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What Is an Unreliable Narrator in Writing?
An unreliable narrator is an untrustworthy storyteller, most often used in narratives with a first-person point of view. The unreliable narrator is either deliberately deceptive or unintentionally misguided, forcing the reader to question their credibility as a storyteller.
4 Types of Unreliable Narrators
An author typically assigns different characteristics to a first-person narrator to compromise their credibility and fuel their unreliability. Unreliable narrators can fall into four categories based on those qualities:
- Picaro. The picaro is a character who has a knack for exaggerating. Moll Flanders, the main character in the book Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe, was born to a mother in prison, but lies about her social standing in order to wed wealthy men and inherit their money.
- Madman. The madman is unreliable because they are mentally detached from reality. In Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, Patrick Bateman is a self-proclaimed serial killer—or is he? The Wall Street investment banker narrates his killing spree until it’s revealed that one of his supposed victims is alive and well, forcing the reader to question Bateman’s story.
- Naif. The naif’s narrative abilities are impacted by inexperience or age. In Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, 15-year-old Christopher weaves the tale of his supposedly deceased mother and the murder of his neighbor’s dog. Both his age and his Asperger’s syndrome color his narrative, and how he comprehends the world around him. Holden Caulfield, the narrator of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, is another famous example of a naif narrator due to his youthful ignorance.
- Liar. The liar is the most deliberate of all the unreliable narrators. The character fabricates stories, often to paint a better picture of themselves or achieve a desired outcome. In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Dr. James Sheppard narrates as he helps detective Hercule Poirot investigate the murder of a mutual friend. WIth a reputable prefix before his name, Sheppard is a trusted confidante. But, as Poirot solves the crime, the reader realizes they’ve been fooled—Sheppard is actually the killer.
5 Examples of Unreliable Narrators in Literature
Literary critic Wayne C. Booth first coined the phrase “unreliable narrator” in his 1961 book Rhetoric of Fiction, but authors began using this literary technique long before that. Here are some famous examples of books with unreliable narrators:
- Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl. When Amy Dunne takes on the role of the narrator halfway through Gone Girl, it comes as somewhat of a surprise. Readers have spent the first half of the book thinking she is dead thanks to the novel’s first unreliable narrator, Amy’s husband Nick. With two unreliable narrators—Amy and her husband, Nick—Flynn doubles down on the novel’s conflict and dismantles the story’s moral compass.
- Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca. The narrator’s unreliability in this 1938 novel comes from her highly subjective retelling. When Mrs. de Winter talks about her predecessor, the first Mrs. de Winter, and the mystery surrounding her death, it is all speculation, with a touch of jealousy. The reason for her jaded perspective is finally exposed when the tragic truth comes to light.
- Winston Groom, Forrest Gump. Forrest Gump’s tales of becoming a ping pong champion and NASA astronaut are questionable, but his earnest unreliability, due to a low IQ, allows the reader to forgive his possible embellishments. Groom creates a very likable narrator in Forrest Gump but lets the matter of his credibility rest solely with the reader.
- Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club. From page one, Palahniuk hints at the fact that the enigmatic Tyler Durden is not just a friend of the narrator—he is the narrator. Palahniuk ultimately pits the narrator’s alter ego against him, creating a satisfying narrative conflict.
4 Ways to Create an Unreliable Narrator
Feeding readers misinformation through the source they trust most in a story is a satisfying way to add twists and turns in a narrative and build suspense. Try these tips for incorporating an unreliable narrator in your story:
- Keep your reader in the dark. Readers are used to having more information than the characters. Try flipping that scenario: have your narrator withhold certain information from your reader and see how it impacts the story.
- Your narrator should be unreliable from the start. People are inherently unreliable when telling a story since their point of view is filtered through their experience and beliefs. Your narrator won’t suddenly become unreliable: hint at any qualities that might compromise them and their story early on.
- Let other characters be a sounding board. Picture a story with 15 first-person narrators. That’s exactly what William Faulkner does in his epic tale As I Lay Dying. Fifteen points of view reflect on one tragedy, and their stories don’t all align. Every character’s interpretation of events is filtered through their own lens. While you don’t need this many perspectives in your story, use other characters to reflect inconsistencies in your narrator’s story.
- Experiment with just a pinch of unreliability. Unreliable narrators aren’t all as off-the-wall as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. There are varying degrees of unreliability, which can create interesting, multidimensional characters. Even a morally good soul like Harry Potter occasionally gives the reader misinformation simply because it’s what he believes. In Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry spends most of the book running from an escaped prisoner he thinks killed in parents only to find out it was all a lie. Even if your main character is well-intentioned, give them unreliable moments to make them slightly flawed—and thus, more believable.
Learn more writing tips from Dan Brown in his MasterClass on thrillers.