In this article, bestselling author, Holly Seddon, breaks down all you need to know about the unreliable narrator. Contains spoilers!
In this guide, we’re going to figure out who the unreliable narrator is and how using one will impact your story. We’ll discuss the different types of unreliable narrators at your disposal, and how to choose which one is right for you. We’ll also dissect some real-life examples – what type of unreliable narrator was used and how did they impact the storyline?
Above all: this is intended as a practical guide for writers wanting to explore one of the richest and most enjoyable writing approaches of them all.
But first, the basics. A definition.
What is an unreliable narrator? A definition.
An unreliable narrator can be defined as any narrator who misleads readers, either deliberately or unwittingly. Many are unreliable through circumstances, character flaws or psychological difficulties. In some cases, a narrator withholds key information from readers, or they may deliberately lie or misdirect.
The term ‘unreliable narrator’ is fairly new – it was first used by literary critic Wayne C Booth in 1961 – but examples of this literary device date back hundreds of years. Medieval poet and chronicler Geoffrey Chaucer used various unreliable narrators in The Canterbury Tales, for example the bragging and exaggerating Wife of Bath.
Some Shakespearean characters could also be described as unreliable. Could we trust Hamlet, in his grief and paranoia, to tell us the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
In modern writing, unreliable narrators feature frequently in crime and thriller books, but the technique can be used to withhold information and surprise readers of any genre, as the many thousands of readers who enjoyed romantic suspense The Man Who Didn’t Call by Rosie Walsh can testify.
An unreliable narrator usually tells the story in first person, but there are notable exceptions to this such as Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None which uses limited third person. The world’s bestselling mystery novel uses an unknown narrator who shows us the numerous points of view of the potential killers (and victims) trapped on an island.
If an unreliable narrator is written well, the reader will experience the delight of a shocking twist or a dawning realisation that they have been misled.
When readers have been told a story from a specific point of view, we cannot help but side with the storyteller, even when they are doing dubious things or making bad decisions. This can make for complex and conflicted feelings when readers realise they have been double-crossed by someone they trusted.
If readers feel that they have been outright lied to with no possible way to sniff out the truth though, the effect can be negative. For this reason, it’s essential to balance the mistruths with some careful foreshadowing and stitching in of ‘clues’ so that when readers look back and think about the story after the reveal, they feel satisfied and impressed rather than frustrated.
What is a reliable and unreliable narrator?
A reliable narratoris the antithesis of an unreliable narrator. The reliable narrator tells readers all the pertinent information they need to know, albeit from their own point of view, and they do so as accurately as possible and in good faith.
An unreliable narrator also tells a story from their own point of view but the information they share is designed to mislead readers or obscure the truth.
In locked room mysteries, where any one in a group of people could be responsible for a crime or misdemeanour, authors can tell the story from all their points of view so a reader has to try to work out which of the narrators is unreliable and which is reliable. Sometimes, of course, there can be more than one unreliable fly in the ointment. Agatha Christie was a master of such a technique.
Why is the unreliable narrator right for your story?
An unreliable narrator can perform ‘sleight of hand’ by hiding clues and prompting readers to look in the wrong direction. For example, they may build up a picture of another character’s behaviour that makes you believe they are guilty of something. This is especially useful in crime and thriller writing but it can work well in any story that requires suspense and surprise.
An unreliable narrator, when he or she is one of several points of view telling the story or alone, can – to put it bluntly – mess with a reader’s mind. They can make a reader mistrust other narrators or characters or second guess their own understanding of events.
As with any literary device, it is important to think about how your use of the technique will improve your story. Would using an unreliable narrator allow you to fit an intricate plot together more effectively? Would it help to showcase a complex character? Would it drive the story along in a way that a truthful narrator telling the story would not achieve? Will it add that ‘cherry on the cake’ that is currently missing from your work in progress?
Unreliable narrators can be incredibly fun to write, but it’s important that you knowwhy you’re writing them.
Types of unreliable narrators
There is an argument that any first–person narrator who does not have an omniscient view of all events, is unreliable. They can only share their personal experiences and those that they have been told, they have filtered everything through their own experiences and beliefs, and even if they are not ‘baddies’ they will have their own motivations and desires which can’t help but effect their reading of events. All of which is true.
Where I believe a narrator becomes unreliable, is where their take on the situation and the way they tell their story to readers, creates in the reader’s mind a significant gap between what they’re led to believe happened, and the truth.
The deliberately unreliable narrator
Those who lie, obscure and otherwise deliberately mislead. A deliberately unreliable narrator is often – but not always – a ‘baddie’. But even if someone has been deceitful for wicked reasons, their actions should still be believable. No-one is just plain evil for no reason, so make sure that even the most cruel and manipulative liars have a motive for their behaviour – even if it’s a screwed–up motive!
