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Adding an unreliable narrator to your story spices things up and keeps readers on their toes. Unlike head-hopping, which can confuse your readers, an unreliable narrator is an intentional tool. Its purpose is to make readers think by messing with their mind.

Let’s take a deeper look at what it is and how to use it.

Definition

An unreliable narrator is a storyteller who leads readers astray. As they tell the story, they may want to fool the reader on purpose or hide the truth from them. This can be intentional or accidental. Unreliable narration can be due to a number of factors, including situation, personal flaws, or mental or psychological disabilities. In contrast, a reliable narrator is one that tells the story from their perspective as accurately as possible – they give the reader everything they need to know to understand the situation and characters.

Most stories with an unreliable narrator are told in First Person Point-of-View. This is because the character narrating controls all the information the reader gets. And since readers are inclined to trust the narrator above everyone else, it is easy to hide details from them or paint other characters in a certain light. However, there are stories with unreliable narration that have multiple point-of-view characters or are set in the Third Person.

Consequences

An unreliable narrator can mess with a reader’s head, making them feel surprised, confused, or conflicted. This creates a unique reader-narrator tension that cannot be found in other stories. The trick is to drop hints throughout the story so they can figure out what’s really going on. It’s like seeing the world through the narrator’s emotions rather than rational experience, even if those emotions alter the truth. These can be fear, paranoia, cockiness or overconfidence, or even the desire to hide the truth from themselves with a false cheerfulness.

Foreshadowing events and leaving clues for the reader to pick up on can help them identify the twist. Without the dawning realization hints offer, a reader will likely feel they were lied to and they may not want to read further. 

Types of Unreliable Narrators

Examples

There are many books with unreliable narrators. They most often appear in thriller novels but are not limited to one genre. They can also be found in horror, science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. Some of the most popular ones are:

Writing With An Unreliable Narrator

Before you begin writing, find out if an unreliable narrator is right for your story. Would an unreliable narrator push your story forward in a way a reliable narrator couldn’t? Would unreliable narration show a complex character better? Would it help you form a detailed plot?

If you’ve decided to write with an unreliable narrator, ask yourself questions about your narrator. Why are they unreliable? When should the reader find out? What do their lies say about them? How do they use false information to get what they want?

Here are some things to keep in mind:

Getting the hang of writing an unreliable narrator makes your story stand out and keeps readers hooked. By weaving unreliability into your character’s story and flaws, you create a tale that makes readers think long after they’ve finished. Embrace this storytelling tool, and you’ll craft stories that make readers question what’s true in the world you’ve created.