The True Tale of Creating Unreliable Narrators
Understand how you can make your audience question everything they read, with unreliable narrators.
One of my favorite openings to any story is from the third paragraph of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart:
“You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me…I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him.”
It hits like a ton of bricks - we’re watching a madman defend the murder of his employer based on the idea that, in his head, he was morally right. With a defense like that, we immediately know that we can’t trust this man.
Unreliable narrators are some of the most fun an author can have with their audience’s expectations. They can be subversive, tragic, hilarious, or downright villainous, and they’re a great way to give your audience something to enjoy on a re-read. Here’s what you need to know about telling your audience lies for fun.
What is an unreliable narrator?
In most fiction, the main character telling the story is a reliable narrator – readers can trust the version of events being provided is an accurate representation of that universe’s reality. But what if the person telling us the story can’t be trusted? What if facts are being misrepresented to make us sympathetic to the narrator’s point of view? When the narrative being told does not line up with “what really happened” (quotes as by definition nothing in fiction “really happened”) you’re dealing with an unreliable narrator.
While this literary device has been in use for as long as stories have existed, our modern term for it comes from literary critic Wayne C. Booth, who coined the term in his 1961 book The Rhetoric of Fiction.
Unreliable narrators have different reasons for why their accounts of events differ from a more objective truth, and come in a few different types.
The types of unreliable narrators
Narrators can be unreliable in a number of ways, but we can narrow it down into four basic categories of ineptitude.
The first and one of the most common kinds of unreliable narrators is the unintentionally unreliable narrator, sometimes referred to as a naif. In these cases, the narrator’s unreliability stems from a lack of experience, they’re being manipulated by someone else, or they have completely wrong information to work from.
Unintentionally unreliable narrators are common in hidden world stories - they stumble across an underground society of people or an entire hidden world running parallel to our own that runs on its own unfamiliar rules and logic. In these cases, the narrator can’t be relied upon to tell us the whole truth because they simply don’t have it.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum from unintentionally unreliable narrators is maliciously unreliable narrators. These narrators are deceiving your reader on purpose - they’re deliberately telling lies, changing the story, or manipulating the truth to put themselves in a good light or gain some kind of upper hand over the reader. Now, this doesn’t mean your narrator has to be a bad person - they might be a good person who’s done a bad thing and wants to hide it, or they might be a compulsive liar who simply can’t help but misdirect and change their story.
The important thing to note about writing malicious narrators is that your reader should still be able to sympathize with them on some level; the reason behind their manipulation of events should be relatively clear and logical, even if that logic is only sound in the mind of your narrator. Your readers should be able to believe the narrator’s reasoning even if they can’t believe their words.
Sometimes, we don’t get to know that the narrator is unreliable until the very end of the story when a key turning point reveals to us that the narrator has been changing the story the entire time. These narrators might be changing the story on purpose, or they may have done it without realizing it and that change comes crashing down around them.
This can be a particularly fun angle to play with in a mystery story - if our narrator doesn’t know the whole truth or won’t tell it until the end, you’ve got a built-in point of drama that you can use to resolve the plot. There’s a really fun example of this that we’ll talk about in just a minute, so stay tuned.
Just because a narrator isn’t part of the action doesn’t mean that they’re telling the story objectively. Third-person narrators can be just as unreliable as first-person narrators - when your third-person narrator only knows as much as the characters they’re describing does, you’re writing in what is known as a third-person limited perspective. This means that your narrator might be just as surprised about what’s going on as the people in the scene.
What’s especially fun is creating a third-person narrator who’s just as invested in the story as we are. Your narrator might be rooting for one of the characters, or making excuses for their actions. They might particularly dislike someone in the narrative, so keep the focus as far from them as possible, or only show them in the most unflattering lights. Third-person narrators are outside of the story, but that doesn’t mean they’re just flat voices retelling events; they can be people, too!
Unreliable narrators in literature and media
Talking about the different kinds of narrators is all well and good, but what does that look like in practice? What are some examples of unreliable narrators that you can use to mold your perspectives in your stories or gain inspiration? I’ve got a few ideas for you.
Quick warning, though: in all of these examples, there will be spoilers. If you haven’t read or watched any of the following examples yet, I highly recommend stopping reading this article now, going to enjoy them, and coming back so we can have a better discussion. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Back? Seen and read everything? Excellent! Let’s dive in.
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart
Edgar Allan Poe was a master of writing horrific, dark, twisted, and downright disturbing literature, and one of his most well-known and loved pieces is The Tell-Tale Heart. This short story is told from the perspective of a butler to an old gentleman with a glass eye. From the opening lines of the story, the butler insists that he’s a sane man who only did what he had to do - and that’s immediately thrown out the window when we learn that the butler killed the old man and dismembered him, hiding the body under the floorboards of his house. The truth is revealed when, in a fit of guilt-ridden madness, the butler rips open the floorboard hiding spot to find the source of a terrible thumping sound that’s been growing in his ears as he’s investigated by the police.
