top of page
  • Kayleigh

Friday Tip: Writing Unreliable Narrators

Unreliable narration is a literary device that can create a deeper sense of suspense or mystery, engaging your reader on a fresh level. An unreliable narrator can also be a lot of fun to write.

What is an Unreliable Narrator?

An unreliable narrator is one who is either intentionally or unintentionally misrepresenting the details of your (their) story. Intentional or not, their credibility is questionable, and your reader is called upon to sift through the information the narrator has given them, fill in the gaps, and eventually come to the truth in the story.

There Are Multiple Types of Unreliable Narrators.

William Riggan breaks unreliable narrators into five groups—pícaros, madmen, naīfs, clowns, and liars—though there is typically crossover between these categories. In more general terms, here's a brief overview of why a narrator may be or become unreliable:

The narrator may be ignorant, innocent, or new to a situation or group, and their limited understanding or preconceived believes/stereotypes may lead to gaps in understanding the greater picture. Think of Nick from The Great Gatsby or Jack from Emma Donoghue’s Room.

The narrator could be one prone to exaggeration or bragging to make themselves seem greater, or a narrator who enjoys playing with the readers perceptions and emotions. Though not a book character, Michael Scott from The Office is a great example of someone who wants to be more than he is and tells tales (even to himself) to seem that way. Loki, the trickster, on the other hand, is one who enjoys toying with his audience.

The narrator may be mentally unwell and experiencing distortions in their own reality, unaware their narration is skewed or aware but uncaring.

Or the narrator may simply be a liar, either for nefarious reasons or out of self-preservation. Gone Girl, for example, provided a liar who was also mentally unwell to create a dark thriller that captured a lot of readers and film-lovers.

Why Write an Unreliable Narrator?

Consider mysteries such as The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, in which each day reveals a fresh perspective on events that keeps the reader guessing. From the earliest stages of the book, it's clear that the reader doesn't have the entire picture. Each new perspective allows us to build the mystery and solve it with what new information we're given.

This is the way Turton engages his readers on a deeper level—one of the benefits of this literary device that I noted at the start of the blog post.

Unreliable narration also reaffirms that reality is never quite what it seems, making it a great choice for speculative genres (especially horror).

Depending on just how hard you go and the type of unreliable narrator you choose, it can also pack a wallop of an emotional punch when your reader realizes that someone they trusted, the narrator, was lying to them. This is why foreshadowing and hints (we'll get to that below) are important if you want to avoid your reader having a strong negative reaction to your story.

How Do You Write an Unreliable Narrator?

Ready to give it a whirl? Here are a few ways to start fleshing out your unreliable character:

First, you need to choose a limited point of view.

Omniscience does not allow for unreliability. Rather, you need your story to be filtered through an individual, as everyone (yes, everyone) is in someway unreliable due to how we perceive and filter situations due to our personal experiences, beliefs, and biases. This is why you’ll usually find these narrators written in the first-person point of view, although a crafty writer (like Agatha Christie) may be able to do it successfully through limited third-person.

Practice withholding information from your reader.

Reliable characters who attempt to tell a tale as accurately as possible are more common because it's easier even for us as writers. Instead, allow for gaps in the story to get your reader questioning the events—even if they aren't yet questioning your narrator.

Weave in hints that your narrator is unreliable.

You want your reader to begin doubting your narrator through subtle (and maybe the occasional not-so-subtle) hints. This may come through catching the narrator in their own lies (think about how many different tales the Joker told about how he got his scars), timing conflicts, or through other characters providing information that's in conflict with your narrator's tale. They may also do something that seems out of character in comparison to the image they've painted of themselves, sending up a red flag to your reader.

Play around with the level of unreliability.

As you read above, not all unreliable narrators intend to be that way. They may simply not have all of the information themselves to pass along to your reader. Like any other literary device, play around with this until you find what works best for your character and story.

If they're a liar, make them a clever one.

You may have heard the saying that in every lie is a grain of truth. Good liars know how to hide the truth by feeding just enough of it to keep their tracks hidden—at least for a while.

Keep the narrator authentic to who they are.

Even liars and sociopaths have patterns that make sense in relation to who they are. While we're referring to these characters as "unreliable narrators," that doesn't mean that they'll be wildly all over the place in their actions and interactions.

Have you ever written an unreliable narrator? Have you read one you loved? Share in the comments!

bottom of page