Have you ever been lied to, deceived, or ripped off? Of course, you have! Unfortunately, we’ve all fallen prey to a lie at some point in our lives. We’re even lied to in literature, and when that happens, we call it an unreliable narrator.
An unreliable narrator is a point of view character who you can’t trust for one reason or another. We’ll get into those reasons further down. And, while it’s never good to lie in your real life, there are plenty of reasons to employ an unreliable narrator in your writing life.
We’ll talk about those reasons and much more, but first, let’s answer one crucial question.
What is an unreliable narrator?
Unreliable narrators are perspective characters, telling a story but not telling the reader the whole story. An unreliable narrator is hiding essential story details, or they are outright lying about them.
Unreliable narrators are typically used in a story that has a first-person point of view. If you’re unsure what that means, check out this article on the first-person point of view.
There plenty of reasons why a narrator might lie to a reader, and not all those reasons are malicious. Sometimes a narrator is either too young or naive to know they are lying. A naive narrator could have a skewed perspective with no awareness of it.
But, other times, narrators are just lying to the reader. In these cases, the author is often using the narrator to set up some major plot twists.
How does an unreliable narrator affect a story?
An unreliable narrator will cause the reader to question a story’s events, like the fantastic events of a novel like Forrest Gump. Unreliable narrators will also set up major plot twists in a story, like in the climax of the film The Usual Suspects.
The narrator acts as a filter through which all the information in the story passes. An unreliable narrator will hide information from the reader. The information suppressed by the narrator would give the reader a broader context or reveal a complete story.
Due to their control of story information, authors can use narrators to control plot pacing and set up significant reveals.
When done poorly, an unreliable narrator will have no purpose behind their lying. Don’t use a dishonest narrator as a “gotcha” on the reader or to try and fool your reader for no reason.
To be effective, unreliable narrators have to have a purpose behind their lying, that is revealed in the plot.
Why use an unreliable narrator?
To develop a theme
When an unreliable narrator is discovered, by the reader, to be a liar, it puts all the plot events into question. When done expertly, an unreliable narrator will cause the reader to reexamine the events of the story.
A narrator who has lied may cause a reader to question their assumptions and beliefs. Unreliable narrators can spur, in your reader, a thoughtfulness about your story that they otherwise wouldn’t have. In short, this technique can force a reader to think harder about a story.
To build tension in a story.
Sometimes a reader will know from the beginning that a narrator is unreliable, like when the narrator is a child. In these cases, the reader will pay closer attention to the text and question the story’s events.
An excellent example of this would be in the film Memento. In this film, the hero has no long term memory making his retelling of events suspect.
Again, if the author creates an intriguing narrator, the reader will stick with the text to find the story’s truth. The purpose of an unreliable narrator is to introduce a story question.
To set up a plot twist.
Unreliable narrators can fabricate a big lie at the heart of your story. Once revealed, this lie will act as a third act twist. Plot twists will make your narrative more interesting. This technique is used well in the movie The Usual Suspects.
Verbal Kent, the movie’s narrator, is revealed to have lied about the entire plot in the climax.
How to write an Unreliable Narrator
Use Unreliable Narrators for one of the three reasons above.
You can use one of these narrators to develop your theme, build tension in your plot, or set up a plot twist. Don’t make the mistake of creating a lying narrator with no payoff.
Give your narrator a purpose for lying.
Unreliable narrators should have a straightforward pay off for the reader. Don’t create an unreliable narrator who is lying for no apparent purpose. Your reader is going to feel cheated and probably irritated.
Drop hints that your narrator is hiding something
An unreliable narrator is like a plot twist. It would be best to give your reader a clue that your POV character is not telling the truth. These hints can be as simple as making your character the type of person who might lie like a criminal or a child.
Types of unreliable narrators
This type of narrator is naive to the facts of the world. They are unreliable because they are a child or have the mind of a child. An innocent narrator won’t realize they are telling an incomplete story.
Innocent narrators are retelling the events as they remember, but their interpretation may be fantastical. They may describe a piece of machinery, like a tank, as a dragon or monster.
Their limited understanding of reality forces the reader to question the events of the plot and reinterpret them.
The deluded storyteller believes they are telling the truth. But, what is true to the deluded narrator is a reality they’ve created in their mind. For better or worse, this fabricated reality does not match the narrator’s actual circumstances.
The deluded teller may have experienced trauma or tragedy, and they’ve withdrawn from reality as a coping mechanism. Their version of the truth may be an idyllic fantasy, or they may suffer from paranoid delusions.
This type of narration could also stem from disease, such as a character suffering from dementia.
This person is like the deluded narrator, but with an evil bent. The insane narrator is usually a baddie. They interpret events in ways that portray them as a victim when they are the victimizer.
