spy, and the reader knows this, then a degree of suspicion is expected, spy characters are expected to be suspicious because the likelihood of being double-crossed.
Alternatively we have the narrator who’s always trying to figure out everyone’s motive, but they’re doing it through their lens not the people they’re looking at. This is affected by their information on the character they’re speaking about and their way of thinking. Someone with a tendency to double-cross or someone who has been double-crossed is likely to consider why a character is doing something nice for them, how does it benefit the other character?
A character who has been betrayed before might also make assumptions based on past experience. Character A seemed like a nice person then hurt them so character B will likely do the same, this isn’t true but it’s the narrator’s perspective. This is different to saying ‘this character is a spy therefore they’re suspicious of this other character’, here we have reader expectation working in our favour. If a character has been betrayed in the past we don’t automatically have reader expectation to help us. Past betrayal isn’t as simple as saying ‘Character X was betrayed so expects Character Y to do the same’. Betrayal can take may shapes and have many effects.
However, in our subjective narration we can show the character’s thoughts. Now, we might argue this is a form of telling because we’re telling the reader what the narrator is thinking but we’re also showing how they think. A character does something nice for them and we can show them wondering why, remembering something related to the gesture, or simply thinking ‘no-one’s done that before’. The risk of this method is over telling. It can be very easy to lapse into long paragraphs of the narrator analysing other characters, doing this sometimes can work but all the time slows the story and can also before repetitive. As long as we linger on a moment we’re not advancing the story. The more we describe something the greater emphasis we put on it. A lot of description can make a minor thing appear important but we can make an important thing appear minor with less description.
We can reveal a narrator’s way of thinking with comments as simple as: no-one’s done that before, everything has a price, and no-one is nice for no reason. With three comments you have a character who perhaps hasn’t been treated well, is suspicious, and, perhaps, a little perplexed too. This doesn’t mean we can’t sometimes have them analysing a character as they try to figure them out, this can be very telling too about the narrator, but mixing and matching is often more effective than only using one technique, it depends on our writing style and the moment the narrator is in. For example, we might want that long moment of consideration as they sip their coffee, but we probably want something shorter and quicker when a scene is moving quickly, such as action.
It’s important not to forget that considering other characters also develops the character of the narrator. The more we see of a narrator’s direct interaction with other characters the more we learn about their attitudes to the world around them. Even if we edit thoughts about other characters out in the finished draft we still learn about all our characters from them as we’re writing a story.