What is an Unreliable Narrator?
In literature, an unreliable narrator is a character who tells a story with a lack of credibility. There are different types of unreliable narrators (more on that later), and the presence of one can be revealed to readers in varying ways — sometimes immediately, sometimes gradually, and sometimes late in the story when a plot twist leaves us wondering if we’ve maybe been a little too trusting.
While the term “unreliable narrator” was first coined by literary critic Wayne C. Booth in his 1961 book, The Rhetoric of Fiction, it’s a literary device that writers have been putting to good use for much longer than the past 80 years. For example, "The Tell-Tale Heart" published by Edgar Allan Poe in 1843 utilizes this storytelling tool, as does Wuthering Heights, published in 1847.
But wait, is any narrator really reliable?
This discussion can lead us down a proverbial rabbit hole. In a sense, no, there aren’t any 100% completely reliable narrators. The “Rashomon Effect” tells us that our subjective perceptions prohibit us from ever having a totally clear memory of past events. If each person subjectively remembers something that happened, how do we know who is right? "Indeed, many writers have used the Rashomon Effect to tell stories from multiple first-person perspectives — leaving readers to determine whose record is most believable." (Check out As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner for an example).
For the purpose of this article, however, we will refer to narrators who are purposefully unreliable for a specific narrative function.
Why would an author write an unreliable narrator?
Fiction that makes us question our own perceptions can be powerful. An unreliable narrator can create a lot of grey areas and blur the lines of reality, allowing us to come to our own conclusions.
Fallible storytellers can also create tension by keeping readers on their toes — wondering if there’s more under the surface and reading between the lines to decipher what that is.
Finally, unreliable narrators can make for intriguing, complex characters: depending on the narrator’s motivation for clouding the truth, readers may also feel more compelled to keep reading to figure out why the narrator is hiding things.
And speaking of character motivation…
Craft tip: Almost all unreliable narrators are first person: they live in the world of the story and will have an inherent bias or perhaps even an agenda.
Types of unreliable narrators
Just like trying to classify every type of character would be an endless pursuit, so is trying to list every type of unreliable narrator. That said, we've divided these questionable raconteurs into three general types to better understand how they work as a literary device.
1) Deliberately Unreliable: Narrators who are aware of their deception
This type of narrator is intentionally lying to the reader because, well, they can. They have your attention, the point of view is theirs, and they’ll choose what to do with it, regardless of any “responsibility” they might have to the reader.
A quick note about this kind of narrator: People want to read about characters they can connect with or relate to. This is one of the tricky parts of writing this kind of narrator: the character has to be compelling enough that we’ll keep connecting with them even if we suspect we’re being misled. We don’t have to necessarily like them, but we need to understand them. For instance, even Alex from A Clockwork Orange has an underlying humanity: his desire for individual freedom above all. His flagrant lies are therefore an exercise of his freedom.
2) Evasively Unreliable: Narrators who unconsciously alter the truth
The motivations for this kind of narrator are often quite muddy — sometimes it’s simple self-preservation, other times it’s slightly more manipulative. Sometimes the narrator isn’t even aware they are twisting the truth until later in the book. Their unreliability often stems from the need to tell the story in a way that justifies something, and their stories are often embellished or watered down.
These kinds of contradictory characters whose mindsets aren’t clear can keep readers anxiously waiting for the narrator’s moment of clarity — drawing their own conclusions all the while.
3) Naively Unreliable: Narrators who are honest but lack all the information
Unlike the previous two types, this type of narrator is not unreliable on purpose — they simply lack a traditional, “greater understanding.” This kind of unreliability can allow the reader to view your story with fresh eyes. The narrator’s “unorthodox” interpretations might only provide us with partial explanations of what’s going on, forcing us to dig a little deeper and connect the dots. These naive narrators can also encourage readers to take more significant notice of things we might’ve taken for granted.
Craft tip: Don’t cheat the reader. Great novels inspire readers to come back and find new meaning and elements they hadn’t yet discovered the first time. This can be especially true of stories told by unreliable narrators. If you employ this literary device gradually throughout the novel, ensure you leave clues for your readers along the way. Drop hints that make us question the validity of our source and have us eagerly reading to find the next clue that will act as another part of the story-puzzle. If you suddenly reveal out of nowhere that the narrator hasn’t been giving us all the facts in an abrupt twist, readers will feel they have been cheated.
