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Truth or Fiction: Writing With Unreliable Narrators

January 2, 2024

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

  • Intentional: Someone who deliberately lies, hides information, or otherwise misleads readers. They may be a tricky or morally gray character, however their actions must make sense in their own way. An intentionally unreliable narrator may lie to show themselves in a better light or reach a goal. 
  • Unaware: Someone who has been told false information by another character and passes it on to the reader. They may have memory problems or blindly trust the other person.
  • Naive: Someone whose ability to narrate is limited due to inexperience, age, or lack of maturity. These are typically child or teenage narrators, but could also be a sheltered or disabled adult. Because of the nature of this character, the reader may understand what is happening even if the narrator doesn’t.
  • Impaired: Similar to an unaware narrator, an impaired narrative may have memory or inconsistencies in facts due to alcohol or drug use.
  • Psychological: Someone whose psychological issues or past trauma limit their ability to understand events and situations. They may be detached from reality altogether. In this case, their psychological problems should not be their only characteristics.
  • Exaggerated: Someone who likes to exaggerate details in order to get what they they want.

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:

  • The Man Who Didn’t Call by Rosie Walsh
  • And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
  • Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • American Psycho by Brett Easton
  • Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson

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:

  • The narrator should be unreliable from beginning to end. Everyone’s stories are skewed by their emotions, beliefs, and experiences. Your narrator won’t suddenly choose to become unreliable halfway through. Leave hints for your readers early on that they can look back on and identify. 
  • At the same time, write the story as if you believe what the narrator is saying. This will help your reader believe it, as well.
  • Keep as many true details as possible. If your character makes an effort at being honest, their unreliability will have a greater impact later on.
  • Your narrator should have more details than your readers do. Map out what each part knows to keep track of everything.
  • Allow your narrator to have different degrees of unreliability. Sometimes even people who mean well give false or skewed information.
  • Use other character to identify inconsistencies in the narration. Your reader will start to realize what is happening through their perspectives.

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.

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