In literature, an unreliable narrator is one who is compromised. He or she is either deliberately deceptive or unintentionally misguided, forcing the reader to question the credibility of the storyteller. Either from ignorance or self-interest, this narrator speaks with a bias, makes mistakes, or even lies.
We all have our internal narrator, the persona or voice that processes our lives into a narrative. The result is the story that evolves from the things that happen to and around us. The question is, “how reliable is your narrator?”
In fiction, authors either offer clues gradually to discredit the narrator, or we know immediately. We likely have our own clues about the accuracy of our internal narrator. That is, if we pay attention to the clues.
Here is how one professor of literature describes the unreliable character:
The evidence will probably be in the way other characters are written, or the way certain events in the story pan out. It can be in the reaction from or dialogue with other characters and the disparity between it and the inner monologue of the narrator. Whatever the case, once you’ve picked up on those clues, the story changes. It requires a little more attention to detail than it did before.
When does your narrator become unreliable? What are his or her motivations? Perhaps when he or she is faced with something they don’t want to address? When they’re feeling defensive? Indignant? Trying to be persuasive?
There are, of course, different types of unreliable narrators; those who are fooling themselves, those who are fooling others, and a range in between.Sarah Pinborough, The Guardian
There are different kinds of narrators. Do any of these seem familiar to you?
Children may tell their versions of a grown-up story through their limited understanding and experience. This ‘innocent’ might not have the emotional tools to make sense of the story.
If somebody is brought up in a certain way, their version of events will be skewed according to that culture.
The narrator may be going through a difficult time in his or her life, or is suffering from a past trauma. They often want to protect themselves from painful memories.
The narrator is trying to protect him or herself, trying to persuade you that what he/she has done is not wrong. This is a narrator who deceives you to save his or her own skin.
It’s important not to blame yourself for trusting an unreliable interior narrator. Your narrator may simply lack all the information necessary to adequately translate the story, or s/he has a clear bias based on some of the features above.
What is important is to be careful in your trust of the narrator, and to discern the internal story that is unfolding.