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When writing in the first person, what is a good way to convey that the viewpoint character is lying, without saying so explicitly? My idea is this:

"I am writing this as a record of what's been done in this age. I'm told it's very important, however I do not need this text as I am cursed with an eidetic memory, and I never forget anything."

Then, a few paragraphs later:

"The memory of that woman is dim, and I cannot for the life of me recall her name, or her face."

Clearly he's lying, and a liar, so now the reader should be tipped off that they can't trust him for the rest of the story. (In this case he doesn't want to admit who the woman really is to the reader, for his own personal reasons, he's not lying about having an eidetic memory)

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what do you plan to do if the narrator is caught in an outright lie? what will your narrator's thought process be? –  Lauren Ipsum May 5 '12 at 11:58
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Frame It Appropriately

Here's the issue: There's a pretty firm assumption that, the moment you're following a tight first-person (or third person) narration, you're following around in their head. You're not just hearing them tell you the story (which gives them an opportunity to lie about it), you're actually privy to their truest, innermost thoughts. As long as you allow that assumption to ride undisturbed, the readers will assume a reliable narrator - by which I mean, a narrator who isn't deliberately withholding information.

How can you dispel that assumption? By providing a counterexample - the moment you demonstrate that the narrator is keeping something to himself, or otherwise trying to fool the reader, then the reader is warned. This is what you're going for with your own example - you telegraph to the reader that he's being lied to, by providing him with a clear contradiction in the narrator's information.

But doing that can be a problem if you're still relying on the tight-viewpoint, in-the-narrator's-head style of writing. Because if we are being lied to, then we aren't in the narrator's head, and if that's the case - where are we?

So deliberately unreliable narration[1] pretty much requires some layer of separation between the narrator and the reader. Perhaps the narrator is telling a story, or writing the story down. You've got to follow through on this elsewhere, too - if the narrator's a storyteller, have him address the reader frequently; this stresses the disconnect between them. If he's writing his own story down, remind us of this frequently - let him mention his writing supplies, or how much time has passed since then, or that he hopes this manuscript is found. This is a necessary foundation; without it, you're basically letting the POV character lie to the reader without establishing any sort of ground rules.

Stay in Character

The other primary element is that however the narrator lets slip that he's unreliable, it's got to be in character. So a goofy compulsive liar may brazenly contradict himself, and the staunchly refuse to admit there's any contradiction. A cagey character who has some particular topic he wants to avoid might constantly find himself edging towards it, and always find some excuse to veer off - "but I'll tell you about that later." Etc.

A character who is reasonably clever and also lying deliberately is very difficult to convey convincingly. Basically, you need to have a narrator who is so careless that he's capable of committing a gaffe blatant enough to overcome even the reader's inherent trust in the narrator! Somebody remotely competent needs a really, really good reason to get caught.

A lot of examples include exposing the narrator's unreliability as a late twist to the story. Instead of posting spoilers here, I'll direct you to TV Tropes' exhaustive list. But I don't think that's what you're attempting here - you're trying to let us know early on that the narrator's unreliable.

Nonetheless, you can take a page from the same book. When it comes as a twist, what's common is for the narrator to reveal themselves because their secrets have already been revealed, or because they're no longer useful. If you can come up with a similar situation - where the narrator has a need to recant some earlier tidbit - then I think you've achieved your purpose.

Be Shady and Mysterious

One other common handling of this is to present the narrator's character as being shady, mysterious, or unreliable. By his stories, his actions, his tone - you can do a lot to get across that the character is not a trustworthy one. It could be straight-out refusal, e.g. "...aaaaand never mind where I went later that night," but it could also simply be descriptions of the narrator lying, fooling others, etc. That's buildup for the fact that the narrator isn't any more straight with us than he's been with anybody else.


[1] Distinguished from "unaware" unreliable narration - e.g. the viewpoint character who doesn't understand fully what's going on (but the reader does) - and from the "innocent" unreliable narration - a narrator who's forgotten details or is mixing things up, a la the narration in How I Met Your Mother.

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By asking this question I think that you are underestimating your reader. You are clearly making your character a liar and anyone paying attention would note it. The only possible issue you may have, in trying to maintain that throughout the story, is if you gave the reader a reason to believe that the narrator was justified in lying in this case and that he may not lie should the situation not warrant it.

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I think you are over-estimating people in general... –  Nathan C. Tresch May 17 '12 at 0:52
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Just occurred to me what troubled me about this. If someone really does have an eidetic memory they will remember telling you they had one and therefore would only tell a lie like this to either test your powers of recall or if they wanted to be caught out for some reason.

All narrators are necessarily unreliable. There's nothing wrong with a narrator saying:

"I remember the woman but will not tell you about her in any depth as you really would gain nothing from the description. I shall continue to do you this kindness throughout my account. If you could see what I see then you would also err on the side of vagueness when trying not to bore others with exhaustive unnecessary details."

This accomplishes the goal of telling people the account will be heavily edited to the convenience of the narrator. Also, and this is important with most unreliable witnesses, make the reader feel patronised and talked down to. This will make them want to believe the narrator is lying and wrong about things and keep it foremost in their minds.

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What you are talking about is essentially an unreliable narrator.

Unreliable narrators can be mentally ill (Humbert Humbert in 'Lolita), have a character flaw (boastful, ignorant - Chaucers 'Wife of Bath for example), or immature, such as Huckleberry Finn.

In each case, the unreliability can be signalled much as in real life - lack of credibility. Your character can contradict himself, or contradict what the reader knows in the text, or lie to other characters (Intratextual signs) or contradict real life or social norms (Extratextual signs).

Nabokov's Humbert Humbert does most of these, and is an outstanding example of an unreliable, lying, narrator. Well worth reading if you are looking for ideas.

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I think you are on the right lines, in that including contradictions is a good way of indicating that the person is not telling the truth. Of course, you need to avoid the danger that readers think you are just being sloppy. I think the speaker needs to be caught in a lie - realise that they have said something contradictory.

What is more difficult is identifying what they are lying about - that is, when they are lying, and when they are telling the truth. You may need another character to verify important facts (like the eidetic memory, if this is important).

It is difficult, because the reader tends to trust the narrator.

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