Building Your Novel Around an Unreliable Narrator

Posted on Mar 19, 2021

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Have you ever read a book with an untrustworthy main character? The kind of character where you can SEE that what they’re doing is wrong, but they’re justifying it to themselves? Or maybe they’re interpreting an event incorrectly because of their own biases. Introducing the unreliable narrator.

Aren’t those characters so fun to read? I personally love a douchebag main character, but I also love characters who lie to the reader. It’s like a puzzle to figure out what actually happened and why they’re misrepresenting it.

Why Add This Element 

Adding an unreliable narrator to your story creates an additional layer of conflict for the reader to sort through, which adds to the overall tension. Not only does a reader have to work out the conflict, but with an unreliable narrator, they have to call into question everything that happens and keep a sharp eye out for deception and misdirection. They can turn a tense story into a real nail-biter when they’re written well! 

And they’re hard to write well. All author-reader relationships involve an element of trust. Authors are relaying information to the reader and trusting that the reader will understand. In turn, readers trust that the author is giving them good information. An unreliable narrator breaks this rule, but in practice, they shouldn’t break that relationship. An unreliable narrator lies, but they do so in a way that adds to the story instead of taking away from it. 

Finding that balance is hard. You don’t want a character the readers don’t feel connected to. And you don’t want to mistake an unreliable narrator for a villain (though they sometimes are).

Want to write your own unreliable narrator? Let’s talk about it!

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What is an unreliable narrator?

An unreliable narrator is a character who is telling a story and, for whatever reason or in whatever way, the story lacks credibility. You’ve probably been exposed to lots of stories with this type of narration. Whether you’ve realized or not. We’ll cover some popular examples in a bit, it’s a literary device that you can apply to your own stories.

Before we get further into unreliable narrators, let’s cover the different types of narrative perspective and which ones are best suited for unreliable characters.

What are the narrative perspectives?

To start, let’s talk about different possible narrative perspectives. First, second, third limited, and third omniscient. You’re probably familiar with narrative perspectives, but I’ll briefly cover them just in case.

First person

The character themself is the narrator, so it uses the pronouns “I” and “me.” This is often considered the closest possible perspective from which to write, since you’re in that character’s head for the entire story. 

Second person

The odd guy out for narrative perspectives, and it’s not often used in creative writing. Second person establishes the reader as the character, using the pronoun “you.” You’ll see this used in books like choose-your-own adventure novels.

Third person limited

The narrator is separate from the character, but remains closely in the character’s limited perspective. It uses pronouns like she, he, and they, but the reader is still limited. We don’t get to know anything outside of what the character knows, and we don’t see anything past what the character observes. There might be multiple POV characters in a third-person limited story, but we are limited to the POV character for entire scenes or chapters until we intentionally switch to a different character.

Third person omniscient

(also called the God Narrator) uses the same pronouns as third person limited, but the narrator gets to know everything. The narration can hop to different characters’ heads and thoughts, and it knows everything that ever happened in the universe, past, present, and sometimes future.

The unreliable narrator can only come into play in those closer perspectives, like first and sometimes second and limited third. You’ll most often see it in first person narratives.

Which perspectives can be unreliable?

An unreliable narrator is a character that cannot be trusted. They might be a liar, they might not be in their right mind, or they might be misrepresenting events based on their own unintentional biases.

There are many different types of unreliable narrators, but we can break them all into two basic categories: the intentional and the unintentional.

Keep in mind that unreliable narrators are not necessarily liars, and they also aren’t necessarily villains. A character who does morally gray things might be a perfectly reliable narrator, and so might someone who’s outright evil. Unreliable just means that they’re not relaying events to the reader exactly as they happened. They’re misrepresenting them somehow. 

Additionally, not all characters who lie are unreliable narrators. Remember, it’s all about what the character is relaying to the reader. If everything is being relayed exactly as it happens, then you don’t have an unreliable narrator. 

Is your character willfully deceiving the reader, or do they genuinely believe the things they say?

Intentionally Unreliable Narrator

These narrators know they’re lying to the reader, and they’re doing it on purpose. They can have many motivations to do so, but they’re defined by their willful deceit. 

