April 27, 2015

The Unreliable Narrator

An unreliable narrator is a point-of-view character in a story who isn't being completely honest with the reader, and perhaps even with himself or herself.  The unreliable narrator in a novel or short story is nearly always the first-person narrator of that story.

The unreliable narrator may do things like:
  • Lie to the reader
  • Leave out important details or facts that are uncomfortable for them to admit
  • Hold back information that paints the narrator in a bad light
  • Seem to have ulterior motives for their actions
  • Behave in ways that seem out of character
  • Exaggerate or brag about their accomplishments, actions, etc.
  • Share a distorted view of the world due to mental illness or immaturity
  • Distorts the facts to enhance the humor of a situation
  • Seem honest and truthful, but have their lies brought to light by other characters
  • Tell an inaccurate or incomplete story because they don't have all the facts
It may be evident from the start that the narrator is unreliable.  It may come to light during the story. It might not even be shown clearly at all, leaving the reader to wonder if the story is true or not.

Why Would I Need an Unreliable Narrator?

Many stories would not benefit from an unreliable narrator.  Some will.  As an author, there are a number of reasons why you might choose to employ an unreliable narrator for your story.  These include (but are not limited to):

  • You want to establish that the character is untrustworthy.
  • Facts you want to hide from the reader are facts this character would not want made public.
  • You're demonstrating the depth of the character's mental problems.
  • You want to show that the character is boastful, self-absorbed, or narcissistic.
  • You want to show that the character is uncomfortable discussing a situation honestly.
  • You're showing the character's cunning.

Using an unreliable narrator will knock the reader off balance.  They will wonder as they read your story whether they are learning what's actually happening, if they're being fed a lie, or if there is more going on in the story than they realized at first.

Example: Fred

Here's an example of how you might use an unreliable narrator to increase the tension in a story...

Fred says good night to his boss, goes outside, and gets into his car.  We see a conversation he has with his wife over the cell phone, in which he tells her how much he loves her and how lucky he is to have her.  He talks to his kids and congratulates them on their school work.  After he hangs up, he pulls the car into the parking lot of a gun store and goes inside.  He tells us that he stops here to unwind every so often.

The shop clerk calls him by name, and asks if he wants the usual "burglar blaster" ammo and pistol today.  He says yes, and pays for time on the shooting range, too.  He takes the pistol and ammo to the range and starts firing.  When he's done, he's hit 24 out of 25 shots.  His "miss" is only an inch from the bullseye.  A policeman in the next stall is impressed, and asks if he was in the military or police force.  Fred tells him no, that he's just an accountant who's practiced a few times.

Later in the story, we learn that Fred's family has been killed, victims of an apparent home invasion.  The police describe the ammunition used by the killer, and it's the same stuff Fred used at the shooting range.  Later, the police learn that Fred has been going there every Wednesday like clockwork for the past six months, not "every so often" as he claimed, and always uses that ammo despite the fact that there are much less expensive varieties that are suitable for target practice.

The reader is now left to wonder.  Is the fact that his family was killed with the very ammunition he likes to practice with just a coincidence?  Has Fred been planning to kill them for a while, and using the target practice to prepare?  If Fred says he didn't do it, do we believe him?

By casting some doubt on Fred's honesty, we may be leading the reader on (if Fred really didn't do it, and there's irrefutable evidence - like he was at a televised fundraiser for the mayor at the time) or planting clues that show Fred's guilt (and making it believable because he's lied to us already).


An unreliable narrator isn't necessary in every story you write.  Many stories are better served by an honest narrator, or by a narrator who can tell us each character's thoughts and plans.  This is just one more tool in your toolbox that can help to produce better stories.

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