Gone Girlby Gillian Flynn contains one of the most famous unreliable narrators of the last decade: Amy Dunne. We first get to know Amy through her diary entries which lead up to her kidnap. At the midpoint twist, we find out that Amy is not only alive but has been meticulously writing a retrospective diary to frame her husband for her murder. The plot is complex, with multiple twists and reveals, but the basic idea of a narrator creating his or her own cover story through a diary is actually a very neat and rather simple one.
The other main character, Amy’s husband Nick, is also a deliberately unreliable narrator which makes for a very twisty book. In his case, Nick tries to paint the best picture of himself by keeping his infidelity from the reader, which is a very tame form of manipulation compared with his wife’s character.
You can find out more on how to create your own bad guy, here.
The impaired narrator
Alcohol is an oft-used tool for enabling narrators to have holes in their story and misremembrances. Alcoholic Rachel from Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins is a prime example of this. Rachel is woven deeply into the other characters’ lives, but has memory blanks over key events. In some ways, she is openly unreliable – she doesn’t hide her drinking or her struggle to remember events from the reader – and the reader is invited to join her as she tries to uncover the crucial moments that she has forgotten.
Drug use in a narrator would also fit this role, but drinking alcohol is a more universally understood experience so it’s arguably easier for readers to both empathise and imagine themselves in the narrator’s role.
The psychologically unreliable narrator
What is sometimes, rather unkindly, called the ‘madman narrator’. Patrick Bateman from Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho is one such ‘mad man’ who tells a shocking tale of murder and mayhem… until it’s revealed that one of his supposed victims is still alive.
In modern books, psychological unreliability often takes the form of a narrator whose psychological issues or traumas have jumbled up their memories or made it hard for them to understand the circumstances and events in which they have found themselves.
If you would like to use a psychologically unreliable narrator, it’s essential to give them nuance and characteristics outside of their ‘issues’ or readers may balk at the use of trauma or illness to simply drive plot or mislead. Every character deserves to be well-rounded.
The unaware narrator
Those who are passing on information that they have been told by another unreliable character. Sometimes this is due to blindly trusting those around them, sometimes it can be due to memory or other issues which make them rely on someone else’s events.
The main character in the brilliant Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson has a rare condition that makes her forget everything that has happened that day, waking up each morning with no recollection of who she is or where she is. She only knows what those around her tell her, and what information she finds that she has left for herself on previous days.
The naïve narrator
The naïve narrator is a little like the unaware narrator but does not have the maturity of thought to understand the events they are describing. Child characters can be used to simplify an adult situation or express a naïve take on events. For example, Pi, the eponymous character in The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, who tells a tale of survival that is both entirely unbelievable and extremely moving.
Teenager Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is unreliable through his youthful inexperience, which lead him to misunderstand the situations in which he finds himself. Although he is naïve, he is also an angry and rebellious teenager and it is through this lens that Caulfield views the world and interprets it.
The wonderful Notes on a Scandalby Zoe Heller contains an adult character – Barbara – whose own moral code, inexperience and loneliness make for a naïve and skewed reading of events. As readers, we begin to understand what is really happening even when she doesn’t, which is both thrilling and devastating to watch.
Tricks to creating unreliable narrators
As with writing twists, my approach to unreliable narrators is to write them as if they’re entirely honest, as if I – the writer – completely believe the story they are telling. I try to forget that some of what they’re saying is untrue and write it as if it’s gospel. Writing my second book, Don’t Close Your Eyes, which includes an unreliable narrator, I wrote the story as if all characters were telling the truth. Then, when I had completed the first draft, I went through carefully and changed some of those details to lies.
An unreliable narrator has maximum impact if the reader has truly bought into their story and believed them, right up until the moment where it is revealed that they are untrustworthy. To help foster your readers’ trust, keep as many details accurate as possible. If the narrator is a frequent, outright liar from the start of the novel, readers will not put any stock in their story. Whereas if we see them telling the truth, possibly even going out of their way to be honest to a fault, it will be all the more shocking when we realise that we’ve been well and truly had.
So, there we have it, the unreliable narrator. What did you think? Have we missed anything? Anything else you’d like to add? Head on over to the Jericho Townhouseand let us know your thoughts.
About the author:
Holly Seddon became a national and international bestseller with her debut thriller, Try Not to Breathe, in 2016 and followed it in 2017 with Don’t Close Your Eyes and in 2018 with Love Will Tear Us Apart.The Wanted is due for publication in January 2021.