The Unexpected Uses of an Unreliable Narrator
Updated: Sep 19, 2020
Spoilers for 'The Haunting of Hill House' by Shirley Jackson
The classic unreliable narrator
The unreliable narrator, a moniker often associated with characters with nefarious intentions and a backstory littered with misdeeds. Why shouldn't it be? Lies and betrayal are the hallmarks of some of the best evil characters, and having them lie to the audience is an excellent way of showing their immoral behaviour. Having the protagonist betray the reader and the other characters will hurt and can understandably turn them against a character they previously liked.
I am a fan of this archetype, but this unreliable narration can apply to more than one archetype—it's a very versatile tool. It can also be used to show a character is insecure, delusional, lacks an identity or is mentally unwell, without them being anything close to evil.
My favourite example of this narration style is in 'The Haunting of Hill House' written by Shirley Jackson in 1959. It follows Eleanor, Theodora, Luke, and Dr. Montague as they try to confirm whether there is paranormal activity in Hill House. Conveniently, this happens to be the most unconventional application of unreliable narration I have read, too. Shirley Jackson doesn't use unreliable narration to characterise her protagonist, Eleanor, as dangerous or corrupt. Instead, she is a perfect case study of every aspect to unreliable narration (which also means I don't have to spoil more than one book to talk about this topic).
The Unreliable Narrator: Insecurity
From the beginning, Eleanor lies, but with unimportant details only. When she describes her home to the other characters, she says she's decorated it with a "cup of stars" and "Tiny stone lions". Readers know this isn't true. These are merely objects that she's observed on her drive to Hill House. This appears to be harmless wishfulness and her earnest attempt to impress her new companions.
Unreliable narration, if used in this way, can quickly characterise a narrator as insecure. In your own writing, the little lies your characters tell could be anything: a character might say that they're thirty when they're actually twenty-five because they're insecure of being thought of as inexperienced. A character could pretend not to have allergies in order to eat the same foods as their friends due to them wanting to fit in. It is important these little lies are minor and don't cause anybody harm, or else they run the risk of appearing manipulative.
How to Stop An Unreliable Narrator From being Disliked
Though the story is written in limited first-person, the audience is mostly unaware of how often Eleanor lies. But even as Eleanor's lies escalate, as a reader, I never held them against her. But how did Shirly Jackson manage this? Through Eleanor's regret. On a whim, Eleanor tells another character that she's 34 years old when she is actually 32. She expresses frustration and regrets immediately after she does so—it was impulsive, and she gained nothing from it. This shows us that how uncalculated her lying is and how it isn't meant to manipulate. Having a character show remorse for their lying is a great way to offset it so that it is clear it is a shameful impulse—a fault they wished they could control.
Characters With An Unrealiable Sense Of Reality
One of Eleanor's most important characteristics is her tentative grip on reality. Eleanor makes an off-handed comment to the other characters that, "All three of you are in my imagination; none of this is real". It is immediately obvious that she is, to some degree, detached from reality. A narrator can't be expected to accurately relay what is occurring if they don't know what's going on themselves—this is how unreliable narration can help to portray a character as delusional.
Delusional characters can be dangerous, but as you can probably guess, Eleanor is most likely only a danger to herself. Her character sits between the realms of dreamy and disturbed, and it makes the reader truly worries about Eleanor's mental state and physical safety. Similar offhand comments could be made by your characters to show that their view of the world is potentially skewed, which in turn can prompt readers to think twice before they believe every word that comes out of a character's mouth. In lighter uses, it could be used to show a character is dreamy and that they view the world through a more unconventional lens.
An Unrealiable Narrator Often Has Issues With Their Identity
Eleanor's light grasp on reality is connected to her lack of identity. This might sound like a red flag to many writers—wouldn't you want your characters to be vibrant and full of life? Usually, yes, but it is also interesting to experiment with the complete opposite. An important part of Eleanor's back story is that she spent the last 12 years of her life caring for her unloving and sickly mother. She was made to take the role of a carer while still at the beck and call of her mother—a parent and child, simultaneously. She hasn't had the opportunity to become her own person and venture out into the world before staying at Hill House. This is one of the main reasons for her compulsive lying. Her lack of a life embarrasses her, so she constructs one to fit in. You can see that when she talks to Theodora – someone she looks up to.
"I have a little place of my own… an apartment like yours, only I live alone. Smaller than yours, I'm sure. I'm still furnishing it - buying one thing at a time, you know, to make sure I get everything absolutely right. White curtains. I had to look for weeks before I found my little white lions on each corner of the mantel, and I have a white cat and my books and my records and my pictures…" (Page 88)
It is hard to believe she's lying, her words are earnest and self-deprecating, especially when she says her apartment is 'Smaller than [Theodora's]'. She even includes so many personalised details. That is why it comes as such a shock to us, when it is revealed this was all false when Eleanor says, "I haven't any apartment… I made it up. I sleep on a cot at my sister's, in the baby's room." (Page 239)
Why Eleanor lies makes sense, and still, she is undoubtedly a good person.
Think back to your characters who have lived troubled lives—would having them want to hide parts of their life make sense? Again, they need to hide criminal activity to have a reason to lie. Perhaps, a girl who was bullied at her previous school tells her new classmates that she was very popular. A character could say that their parents are dead to explain why they don't see them, but their parents are alive and abusive, so the character lies to stop people from asking questions.
Lying often disguises inner pain, so what pain could your characters be hiding? Lying can conceal weaknesses, so what flaw is your character trying to cover?
We don't think of good, humble people as liars, but this limited view of morality isn't realistic. I'm sure everyone has told little lies about themselves to strangers. Sometimes it's easier to lie than to share personal and unflattering information. For Eleanor, lying is much easier than opening up about her hard life and deep insecurities. She doesn't want to leave herself open to judgement. Lying isn't just a tool for manipulation, for most of us, it's a defence mechanism. Instead of alienating us, Eleanor's unreliable narration only endears her further to the reader and makes it easier for us to relate to her.
Don't be afraid to let your characters lie, it is often the things we hide that are most revealing.