This Article is About Writing Unreliable Narrators. Or is It?
Fiction readers don’t mind a little light lying. They choose books about made-up people who have made-up problems. So it’s no wonder they’re also open to an unreliable narrator who can add intrigue, tension, and even charm with their distorted storytelling.
But as any writer could tell you, there’s an art to toying with your reader’s sense of reality. It’s true when you’re dreaming up characters, building fictional worlds, and, yes, when you’re writing a narrator who can’t be trusted.
If you want to tell your story from a less-than-credible perspective, you need to know:
- What an unreliable narrator is
- Why you might want to use one
- The four types of unreliable narrators
- Tips for developing this character
- How to build tension with this style of narration
- How to keep your readers onboard with storytelling they can’t trust
- Key differences between unreliable and reliable narrators
- Famous examples to inspire your own work
Let’s start with the big question:
What Are Unreliable Narrators?
A narrator is considered unreliable when there is reason to doubt their version of events. This could be because they’re deliberately misleading the reader or because their perception of reality is just off. (Been there, man.)
This type of storyteller is often a first-person narrator—a character who’s actually in the story and tells it from their perspective. They tend to be the main character, but they don’t have to be.
There are also unreliable third-person narrators. This is usually third-person limited, when the storyteller relays the perspective of a specific character.
Why Use an Unreliable Narrator?
An unreliable narrator can be a great tool for building tension, as readers are unsure what to believe. It’s also a storytelling method that encourages the reader to invest more deeply in the narrative, using their own insight and intuition to draw their own conclusions.
Plus, inviting your audience to question your narrator’s credibility brings out the humanity in the voice that drives your novel. After all, nothing is more human than getting it all a little bit wrong.
The Five Types of Unreliable Narrators
Your unreliable narrator will likely fall into one of five categories:
This narrator doesn’t take anything seriously and will gleefully mess with the reader.
They deliberately skew the truth. Unlike the clown, however, they do it to protect or elevate themselves, not just for their own entertainment.
I’m not a big fan of this label, but you should know it so you understand what people are talking about when they use it. This narrator is unreliable because they have a mental illness or use substances that distort reality.
The naif is young and/or inexperienced; they’re interpreting the events of the story with limited understanding.
This unreliable narrator loves to exaggerate. The movie Big Fish is basically one big celebration of the picaro.
How to Write an Unreliable Narrator
Make your narrator’s lack of credibility clear from the beginning. If they suffer from amnesia, they can refer to themselves as unreliable. If they’re a liar, you might have to be a little more strategic in getting that point across. Maybe other characters contradict the narrator’s version of events in dialogue, for example.
You can also drop hints about the narrator that naturally call their credibility into question, like a lifelong grudge that would motivate them to paint another character’s actions in a negative light.
Building Suspense and Tension
An unreliable narrator can create mondo tension just by obscuring critical information.
In What Alice Forgot, the reader observes Alice’s broken family life from her perspective as an amnesiac who can only remember when things were good. Alice’s abundant love for her husband and sister is clear in the narration, so it’s a gut punch to see the resentment both of them seem to carry for her.
In Gone Girl, suspense skyrockets when Amy’s narration appears, immediately undermining the story her husband Nick was just telling. Now we have two contradictory narrators—neither of whom we trust—in a high-stakes situation.
Writing an unreliable narrator is all about casting doubt deliberately and strategically. It might help to think about which reality your readers would consider the worst-case scenario. Can your unreliable narrator make them feel momentarily safe from that scenario? And can you then give the reader reason to doubt?
How to Keep the Reader Engaged
When you’re writing an unreliable narrator, you’re riding a thin line between titillating your reader with thrilling unknowns and irritating them with an endless stream of gotchas.
To stay on your audience’s good side, make sure both the misinformation and reality make sense. When your narrator says something misleading, that choice (or accident) should align with who they are. When the facts emerge, you want the reader to feel blindsided by the narrator, not you.
Reliable vs. Unreliable Narrators
Now that we’ve gotten the gist of an unreliable narrator, how do we define a reliable narrator?
This is a complicated and occasionally controversial question. I personally believe that the only truly reliable narrators are omniscient narrators. They’re the only ones capable of true objectivity, though as my editor rightly points out, they can also be lying liars who lie.
If the story comes from the point of view of one character or human(esque) observer, the tale can only be informed by that single, limited perspective. It will be at least a little unreliable.
Having said that, there is a spectrum. One unreliable narrator might leave you questioning even your own reality while another leaves you smirking because you can see right through their biased storytelling.
As with all things in this craft, the only way to write a great unreliable narrator is to read a lot of them. Here are a few suspicious storytellers worth checking out:
Pi Patel in The Life of Pi - Pi is an unreliable narrator who lies to survive.
Nelly in Wuthering Heights - She loves to embellish, but she tells one heck of a ghost story.
Narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart - He claims he’s still in touch with reality, but don’t trust him. Murder makes you hear crazy things.
Rachel Watson in The Girl on the Train - She’s drunk and blacks out, which makes it difficult to get one’s story straight.
Now Let’s Get Your Story Straight
Creating an unreliable narrator isn’t exactly a breeze. You have to motivate and explain their lies, embellishments, or mistakes. You have to leave clues that offer your readers an opportunity to at least try to separate fact from fiction.
Then there’s the part where you have to keep track of what really happened and what your narrator says happened. That gets complicated… and it’s where Dabble comes in.
In addition to being a great tool for writing, revising, and formatting your novel, Dabble also has genius features for brainstorming, planning, and plotting. My favorite is the Plot Grid, which allows you to see several different aspects of your story all at once, like this:
Then, when it comes time to write each scene, you have all the corresponding notes right there in your manuscript.
I think this tool rocks, but I also write for Dabble, so I understand if you consider me a somewhat unreliable narrator on this topic. Fortunately, you don’t have to take my word for it. You can click here to try Dabble yourself for free for fourteen days—no credit card required.
Now get out there and start fabricating.
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