If you’re new to writing you may wonder what is an unreliable narrator, or if you should even use one to tell your story. While it may seem counterintuitive to use a narrator who is unreliable, some of the most well-known novels employ this type of narration.
The very practice of reading a novel is an exercise in suspending belief. So, if you’re wondering what is an unreliable narrator, you’ve come to the right place.
In this article, I break down this type of narration and provide you with examples in literature, as well as tips for how to use this type of narration well. Before we dive into various examples, what is an unreliable narrator?
It’s crucial to start with an unreliable narrator definition so we are on the same page. These narrators add a unique twist to stories, keep readers engaged, and provide a perspective many narrators simply don’t have.
This guide answers, “what is an unreliable narrator?” and more:
What Is An Unreliable Narrator: Defined
An unreliable narrator is the perspective character through which you write the story, but he or she lacks validity. They narrate from a skewed perspective, which can come in a variety of forms.
It’s important to note that when asking, what is an unreliable narrator, the answer does not only include narrators who see themselves as unreliable. In fact, many unreliable narrators lack credibility because of specific circumstances outside of their control.
To further enhance the unreliability of these narrators, some authors employ framing devices.
Wayne C. Booth first named this literary technique in 1961 in his book, Rhetoric of Fiction, but unreliable narrators hit the pages long before the term did. Your protagonist may struggle with:
- Mental health from a difficult childhood
- PTSD from witnessing a terrible accident
- Lying as a coping mechanism
In addition, your unreliable narrator may simply be too young to be reliable.
Asking, what is an unreliable narrator, begs the follow-up question, are there various types? Since these narrators provide readers with a perspective that is in many ways contrary to the truth, it makes sense there would be many options. Here are four:
A Child Lacking Perspective
An unreliable narrator definition must include children, not because they intend to be unreliable, but simply because they lack the perspective gained with age. Children often star as protagonists in novels that center on crucial topics.
This is a standout way for writers to share a perspective with innocence, draw attention to different viewpoints, and do so in a laid back way.
Often the antithesis to a child narrator, the trickster intentionally misleads readers. They may hold back information, present facts in a falsified way, or explore subplots that take readers away from what should be their primary focus.
What is an unreliable narrator that takes the form of a trickster? Consider crime novels where the perspective character turns out to be a double-agent or even the villain.
A Stranger, Foreigner, or Prejudiced Character
When asking “what is an unreliable narrator” it’s crucial to expand your perspective outside of the story world. For instance, imagine you set your story in present day New York City, but your protagonist:
- Is from present day rural Montana
- Time jumped from 1910, Bristol, England
- Just returned from a year-long trip to South Africa
Due to the differences in culture, perspective on race, gender, and social class, your protagonist will view the story much differently. He or she will bring their mindset to the story world and not understand other characters' actions as well as a character immersed in present day New York City.
Someone Struggling Mentally
While we all struggle in different ways, mentally ill narrators present a different perspective than a mentally healthy protagonist having a bad day. I dive into examples next, but for clarity, consider the character of Charlie in The Perks of Being A Wallflower.
Charlie survived an abusive childhood and struggles to fit into his new high school. Throughout the story, his unique viewpoint allows the reader a different perspective on people, life, and fitting in.
Now that you can answer the question, what is an unreliable narrator, it’s time to delve into further examples.
Related: What Is A Round Character?
Examples Of Unreliable Narrators
Have you ever wondered, “What is an unreliable narrator in the classics?” Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird and Huck in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are both unreliable, young narrators.
In the film The Prestige, based on the 1995 novel by Christopher Priest, the use of two trickster protagonists keeps readers/viewers guessing until the end.
Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel, Kindred, is a standout example of a stranger to a specific time period encountering extremely prejudiced characters.
As mentioned above, Charlie in The Perks of Being A Wallflower is a classic answer to the question, what is an unreliable narrator?
Pat from The Silver Linings Playbook as well as Theodore Finch and Violet Markey from All The Bright Places are compelling examples of unreliable narrators.
Tips For How To Use This Type Of Narrator
If you want to use this type of narrator in your writing, here are a few tips to get you started. Remember, unless you choose to use a trickster or willful liar with character flaws, your narrator likely isn’t aware they are unreliable.
Related: Narrative Writing Prompts
#1 – Hold Back The Truth
There’s nothing quite as disconcerting as the line “I haven’t told you everything.”
You can use this thought process when asking what is an unreliable narrator as it relates to my specific story? Allow your protagonist to tell the truth, but not the truth in its entirety.
#2 – Reveal Their False Self-Perception
Sometimes the most humble of protagonists have the most skewed perception of themselves. Perhaps your hero doesn’t realize how much their actions impact others or can’t quite accept that they bring value to the story world.
Creating an underlying theme of low-importance can build to a tremendous plot twist in the end. For a drawn-out episodic example of this, consider the old television show, Nikita, and the secondary protagonist’s storyline, Alex.
#3 – Mix Up Agendas
Just like most of humanity, protagonists often struggle with singularity of focus. When writing a quest-centric novel, confusing the protagonist as to why they so adamantly pursue the right course of action can create an unreliable narrator.
Consider Boromir in The Lord of the Rings. He is conflicted between helping Frodo and his desire for power.
What Is An Unreliable Narrator In Your Story?
Your specific genre plays a large role in what type of protagonist you cast as your unreliable narrator. If you write modern, young adult fiction, you may want to focus on the topics of mental health and overcoming various thought patterns.
If you write crime novels, consider casting a trickster, foreigner, or someone struggling with PTSD as your main character. The innocence of children often works well for adult fiction, as they communicate deep perspectives with the simplicity of their age.
No matter which type of unreliable narrator you choose to use, whether it be for absurdist fiction or other book genres, be careful when writing from their perspective. If your protagonist is mentally ill, conduct the appropriate research so your novel can be of true benefit to your readers. When writing from a child’s perspective, be conscious of changing your tone and the type of dialogue you use.
Enjoy writing this type of character, and have fun playing around with different ways of making them an unreliable narrator!