There are many ways a character might choose to conceal information to the reader intentionally. They might hide a key piece of information until the climax or not mention to the reader something which happened in their past to make them act a certain way. It’s true that all characters will act in certain ways based on their experiences. We’ll talk about that more in a minute. But, the thing that makes these guys intentional unreliable narrators is the active, motivated choice to conceal that information.

Unintentionally Unreliable Narrator

Narrators who don’t realize they’re lying can have many more reasons for doing so. They might be ignorant, they might be naive, they might have personal biases that make them see situations differently, etc. You’ll see unintentionally unreliable narration in almost every child narrator, because there is much outside of their scope. A very common and usually essential piece of writing from a child’s perspective. What do they understand, and how do they understand it?

Some people say it’s impossible to have a story in first-person that isn’t an unreliable narrator. I think that’s a great way to think of characters when writing first-person. When we’re seeing through them, it’s important to keep their perspective in mind. The experiences they have and the ways they interpret them should reflect their personality, experiences, traumas, and knowledge. Everything we see and understand is done so through a filter of our own lives, and the same should be true for the characters we write.

The effectiveness of a character’s lens will have a varying impact on the story, depending on the character, but in theory, every first-person narrator is an unreliable narrator to some degree.

Now let’s look at examples of unreliable narrators in popular fiction.

Examples of unreliable narrators

Since every first-person narrative is theoretically unreliable, there are so many strong examples of stories with unreliable narrators. We’re going to talk about three famous and notable examples of unreliable narrators: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Stetson, and The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Alan Poe.

Alias Grace

Grace is a character who claims to have lost all memory of a murder she was convicted of. A doctor takes interest in her case and interviews her years later about what she does remember. Over the course of the story, the reader might suspect that Grace is lying about having lost her memory.

I interpret Grace to be an intentionally deceitful narrator, but it’s left in a sort of gray area where it’s up to the reader whether they believe her story or not. It also takes a bit of the story before you might start to pick up that she’s unreliable. It’s hard to be certain if she’s lying, if other characters are lying, or if she’s not in her right mind and truly believes what she’s saying.

You also watch her seduce and deceive the doctor in the present story, which can lead the reader to believe even more that Grace is being intentionally manipulative.

Alias Grace is a great read if you want to study how skillful authors utilize the unreliable narrator to add layers of intrigue to the story.

The Yellow Wallpaper

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Stetson is a great example of unreliable narration in a short story. This story is the first-person account of a woman who slowly loses her mind. While she starts relatively reliably, you know from the beginning that she is struggling with something akin to postpartum depression, and you know that her husband is dealing with it in an incredibly unhealthy, sexist way that was common in the era.

From the start of the story, we see the pieces in place for the character’s drive to madness, then we watch it unfold. By the end of it, the reader is absolutely certain that the narrator is unreliable. This doesn’t make us care for her any less—I think it makes her even more empathetic. We saw the unfair odds stacked against her and watched how her life and sanity crumbled. She is not a character we can blame for misrepresenting the truth.

The Tell-Tale Heart 

Another classic example of unreliable narrators in short stories is the main character in The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Alan Poe. He is intentionally deceitful, because he directly lies to the reader and to the other characters throughout the entire piece. Mistakenly thinks he’s doing it very cleverly and that no one can see through the lies, which adds another layer of complexity to the character. Speaks about being driven mad by an old man who has done nothing but have a gray-colored eye. He thinks he can hear demons and angels, and at the end of the story, he reveals his own crime because he thinks he can hear the man’s heart still beating beneath the floorboards.

Just like in The Yellow Wallpaper, the reader can be sure that the narrator is intentionally unreliable, and in this case, it just makes him more interesting.

The best way to learn any writing skill or literary device is by finding pieces where writers did them well, then deciding for yourself what you like and dislike about each execution, so read around!

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Why use unreliable narrators?

Having a character who is an unreliable narrator adds layers of intrigue to the story. Not only does the way they misinterpret or misrepresent events show us things about them, but it gives the reader a more active role in interpreting the story. What’s real and what’s not? Can you see the truth beneath the character’s lies? Why are they lying, and what does that say about the character and the story?

Crafting a character with the way they deceive themselves and others, intentionally or not, will give you a more realistic, relatable, and interesting character.

Do you have a favorite character who is unreliable? Let us know in a comment!

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