What is an Unreliable Narrator?
Are you considering an unreliable narrator for your novel? If so, you should be intimately aware of exactly what an unreliable narrator is and each of the forms they can take before you begin writing. Keep reading for an in-depth look into what makes an unreliable narrator.
The term ‘unreliable narrator’, first coined by literary critic Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction, refers to a narrator whose credibility is and should be questioned. They try, whether intentional or not, to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes.
Sometimes it’s immediately obvious we’re being told the story through the perspective of someone who can’t be trusted, and other times it’s revealed at the novel’s end and accompanied by a plot twist that makes us think back over the breadcrumbs scattered throughout, present if the story is well-written.
Either way, we have no choice but to believe a narrator in the beginning, until given a reason to no longer find them credible.
The best unreliable narrators will sway your opinion with the slightest effort, often without you even realising. It’s effortless and only becomes evident when the author is comfortable letting you know, and you realise with delight that you’ve been had.
The reader will begin to posit on the narrator’s true intentions, their actions, and their overall complexity as characters.
“The plot may be commonly found, one that doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel when it comes to storytelling, but the characters and their depth can bring it to life.” - Unknown
Generally, these narrators will take the first-person POV, a perspective best suited to an unreliable narrator as it allows them to be the reader's sole companion, offering the type of insight not possible with any other perspective.
Let’s firstly acknowledge something: every narrator is unreliable, in that there is no such thing as a completely reliable narrator.
Everyone has their own biases and areas where we may be less than ethically sound; we’re all guilty of that human flaw that allows two people viewing the same event to perceive it entirely differently.
Writers have utilised this, using the Rashomon Effect to illustrate the unreliability of the eye witness with stories told from multiple first-person perspectives, each character offering up their own version of events. It’s a fun and engaging tactic when done well, repetitive and slow-moving when done poorly.
“The story is told through the eyes of a mad man… who, like all of us, believed that he was sane.” - Edgar Allan Poe
The only way to truly nail a narrator free of bias and flaw is to use third-person objective POV, where the narrator acts as a camera, seeing everything that happens but unable to enter the mind or view the thought process of any character. An unappealing approach to most authors (and readers), unsurprisingly.
Not only is a wholly reliable narrator impossible because of their own biases, it’s important to remember the author and their prejudices.
As authors, we are expected to approach a manuscript with total objectivity, our impartiality knowing no bounds.
But that’s not possible. As authors, we are mouthpieces for our protagonists, even when we try to reign ourselves in.
Many will refute that; others will take offence. But most, I think, will accept it.
How we create our narrator is molded by our circumstance, meaning they can be unreliable before even being fully formed. It’s the degree to which your narrator is unreliable that you must decide.
We can acknowledge that and put it aside for now, instead focusing on the narrators who are intentionally, vaguely, and naively unreliable.
1. Intentionally Unreliable Narrators: those who knowingly deceive the reader
These narrators are typically sinister and underhanded, intent on fooling the reader with their deception and misdirection, continually hiding from the reader their true self and intentions.
They make for intriguing characters who force us to question ourselves and our own inability to see past the hidden truths.
If you’re going to outright lie to your readers using this type of narrator, you had better make them compelling and endearing in some way — even likable, if you can swing it.
If your reader is exceptionally bright and begins to connect the dots early on, the character themselves will have to do the work in retaining the reader as they mislead them.
EXAMPLE: Gone Girl
Amy Dunne is an intentionally unreliable narrator out to fool us, intent on sucking us in for the first half, then revealing all in the second. After she reveals herself to be the deranged lunatic she is, we see another sense of unreliability – Amy is so far gone that she (eventually) believes she and Nick have the perfect marriage because they know each other so deeply. Either way, she’s wrong; she’s unreliable, even to herself.
2. Vaguely Unreliable
This narrator either honestly believes they are telling the truth, or they are unconsciously hiding something from the reader; omitting, rather than outright lying. Their perception may be off, misleading the reader until more is revealed later.
Sometimes, this unreliability is such because the narrator is sharing information to justify something; an action or thought they are aware they would be judged for.
This narrator can be lacking the information necessary to be completely forthright with the reader, or they can be manipulative and underhanded, though nowhere near the level of the knowingly unreliable narrator.
These narrators often use tactics like under and over-sharing, where the narrator either obscures relevant information by inserting in the middle of a body of text or list of sorts, or where they intentionally omit relevant information the reader would need to figure out the story on their own.
EXAMPLE: The Girl on the Train
Overindulgence and addiction make this narrator unreliable as she blacks out all over New York, unable to trust her own accounts of events, reliant others to help her piece her days and nights together.
We’re aware she’s unreliable from the beginning, but we stick with it because we want our questions answered and theories proved, and because she’s an interesting, compelling character you can’t help but like
3. Naively Unreliable Narrators: those who fully believe they are being truthful
This type of narrator is sharing information as they’ve learned it, but the reader is conscious of the gap in their awareness. They are often oblivious to their lack of understanding, but a moment of clarification or awareness tends to come.
They are not deluding themselves or the reader; they are telling their story the only way they know how. They often fail to see or fully understand the events surrounding them, missing the ability to understand ramifications.
It’s interesting for the reader; while they know they may be missing chunks of the story as a result of the narrator’s ignorance or perception, are allowed to view the story in an almost childlike, refreshing way.
EXAMPLE: Forrest Gump
A simple man, telling his simple story, at least as he perceives its simplicity. No intention of disguising information or manipulating his story; he just has an unorthodox view of the world.