Unreliable Narrators: What Are They and Why Might You Want to Use One?
An unreliable narrator is a first person narrator who doesn’t entirely tell the truth.
That might be because they’re biased or deluded – or it could be because they’re outright lying to us (or, at the very least, deliberately omitting the truth).
We could argue that all narrators are at least a little unreliable: we expect them to show some degree of bias, and we expect their narrative to be clouded at least slightly by their own preconceptions. As readers, we filter these without really thinking about them to come up with a more objective truth.
But to be a true “unreliable narrator”, the narrator needs to be going further than this in omitting facts, or manipulating them, to put a very different light on events.
When Might You Use an Unreliable Narrator?
An unreliable narrator can serve a number of different purposes within a story. You might use one because:
- You want to create a more complex and perhaps more literary story.
- You’re writing a mystery or suspense story when part of the enjoyment for the reader is figuring out who’s telling the truth. (Gone Girl is a good example of this.)
- The unreliability is a core part of your narrator’s character – e.g. they’re a remorseless liar, or they’re completely deluded.
- You want to experiment with ideas about narrative, truth and reality.
- You want a “twist in the tale” story where a sudden revelation near the end casts everything in a new light and explains what was really going on.
Often, with an unreliable narrator, the story will be presented as if it’s being told to someone – perhaps an interviewer or therapist – or as if it’s being written down, maybe as a diary or journal.
In Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, for instance, the unnamed narrator is keeping an expedition journal, designed to be read by others. There are several points at which she admits she hasn’t been entirely truthful or open about something before that point (e.g. when we find out about her husband’s connection to her mission).
How to Play Fair When You’re Using an Unreliable Narrator
There’s technically nothing stopping you from writing a first person narrative, only to have your narrator reveal in the final chapter that the entire thing was an elaborate fabrication, that most of the characters don’t even exist, and that their real story is very different.
This is unlikely to be a satisfying experience for the reader!
Part of the appeal of an unreliable narrator is knowing – or at least suspecting – that they’re unreliable, as you read the story.
This means cluing the reader in at a fairly early stage. That might be by:
- Slightly ambiguous, unexplained references. In Annihilation, for instance, there’s a brief mention of the protagonist being moved by a particular face, on video, from the previous exhibition that takes on a new, clearer meaning on re-reading.
- Other characters disputing or casting doubt on the narrator’s version of events.
- A framing story that suggests the narrator’s story perhaps shouldn’t be taken at face value. (Think of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, for instance, which opens with people telling one another ghost stories.)
- Having your character admit that they’ve not told the whole truth: we may start to wonder what else they’re being untruthful about, or what else they’re omitting to tell us.
- Including things that seem improbable or confusing. In Gail Honeyman Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Eleanor has weekly conversations with her mother, who we initially assume is calling from prison … but this becomes more and more in doubt as the story progresses and as we learn more about Eleanor’s past.
- Demonstrating, through your character’s interactions with others, that they’re a liar or prone to wild exaggeration.
- Having your character describe themself or their abilities in clearly grandiose terms. (e.g. if they say something like “While I never come top, or even very near top, of my class, my intelligence was never in doubt. Alas, my teachers and fellow students were all too stupid to realise what a genius resided within their ranks …”)
Keep in mind that the format of your story may also influence how many clues you need to include. If the story is being presented as a straightforward narrative, not “told” to anyone in particular, then we don’t necessarily expect any lies; if the story is presented as a series of letters sent from a character in jail to a journalist on the outside, we might be more dubious about his protestations of innocence.
Unreliable narrators can be really fun for both writers and readers – but if they’re done badly, they won’t work. How do you feel about unreliable narrators?Is there a particular novel or short story you’ve read that makes great use of them? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
Aliventures is where I help you master the art, craft and business of writing.
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Can You Call Yourself a “Writer” if You’re Not Currently Writing?
The Three Stages of Editing (and Nine Handy Do-it-Yourself Tips)
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One of the best unreliable characters I’ve read over and over was was in Agatha Christie’s murder mystery ” The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”. Also, I love MC Beaton’s mystery character, Agatha Raisin, who sees both sides of the fence and sometimes realizes she might be wrong in her opinions, love her too. Best movie was M Knight Shyamalan’s “6th Sense”, I watched it over and over, great ending. Many sci-fi short stories from the fifties have an alien narrating the story and you don’t realize it till the end. One of my favorites that sticks with me from 60 years ago is when the astronauts left their capsule to explore a planet and released there wings from the space suits. I didn’t realize the planet earth was being explored by aliens not humans, great twist.
That’s one of the Agatha Christie novels I still need to read…! I’ve read a lot of older SF short stories that have similar twists: they can be very cleverly done.
oopps their wings, darn auto correct
I have a love/hate feeling towards unreliable narrators, the few stories I have read in this area were very disconcerting which is both extremely satisfying and uncomfortable. I have always wondered how to go about writing a character like this. One of my favorites is “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.”
Yes, not all readers want to be disconcerted! I definitely need to be in the right sort of mood to read a novel with an unreliable narrator. (And if the author can’t pull it off, that’s just frustrating.)