Examples of unreliable narrators
Once you’ve determined what your narrator’s motivation for being unreliable is — or isn’t! — you can start thinking about how you will use this literary device to achieve your narrative goal.
If you’re toying with the idea of writing a story that fills readers’ mind with question marks, here are a few examples of wavering yarn-spinners from literature to help you get started (spoilers ahead!).
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
The protagonist and narrator, Alex, is a notoriously brutal character who does not feel a sense of responsibility to anything or anyone other than himself. His lack of credibility feels deliberate and coy straight off the bat. He speaks 'Nadsat,' a dialect that confounds other characters and keeps the reader on their back foot. He is also skilled manipulator who excels in getting others to let their guards down.
Alex is presumably aware that the narrative audience will be repulsed by his accounts, yet he repeatedly refers to the audience as “brother” — a term that implies familiarity and camaraderie. Readers can never be quite certain if they’re being confided in or reeled in as another one of Alex’s deceitful games.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
While some fallible storytellers may lack credibility because they deliver false or skewed information, others are untrustworthy because of the information that they omit. They leave out key pieces of information without which the reader is left in the dark. This is the case in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, whose narrator — Dr. Sheppard — is one of the most classic unreliable examples.
Dr. Sheppard takes us through Poirot’s investigation into the murder of Roger Ackroyd. He is genial and rather neutral throughout the story, seeming to explain the events as they happened without bias. Only at the end is it revealed that this voice we have allowed to carry us through the novel is actually the voice of the murderer. Sheppard also reveals at the end that he started writing the manuscript with the intention of documenting Poirot’s failure. Therefore the entire manuscript was based on a detailed lie by omission. 100% deliberate deception!
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
At the end of the novel, when Pi wraps up his fantastical story of being stranded at sea with a group of animals, we hear another version of his story — where the animals are replaced by humans, and the events are much more tragic and disturbing. Pi never concretely confirms which story is true: is the first version simply a coping mechanism or is the second version simply to placate the unbelieving cops? Readers are faced with the choice to pick which story they believe, as the narrator does not make it clear — and even if he did specify which version is the true one, would we believe him?
We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Narrated through Eva’s letters to her husband, We Need To Talk About Kevin takes place in the aftermath of her son committing a deadly attack at his high-school. It’s not easy to be totally honest with ourselves — especially when it comes to looking within and seeing where we might be at fault. The only thing objective about Eva is that her accounts are subjective, and we are left to come to our own conclusions based on her descriptions. Was Kevin inherently sociopathic? Did Eva do her best as a mother or did she reject Kevin as an unwanted outcome? How much blame should Eva shoulder for Kevin's actions? We won’t find the answers in Eva’s letters, but they do prompt us to reflect on these questions in the first place.
Room by Emma Donoghue
Five-year-old Jack is an often quoted example of an unknowingly unreliable narrator. Jack is not withholding information from the reader or providing false information. He simply reports the facts as he sees them — however, as a child, his accounts often lack insight into the implications of what is happening around him. Because of this, even though Jack’s voice is a poignantly honest one, his narration is not a source of information that can be taken at face value.
Forrest Gump by Winston Groom
Forrest is another example of a narrator who’s not deliberately unreliable in order to pull the wool over the readers’ eyes or to “save face.” From the outset, we are aware that Forrest doesn’t comprehend things like the “average” person does, and we’re aware that we might not be able to take everything he says at face value. This is confirmed when Forrest begins detailing his life, which is peppered with stories about major events from history that he was apparently intimately involved in. We can’t be certain that he’s not telling the truth, but it would be quite the life if he is.
Check out our post on famous examples of POV in literature for more examples of unreliable narrators.
An unreliable narrator breaks the conventional relationship of trust between a reader and a storyteller. However, the key is that you don’t want to shatter that trust entirely, because you’re likely to lose the reader. Ensure your unreliable narrator has a clear purpose for being unreliable, employ just enough mist around the narrator’s accounts to put question marks in our minds, give us the underlying sense that there’s more to the story, and you’ll be able to foster a connection between the reader and narrator that has the pages of your book flipping.
Who are some of your favorite unreliable narrators from literature? Have you ever tried writing one yourself? Leave any thoughts or questions in the comments below!