Crafting Unreliable Narrators: The Intent and Extent Rule
Humans are unreliable, despite our best efforts. By extension, that means all narrators are unreliable to some extent.
Therefore, when we create narrators to tell our story, we need to ask, “To what extent should they be reliable and for intent?”
So we’re clear going forward, a “narrator” is a character who recounts events in a story.
Typically the character speaks in the first person POV, as in, “Hi, I’m Martha and I’m going to explain things to you.”
Occasionally narrators can talk through second person POV, as in, “If you’d gone to the conference that day, you would have seen…” For our purposes we’ll stick with first person.
A Basic Fact Regarding Narrators
If you choose to tell your story via a narrator, be aware your readers will automatically assume your character is reliable until proven otherwise, because we humans are hard-wired to give others the benefit of the doubt.
That means we writers have the advantage of surprise, should we want to use it.
Whether you use that advantage or not depends on the next question, “What do you want to achieve in your story?”
Intent and Extent
Your intent for your story will determine the extent of your narrator’s reliability.
Perceived Reliability Scale
1 = very trustworthy
10 = very untrustworthy
If your intent is to create a narrator who will be the reader’s eyes and ears for what’s happening, the character will most likely be at the low end of the 1 - 10 Perceived Reliability Scale.
If your intent is to create a narrator who will skew the reader’s perception at some point, the character will most likely be at the high end of the scale.
Qualities of Trustworthiness
Here are a few qualities that make characters more trustworthy:
innocence, meaning the characters are too young to lie or don’t know enough to do so
forthrightness, meaning the characters clearly tell us their biases, which we take into account when viewing events
And here are a few qualities that make a character less trustworthy:
charm, which relies on white lies to appease and soothe people
an invisible personality disorder in which such characters might appear normal in every way until the moment they do something abnormal
Examples of Reliable/Unreliable Narrators
PRS = 1
Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
To most readers, six-year-old Scout is highly reliable because she’s very young, and therefore innocent and guileless. She’s also a straight shooter, which makes it difficult for her to be dishonest. And because we know her opinions, we’re watchful of her biases.
The extent of Scout’s reliability shows us Harper Lee’s intent to use Scout as a clear lens through which to view the book’s complex story of human compassion, or lack thereof.
PRS = 5
Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye
In Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield comes off as a brash, independent thinker who knows what’s what.
Since humans are drawn to confident people, we want to believe his world perspective. But we soon begin to see that Holden’s initial confidence is a facade that hides his bewilderment and desperation.
The extent of his reliability shows the intent of J.D. Salinger to make readers feel as lost as Holden.
PRS = 10
Alex Burgess in A Clockwork Orange
In the dystopian black comedy by English writer Anthony Burgess, teenage Alex narrates the violent nighttime exploits of his gang.
Initially we’re drawn to his qualities as a confident, charismatic leader. But when we begin to see the depth of his depravity, we’re forced to see how he’s manipulating us for his own gain.
The extent of his grave unreliability shows us the author’s intent of demonstrating how individual freedom can be detrimental to society if put above society’s need for safety.
Questions to ask
If you’d like to use a narrator for your story, here are the questions to ask when creating that character:
Do you understand readers will automatically assume your character is reliable?
Do you want readers to trust your narrator? If so, why?
What qualities do you assign the narrator to give that sense of trustworthiness?
Is your character really trustworthy, or manipulating the reader?
If the latter, what’s the reason for such manipulation?
If the narrator has a high unreliability rating, is the narrator conscious of the manipulation or not?
A first-person narrator is a wonderful device for bringing readers close to the character and into the heart of the story. But taking time to determine the extent of the narrator’s reliability will help you focus on the full intent — and potential — of your story.
For updates about Martha’s forthcoming memoir, Bliss Road (June 2023), historical novel, The Falcon, the Wolf and the Hummingbird (October 2023), or other books, news and giveaways, subscribe to MarthaEngber.com.