Ebenbach's craft talk, “You're Unreliable, Too,” was originally published in The Southeast Review's October 2017 Writer’s Regimen.
Unreliable narrators give some of my student writers fits: They want to know: What makes certain characters unreliable? Where do they come from? How are you supposed to create that unreliability on the page?
The way we talk about unreliable narrators, you’d think they were a new species—Homo unreliabilensis—distinct from the rest of us. And so writing them into a story feels like writing about space aliens or dogs or people from twenty thousand years ago—like you’re entering a completely unknown territory and you’re just going to have to do a lot of guessing.
But here’s the deal: You’re Homo unreliabilensis, too. So am I. So is everybody you ever met. And knowing that is the key to knowing how to write unreliability into a story, which is what you should do for every single character you write.
What makes me unreliable? First of all, the fact that I have opinions, preferences, and biases, like everybody else. If I just ate a jalapeno popper, my wife doesn’t bother to ask me if it’s spicy, because we disagree about spicy; things that I think are just fine set her mouth on fire. For her, I am not a reliable witness to the spiciness of things. The same goes for horror movies (I almost always like them, and she never does), noise levels (I always think sounds are louder and more annoying than she does), and the work-appropriateness of an outfit (a subject on which she is pretty sure I am a moron). I have opinions about all these things, and so does she, but opinions are not facts. And that means that, when I tell you something is good or bad, it may tell you more about me than it tells you about that something.
I am also unreliable because my personality and my life experiences shape my perceptions. I was once driving with my wife on a country road, and I said, “What a beautiful road.” My wife agreed, but it turned out we were talking about different things—as an appreciator of nature, she was talking about the canopy of trees, whereas I, an urban person, was appreciating the fact that the road had recently been paved. Similarly, as a writer, I tend to be attuned to words and the way people say things more than other people are—I notice those things instead of other things (like, again, nature). As a teacher, I am unusually alert to tiny hand-movements (the result of years of watching people raise their hands). As a result, I cannot objectively answer the question “What was noteworthy about today?” because I only know what was noteworthy to me, and the rest may have escaped my attention altogether.
Finally, I am certainly unreliable because of my staggering ignorance of many things. If you ask me to identify the make and model of a car, I might make a guess, but I will probably be wrong. The same is true of bird species, calculus, and death metal bands. And that’s just the beginning; what I don’t know (as is true of everybody) far outweighs what I do. And I cannot be expected to be a reliable informant about any of the things I don’t know.
The first step to writing unreliable narrators, then, is to recognize that we’re all unreliable in all these various ways and to stop asking “Is the narrator unreliable?” but instead “In what ways is the narrator unreliable, and to what extent?”
Ask yourself what opinions and biases the character is likely to have, and how much those will shape the way that character responds to things; ask yourself how personality, experience, and preoccupations will shape what a character notices and how that character will see those noticed things; ask yourself what the character does and does not know. Answering these questions will create rules and guidelines to follow as you write. If your main character is a firefighter who hates soup and doesn’t know the difference between Scandinavian countries, she’s probably going to avoid the neighborhood’s new Swedish soup restaurant, saying, “Norwegian food is the worst. Plus the place looks like a fire hazard.”
Again, you ought to do this with all of your characters. But of course some characters (and some people) are especially unreliable. Children generally know a lot less than adults, and some folks lie more than others (including to themselves). Some people who lack self-awareness are controlled by their biases and opinions without even knowing it; others are basically out of touch with reality. Still others have agendas that are so urgent, intense, and likely to provoke disapproval that the people have to hide them, and can only surreptitiously try to manipulate the situation to help them get what they want. In all these cases, the narrator is not just imperfect but is actively untrustworthy; the reader should question everything this character does or says. In fiction centered around these kinds of characters, the question of what you can trust is at the center of the experience of the book. The author could even make the plot hinge on you figuring out what’s really going on.
Still—the process is exactly the same for these extreme folks as it is for more everyday characters. Whether your narrator is mild or extreme on this spectrum, what you do on the page is reveal exactly when the character can and can’t be relied upon. And there are lots of ways to show where the holes are: have the characters make claims that contradict known facts or the claims of other characters; have characters contradict themselves; have characters praise or critique something (or someone) so excessively that it starts to raise red flags; have your narrator skip over information that the reader would usually expect to receive; give your characters opinions that cast them in a consistently good light (or, in the case of unrealistically low self-esteem, consistently bad) or views that are backed up by only limited experience. As I say, there are lots of specific techniques, but they all center around contradiction and violations of readers’ expectations—anything that makes the reader say, “Wait—what?”
Again, the real key is realizing that those “Wait—what?” moments are part of every life. (Think about your friends! Think about yourself!) Everybody has gaps, opinions, and habitual perceptions. Your portrait of unreliability, wherever it is on the spectrum, should be rooted in that basic truth. In other words, for a minute, forget “write what you know.” Instead, write knowing that you don’t know. And that neither do your characters.
David Ebenbach is the author of six books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction—including, most recently, his novel Miss Portland. Winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, the Juniper Prize, and the Patricia Bibby Award, among other honors, David lives with his family in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing at Georgetown University. Find out more at www.davidebenbach.com.