This is a classic example of an unreliable narrator who both is deliberately lying to us - trying to rationalize the murder of his boss by saying he only hated his eye and had to get rid of it - and fully believes everything that he’s saying - to the end, the butler believes he’s a sane man in the right for what he’s done. Having the skewed perspective of the murderer as our viewpoint makes this story significantly more interesting because it lets us see the unhinged rationale behind the gruesome act and puts us on edge from the moment the story starts because actually sane people don’t usually have to justify their sanity before they even introduce themselves.
Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Perhaps one of the most famous uses of an unexpected unreliable narrator is Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. This is because Christie was a master of audience manipulation. She has a set formula that her work follows; because of this, she can easily use her audience’s expectations to her advantage to create fantastic plot twists.
The narrator of this story is Dr. James Sheppard, a friend of Mr. Ackroyd who helps Poirot with the investigation into Ackroyd’s apparent suicide, which came about suddenly - so suddenly that even his late wife is surprised. It’s eventually revealed that the murderer was actually Dr. Sheppard, who had only agreed to help with the investigation to record Poirot’s failures and laud his own successes. But of course, no one outwits Poirot, and Sheppard is caught in the end.
This is still considered one of Christie’s best novels due to its innovation of the genre, proving that anyone can be the killer in a mystery book - even our heroes!
Whether you’re talking about the movie or the book, Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump is a great example of an unreliable narrator who isn’t malicious, simply naive. Gump’s simple and honest perspective of the world means that he often can’t see the underlying motivations that people have for their actions and his own actions are often misconstrued as being more complicated than they really are.
Forrest’s recounting of his life is full of major historical events thrown in as if they’re happenstance; it’s difficult to tell what actually happened versus what Forrest saw happening around him. We can’t even be sure he’s telling the whole truth, but we know he’s not intentionally lying to us because he doesn’t see any reason to do that.
Gump’s naivety is a large part of the appeal of his story. He’s entertaining, yes, but also endearing because we know he’s sincere about everything he says.
How to write a great unreliable narrator
Okay, so if you want to make the narrator of your book unreliable, how exactly do you go about doing that? Well, first, you’ll want to ensure that you’ve got a good reason for making them unreliable. What does their bias or naivety add to the story? How does it change the narrative, and how can you use it to make the story exciting for your audience? The best unreliable narrators are unreliable in a way that makes the rest of the story shine, so figure out what that shine is before you start writing, and keep it in mind while you draft.
Once you’ve decided why your narrator is unreliable, there are a few things you can do to set them up in the story.
- Plant the bias early. Even if you’re planning to do a surprise reveal of the lying narrator later on, there should be little elements of foreshadowing early in the story to tip your reader off to the idea that everything is not as it should be. On the other hand, you might establish early that your narrator is unreliable by having them come out and say it, either directly (“What you’re about to hear is largely a lie” or similar) or indirectly (“I swear I’m not insane,” “I knew it would go wrong from the start,” “I’m not biased, but…,” etc.). In the first case, you want readers unsettled but still trusting. In the second, you want readers to suspect everything that follows. Both methods let you surprise readers in different ways.
- Have characters contradict each other. If your story has multiple narrators, an easy way to establish unreliability is to have the characters tell the same story in different ways. This shows your audience the difference in perspective and makes it unclear what actually happened. If you have a single-perspective story, try having the narrator say one thing to someone and then immediately turn around and do another. The point here is to establish to the audience that the narrator can’t be trusted.
- Flip the narrative power dynamic. Normally, your reader is going to be the one with the most information available to them; they’re used to knowing about major plot points and story beats before the characters do so that they can enjoy the dramatic irony. You can subvert this by giving your characters information that the reader isn’t privy to yet, then revealing it as a motivation or a day-saver. This works really well with mystery novels - see The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, as an example. Be careful with this one, though; you’ll want to foreshadow the knowledge with hints or even direct references so that you don’t accidentally pull a Deus Ex Machina.
- Start small and scale it up. Your narrator should be dynamically unreliable no matter what’s happening. If your narrator is naive, reveal small secrets at first and work your way up - maybe a character they trust betrays them, and they slowly realize that they’ve been played their entire life, and then finally realize that the system they live in is corrupt. If your narrator is intentionally unreliable, point out little lies first and work your way up to the biggest deceptions at the end.
- Unreliable doesn’t have to mean unrelatable. Look, writing an asshole character is fun and all, but if your character does nothing but berate the reader or trash everyone and everything they come across without exception, your reader is going to put the book down. Even if your character is a scoundrel and a liar, they need something they sincerely believe in or genuinely fear that keeps them going and gives your readers something to root for (or against).
Looking for additional examples of unreliable narrators as you prepare to write your own? Here are some additional stories to check out. In some cases, I’ve also highlighted a specific character to pay attention to.
Tyler Durden in Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk.
Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Sallinger
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
The Curious Incident of the Dog, by Mark Haddon
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
Unreliable narrators can be incredibly fun to work with. With the right building blocks and settings, you can twist your audience’s expectations in strange and delightful ways simply by avoiding telling them the truth. But then again, what do I know? I’m just your narrator, after all.