The insane narrator will reinterpret events as a way of justifying their terrible deeds. To these people, the world has done them wrong, and they are only trying to survive and obtain some justice. Truthfully, they are self-absorbed and toxic.
Writing from a villain’s point of view, for a chapter or two, is an excellent way to show readers the antagonist’s motivation.
The outsider is a character who is shunned by society for cultural, racial, or socioeconomic reasons. They could also be a character who is just new to town. These narrators don’t fully understand the world they have dropped into.
Other characters will hide information from the outsider; they will lie to the outsider about what is going on. Because the reader is experiencing the plot through the outsider’s lens, their perspective will be limited.
The outsider could also be a character who is trying to unravel hidden truths. Detectives or investigators will often have an outsider perspective.
The Tall Teller
This narrator is concerned with telling a good story and will exaggerate events for dramatic effect. The tall teller is all about hyperbole. They are often charming, and although the reader may find that the narrator is bending the truth, it’s all in good fun. The tall teller is playful and does not take things, like the truth, too seriously.
The liar might be a criminal or some other nefarious character. This narrator is willfully lying to the reader to paint themselves in a better light. Using a lying narrator is usually not an effective technique and will take a lot of skill to pull off.
Examples of an unreliable narrator
Benjy, The Sound and the Fury – Innocent
Benjy is the first narrator of William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury. He is the youngest child of the Compson family. The family mostly ignores Benjy because he is autistic. Benjy has an acute way of sensing the world around him. Like, he knows when his sister has been out with a man. During his retelling of events, he pays no attention to chronological order. Benjy jumps from events in his adult life to his childhood and back again, leaving the reader reeling.
The Protagonist, Fight Club – Deluded
The unnamed narrator of Fight Club is an example of a deluded narrator. He believes that he is spending time with his enigmatic and dangerous friend Tyler Durden. However, the narrator is Tyler Durden. All the acts that the protagonist witnesses Tyler perform, he is doing himself. The narrator even blows up his apartment without realizing it.
Alex, A Clockwork Orange – Insane
Alex is the 15-year-old protagonist of A Clockwork Orange. At the beginning of the book, Alex is a criminally insane sociopath who engages in what he calls “ultraviolence.” Alex and his gang roams the streets at night high on drugs and commit horrendous acts of violence. Eventually, the police catch up with Alex. He undergoes a severe form of therapy to rehabilitate him. Alex’s insanity makes it impossible for the reader to know if he’s ever sincere.
Harry Potter, the Harry Potter Series – Outsider
Harry Potter is often an unreliable narrator throughout his novel series because he is a newcomer to the wizarding world. He doesn’t know the actual events surrounding his parents’ murder. He believes, wrongly, that Professor Snape had something to do with their demise when the man tried to save them. Harry’s false beliefs are made worse by Professor Dumbledore, who manipulates Harry and deliberately withholds information from him.
Forrest Gump, Forrest Gump – Tall Teller
Forest Gump may also fall into the category of an innocent. Still, it is heavily implied in the book, and less so in the movie, the character is not entirely truthful. In the novel Forrest Gump, the titular character even claims to have been a NASA astronaut. Gump’s fantastic escapades are hard to believe, given his low IQ. Gump is an earnest and charming storyteller, so the reader doesn’t mind his willful truth-stretching.
Pi, Life of Pi – Liar
Pi’s character from Life of Pi is an excellent example of pulling off a lying narrator. Pi is the sole human survivor of a shipwreck that kills his parents. He is stranded on a lifeboat with a small group of animals.
A hyena kills each animal until a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker kills the hyena. Pi survives with Richard until he is rescued. When an insurance company interviews him, Pi admits that in reality, each animal represents a person- Pi, the ship’s cook, a sailor, and his mother.
The cook murdered and ate the sailor and Pi’s mother. Pi, represented by Richard Parker, in turn, killed the cook. The reader forgives Pi’s lies because we understand why he would want to hide the truth.
Using an unreliable narrator is a perfect way to build tension in your plot and keep your reader on their toes. They will always question your plot and want to dig deeper into the text to find the truth.
The danger of an unreliable narrator is that if their lies don’t pay off, in some way, the reader will feel cheated. No one enjoys being lied to. If you decide to employ an unreliable narrator, be sure that the reader can identify with your point of view character.
Creating a sympathetic narrator could mean making them an innocent child who doesn’t know they are lying. Or, you could write a narrator who is so charming the reader will forgive some level of dishonesty.
In the end, be sure to have a purpose behind your character’s mistruths, whether that’s self-preservation or just a desire to tell a good story.
Unreliable narrators are just one technique to keep your reader guessing and develop mysteries that make it impossible to walk away from your story.
Continue reading about unreliable narrators: