As writers and editors, we all learn that using first person point of view or even third person limited/close point of view gets readers closer to the story, because they are experiencing things as if they are standing in that character’s shoes.
But what happens if that narrator—the character through whose eyes we experience the story—is unreliable? What if that character is a pathological liar or a master manipulator? What if they believe what they say, but their view of the world is skewed?
What is an Unreliable Narrator?
An unreliable narrator is, as the term suggests, a narrator who is not reliable.
It is a character whose thoughts, actions, and opinions we cannot take at face value. It is “any narrator who misleads readers, either deliberately or unwittingly” (Seddon, H). As Bridget McNulty says in her article, What is an Unreliable Narrator, “his unreliability might be obvious to the reader throughout, it might be revealed gradually, or it might come as a revelation that provided a major plot twist.”
Types of Unreliable Narrator
Here are four types of unreliable narrators:
- The narrator that purposely misleads: This is the person who lies, manipulates, gaslights, and otherwise twists information for their own gain or to make themselves look good.
- The narrator who is passing on unreliable information: This is the narrator who may be reliable themselves, but who is unknowingly passing on incorrect or misleading information from another unreliable character.
- The naïve narrator: an innocent or ignorant character whose perception of events is colored by their young age or inexperience.
- The narrator who is insane or psychologically impaired: This character may be passing on information they believe is true but is not based in reality. This group can overlap the narrator who purposely misleads if, for example, they have something like a narcissistic personality disorder and they are giving false information, gaslighting, etc. in order to get what they want.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
Here are a two of my favorite examples of an unreliable narrator:
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: Amy Dunne has disappeared and, largely due to the diary she left behind, her husband Nick is accused of her disappearance. This character has played the damsel in distress, planted clues and evidence, and outright lied (even in her diary, which is supposed to contain a person’s innermost thoughts and feelings). She destroys numerous lives, all so she can get exactly what she wants. But we don’t find out the truth about her until about half way in.
- The Sixth Sense: This Thriller/Horror movie was released in 1999. Cole Sear is a young boy who is terrified by the visits he gets from ghosts. He is afraid to tell anyone what is going on, except child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe, who is the narrator. Perhaps you’ve heard that famous line from when Cole tells the Dr. why he has been so afraid; “I see dead people.” It is easy to assume there is some psychological problem going on with the child that is making him hallucinate, especially since he is seeing a psychologist regularly. Imagine the audience’s surprise when—at the end of the movie and at the same time Dr. Crowe does—we find out the boy really does see dead people and Dr. Crowe is, in fact, a ghost.
Tips for Creating Unreliable Narrators
Here are just a few tips to help you get started creating unreliable narrators:
- Know your character’s backstory, including the parts you don’t share. Is this character naïve, narcissistic, untrusting, and so on, and is there something from their past that causes them to be that way? Is it tied to the lie they believe at the start of the story? Is it linked to the character’s ‘ghost’?
- In her article The Unreliable Narrator: All You Need to Know, Holly Seddon suggests writing as if you, the author, completely believe the story the narrator is telling. She gave an example of a book she wrote where she went back after her completed first draft and changed some of the details to lies.
- If you are gradually revealing that your narrator is unreliable, or if your waiting for that plot twist to tell the readers the truth, then build in clues along the way that are not obvious at first read. This way, the reader won’t feel tricked when they discover the truth.
Telling your story with a narrator that readers know is unreliable from the very start can keep your readers guessing.
If the other characters don’t know but the reader does, it can create a layer of tension throughout as the reader watches innocent characters head into trouble due to the narrator’s deceit.
Using a narrator that is gradually revealed or one that is revealed at a plot twist can surprise and shock your readers. Just make sure you’ve given enough clues along the way that readers don’t start viewing you as an ‘unreliable author.’
To make your unreliable narrators realistic and relatable (if not likeable), then make sure you know your character’s backstories well—including the information that you don’t give your readers.
For example, as authors, we need to know if they are likely to misinterpret situations or have a skewed perspective of events.
And we need to make sure that character acts consistently throughout the story.
References and Further Reading
Seddon, H. (n.d.) The Unreliable Narrator: All You Need to Know. Jericho Writers.
Article Written by Sherry Leclerc
Sherry Leclerc is a Fictionary Certified StoryCoach editor, Fictionary content creator, Writer’s Digest certified copy editor, and independent author. She is a member of Editor’s Canada, the Canadian Authors Association (CAA), and The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).
Sherry holds a B.A. in English Language and Literature and a B.Ed. She is the sole proprietor of Ternias Publishing, through which she offers various editorial services. She also has a YouTube channel where she has a vlog about writing and editing, titled The Mythic Quill. You can find it on Youtube .
Sherry currently lives in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada. You can contact her at [email protected] or [email protected]
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