One of my favourite interpretations of The Great Gatsby (that quintessial required-reading love story) frames Nick Carraway as an unreliable narrator. It’s a wonderful interpretation because not only does it justify a lot of the weird biases and possible perception flaws in his narration, it actually gives the remarkably flat and characterless Nick some…well, character. (My favourite version of this holds that he was in love with Gatsby. Hard to unsee once you’ve heard the theory. I believe it.) It also fits with the theme of the book - the story of the drugged and boozed-up 20s, filled with liars and cheats and flappers and the nouveau riche, could hardly be told by somebody who was completely honest.
There are a lot of pluses to the ‘unreliable narrator’ technique. It can help characterize the often-bland 1st-person narrator, conceal important plot points until the pertinent moment, and tell the story in a more interesting way, among other things. However, there’s a few different ways to establish to your reader that your narrator is not to be trusted.
Your narrator says one thing. Later, they contradict themselves. Maybe it’s a piece of their past, or some other strange detail. The important part is that this isn’t something they’re saying to another character (although that might happen too.) If they lie to another character, they’re just a liar. If they lie to the reader, that’s when they become an unreliable narrator.
One thing to be careful of with inconsistency is that it can easily be mistaken for a basic continuity error. If you really want to establish that your character has a bit of a tenuous grip on truth/reality, you’ll want to have them lie to other characters and to the reader a LOT. Like, have them come up with a new story about their childhood every few chapters. And the more egregious, the better.
2. Disconnect between Words and Actions
Nick Carraway has this in spades. This is the kind of disconnect you get when a character claims to be something (in Nick’s case, non-judgmental) and actually does or is the opposite (in Nick’s case, judging the hell out of everybody except Gatsby). This is another subtle one - not everybody’s going to pay enough attention to realize how much of a disconnect there is.
One of the fun things about this, though, is that it can be hilarious when done well. Nothing like some good old fashioned brick jokes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out so well if the character is self-aware. This disconnect has to exist and only be noticed by the reader, or by other characters, never solely by the narrator themselves.
3. Another Character Points it Out
Say your narrator tells the reader about an event. (Ex. Kevin from Desert Bluffs talking about how he and Cecil hugged and ‘shared a moment’.) And later, another character tells his version of the event. (Cecil’s version of the event is a vicious attack.) Either of them could be lying/mistaken, true. But your narrator’s credibility is now in question, since it’s not confirmed at least right away which one is real. The second character might directly challenge your narrator, or the event may just be referenced as different than the reader believes.
There are other ways of introducing doubt through other characters, as well. A parent might mention a struggle with mental illness or drugs, somebody else might mention a penchant for lying - essentially, as long as the idea of the narrator being unreliable is introduced, your readers will stop and think, which is exactly what you want.
4. The Narrator Realizes It/Talks About It
There’s actually sort of two things going on here. The non-self-aware unreliable narrator isn’t aware that their perception is askew, and may never realize it - but sometimes, they do, and it’s usually the ‘twist’ of the book (Fight Club is probably one of the most famous examples of this.) In this situation, there needs to be something that triggers that realization, whether it comes from inside or out. The final piece needs to be put in place by the narrator, not by somebody else, otherwise it falls more in the above category. Usually, this type of perspective shift has to do with mental illness, drugs or some sort of other mind-altering situation.
The consciously unreliable narrator might preface the story with a disclaimer about their state of mind, or something like ‘These are the events as best as I can recall them’. They also might say similar things during the story itself, acknowledging directly or indirectly that they are making themselves look better, others look worse or simplifying events. However, this is a fairly archaic form of writing, and it creates a lot of distance between the time of the writing of the novel and the time of the events of the novel, which takes away a lot of the tension. If the narrator is constantly referring to the events as having happened long ago, you’re hardly going to hold your breath if the narrator’s in danger.
Unreliable narrators are good tools in storytelling, especially when telling stories that revolve around perception vs. reality and other related themes. Be wary, be careful around issues like mental illness (aka DO YOUR RESEARCH), and know what you want to accomplish! Good luck and write on!