You can tell the same truth a hundred different ways, it all depends on how you spin it.
As someone who claims to be an honest person, would you think differently of me if I told you that's my personal motto?**
Actually, my dad told me some version of that when I went for my very first job interview.
So here's the thought process behind it: There's never one single reason behind any decision, action, or inaction, (I wrote a very nerdy post about this before) but usually it gets boiled down to one when you're explaining yourself to another person.
So, here's a hypothetical situation:
I quit my job because...
I was being verbally abused by my manager
I hate getting up early and driving in rush hour traffic
I don't like talking to people on the phone, but that's 80% of the job
The cafeteria lady is creepy
The work they assign me is boring
My co-worker has this really annoying laugh and smells like BO
Let's pretend all of those things contributed to the final decision to quit, but I bet (if it were you), you'd tell different people a separate reason for quitting. You wouldn't tell the HR director you're quitting 'cause the cafeteria lady's lazy eye creeps you out... nor, when you're interviewing for a new job, would you tell them you quit your last job 'cause the work was boring or you hated getting up early. In a professional setting, you would never think to badmouth your previous manager... for a whole slew of legitimate reasons, but you might tell your best friend, spouse or significant other.
And out of all the potential people asking, 'why?' you probably wouldn't unload every reason you quit on a single person... 'cause then it'd just sound like you're excessively negative and they might not take you seriously or want to hear about your problems in the future.
Spin is important. It's something we learn to do in our society, just like we learn to smile and be patient and polite instead of throwing a temper tantrum when the line at the grocery store is a mile long and the person at the counter just whipped out a ziplock baggie filled with spare change to pay for their $87.42 purchase.***
We learn to read people's body language (even though most of us aren't aware we're doing it) and change what we say and how we act based on our audience.
So, is it possible to spin the truth yet still be honest?
I believe so. But then I'm a hopeless optimist. Every time something bad happens, I look for what good may come of it. That's a form of spin, too, but for my own sake.
But what about our characters? In our heads (as writers), our character may have a dozen reasons for cheating on his wife, but does the reader really want slug through all of them? Where is the line between building a complex, realistic character and boring the reader to death with extraneous details?
One of the reasons I like unreliable narrators so much is the fact that, as a reader, we can see the spin... as an objective outsider, we can recognize that what's happening around the character doesn't mesh with what the character thinks is happening, or says is happening.
Right now, the newest story I'm working on (Project #4) has an unreliable narrator. I'm finding it difficult to walk that thin line of showing a disconnect between reality and what's in the MC's head, yet not confusing the reader by making them *believe* the MC and thinking I've messed up as a writer.
Have you thought much about your characters? How do they spin their reality for the people around them, and for the reader? Has anyone else worked on an unreliable narrator? Was it hard? Any suggestions for me?
* I have re-written many a resume for friends and family...
** Okay, my REAL personal motto is, "Try new things at least twice" because you might hate something the first time, but love it the second time.
*** Based on an actual story, but I was the cashier at a garden centre. Seriously... a baggie full of pennies, nickels and dimes. Not even quarters. That's one of many reasons I quit working retail.