For years, I’ve taught a workshop on Acting Out of Character. The idea is that more often, too often, we hear writing advice about making sure your characters behave in character. And while that’s not bad advice… it is basic advice. It simply means to make sure you know who your characters are, and to develop them well enough and consistently enough that they feel authentic and dimensional to your readers, too.

But once you’ve done that?

It’s out of character behavior that can propel stories in more interesting ways.

Speculation about the true nature of a character can have your readers turning pages faster and faster. We can’t resist knowing: Is this good guy too good to be true? Did this antagonist manipulate us into thinking he’s not all bad? What’s really going on here?

Sooner or later, the discussion in this workshop turns to unreliable characters, specifically the rash of blockbuster thrillers starring highly unreliable narrators in recent years. At this point, there have been so many that the highly unreliable narrator has almost become a trope (look no further than Kristen Bell’s Netflix series “The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window”). But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from their success.

Because like everything else, reliability comes in degrees…

and in any genre, any savvy author can use this to their storytelling advantage.

The key is in understanding how you’re driving your reader’s reaction. There are three main ways this kind of speculation ultimately plays out:

  1. I thought I knew you …
  2. I thought I knew myself …
  3. I know better than to trust you …

Let’s look at some bestselling examples of each.

I Thought I Knew You …

In which a character turns out to be not at all what they first seemed.

  • Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris: In this on-the-nose (and bone-chilling) example, the protagonist’s monstrous husband begins the story acting out of character just to bait her into marrying him, and then … wham. We step into the title and the nightmare begins.
  • The Marriage Lie by Kimberley Belle: The story begins when a school counselor’s husband dies in plane crash. But with her grief, confusion: The plane was bound for Seattle, and as far as she knew he was on a plane to Florida for a conference that turns out not to exist. Where was he going? Why did he lie? And is he really dead?

I Thought I Knew Myself …

In which something has happened to impair a reliable character’s judgment.

  • Keep Quiet by Lisa Scottoline: A father, more or less a good man who loves his family more than anything, makes a desperate choice at a terrible moment and helps his teenager cover up a hit and run. Suffice it to say, the lie snowballs.
  • Find Her by Lisa Gardner: Through surviving a horribly traumatic ordeal at the hands of a serial killer, Flora Dane has become a vigilante. But does she helpfully see danger where others overlook it, or does she destructively see danger where there is none? After a while, even Flora isn’t sure which is true, or how much she can trust herself.
  • Memory Man by David Baldacci: Amos Decker was a top investigator thanks to his perfect photographic memory. But when his family was murdered, his life fell apart and he quit the force. When he’s called in to work a grisly new case that might have something to do with his own family’s tragedy, he finds that with so much emotion on the line, he might not be able to trust his memory after all.

I Know Better Than to Trust You …

In which an unreliable character tries to do something reliable.

  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: No, I’m not talking about Amazing Amy! Nick might not technically be the “bad guy” here, but he’s also not a good guy, so why should we believe him when he points fingers at his wife?
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: The protagonist is a blackout drunk convinced that she’s seen evidence of a crime. She wants to help solve it, not just for the victim but, in a way, to redeem herself. But she’ll have to do it alone—because she’s such an unreliable witness that no one else is going to help her.
  • The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware: It’s no secret our protagonist is on antidepressants, traumatized by a recent burglary, and a big fan of her liquor. She claims she saw a woman go overboard from the luxury cruise she’s on, but no one is missing from the ship. How will she ever convince anyone to investigate further?

What’s been your experience with unreliable characters in your own writing? Do you have a favorite read that made you think about character reliability in a whole new way? Join our discussion on Facebook.