A beginner's guide to a very complex literary theory that can help improve your story.
There's a very easy way to gain an edge on 99 percent of the writing competition. It's a simple thing, really, one that any writer no matter how experienced or inexperienced can take advantage of and use to his or her advantage. It can be used over and over, but it doesn't have to necessarily be repetitious.
It's called literary theory, and it's been around for a long time. Anyone who's read "The Communist Manifesto" or any of Salman Rushdie's non-fiction essays has been exposed to it. Literary theory often appears in the form of critical texts, most often written in response to a work (or multiple works) of fiction. The authors dissect and examine the themes and attitudes of the works of fiction and create theories based on those.
What is an unreliable narrator? It's not just a narrator who outright lies to us, the reader. It's a narrator whose values and beliefs sharply contrast with the writer's. Typically, the narrator's psychological instability or biases are what make him/her most unreliable. Take Huck Finn. Huck Finn tells us in his story that he's probably going to Hell because he's going to free Jim. Freeing a slave, in Huck's eyes, is a sin. Did Mark Twain believe Huck was going to Hell? Of course not.
An unreliable narrator lies to the reader (also called, on a much more complicated level, the "narratee"). An unreliable narrator will be caught lying by the reader. This can be something simple, like in Sandra Cisneros's Caramelo, or it can be much more cleverly concealed, like in Moby Dick. In the latter, our narrator, Ishmael, also has a problem concerning his sphere of authority. Ishmael talks about things, events, etc. that he had no participation in and/or couldn't possibly have known.
More information about narrator reliability can be found in Susan Lanser’s The Narrative Act, in which Lanser outlines three aspects that define mimetic authority: “(1) The narrator is honest and sincere, will mean what she says and not omit any info crucial to the meaning of the story. (2) The narrator is intellectually and morally trustworthy. (3) The narrator is competent enough to present the story in a ‘tellable’ way” (Lanser 170-171). The consciencious reader will take all three of these things into consideration whenever faced with a first-person narrator.
Can you create an unreliable narrator? Can you trust someone who isn't like you to lead your readers somewhere you may not necessarily go? It's a concept that's been looked at often throughout literary history, but it's something very few writers actually have any knowledge about. Truly, it wouldn't be ridiculous to suggest that at least 95 percent of the authors today realize they may have created unreliable narrators.
Why is your narrator unreliable? Look closely at what you're trying to say in your writing. Your narrator should be unreliable for a reason. He/she should have a purpose for not being believable. When your narrator has a reason, you become consciously aware of him/her as a character. Take a look at Caramelo, and examine how the narrator uses "Healthy Lies" in order to tell the story of her family. It's a complicated issue, because if your narrator is unreliable for a specific reason, then it's up to your reader to determine your narrator's intentions.
There are a thousand other critical theories you can look at and use. Narrative Theory is only the tip of the iceberg, and it's a great starting point for writers who are looking to add more depth to their work.