An unreliable narrator is like the friend who tells you a story, but twists the details to serve her own purposes.
Unreliable narrators are typically used in first person (stories told with the pronoun ‘I’), but they can also be used effectively in third person stories. For example, a detective novel written in third person (using the pronouns he/she) might feature a detective who is solving the murder of a friend’s daughter. However, he may omit certain details from the investigation, and from the reader, for a variety of different reasons. Let’s say the man’s daughter had recently discovered the detective intentionally botched an investigation that sent an innocent man to jail. The detective had good reasons for doing what he did – but he now has to solve the girl’s murder while avoiding possibly relevant pieces of information in order to keep himself out of trouble.
There are many different paths a writer could take with this storyline.
Obviously, the choices are endless. The next time you read your favorite mystery writer, after determining the basic POV, look more closely. Does the POV character change from one scene to the next? Consider mysteries by Harlan Coben, Lee Child and James Lee Burke, who write with one POV character. Are there narrator’s always reliable? What about a Tony Hillerman or James Patterson book, both of whom write from multiple POV’s. Are all of the POV characters reliable? Could the book be strengthened by changing POV? Take your favorite book from your favorite author and rewrite the first chapter in a different POV. It’s a great opportunity to try out a POV that you wouldn’t normally write from.
Next week – writing advice from a master