What is An Unreliable Narrator?

My story was almost finished before I realised I’d written an unreliable narrator. When the proverbial penny finally dropped, everything about the character crystallised and I realised this was the precise reason I’d had so much trouble getting the story straight from the first draft.

What is an Unreliable Narrator?

Have you ever encountered a person whose opinions and or perspectives you just can’t trust? Maybe you’ve caught that person out in a lie and can’t believe them anymore. Perhaps that person just seems like they’re not telling the truth. They might exaggerate or otherwise twist the story they’re telling.

We’ve all encountered an unreliable narrator in real life, so of course, they’re present in fiction.

An unreliable narrator in fiction is simply a point of view character whose version of events lacks credibility.

This isn’t to say the story couldn’t have happened, just that it likely didn’t happen in the way the POV character is telling us it did.

how to write unreliable narrators

Sometimes it’s not that the character is lying or otherwise maliciously distorting the truth.

Children can be unreliable narrators simply because they understand the world differently. So too characters with mental disabilities.

Narrators can be unreliable if they themselves are only given half the story.

A narrator’s unreliability might come from the fact that they’re pompous and want to show themselves off as something different to what they really are. This is the case with my novel, Skin.

The Function of Unreliable Narration

Experiencing a story through the eyes of an unreliable narrator often means we have to work a little harder as readers.

Unreliable narrators often cover a different truth, the real story behind the narrative point of view.

The device can make for a richer, more satisfying read as we have to piece together what’s really going on.

Examples of Unreliable Narrators

Tyler Durden – Fight Club

This narrator is so unreliable we can’t even be sure what his name is. Revealing a narrator’s unreliability is often used as a plot twist, and Fight Club did it with a punch that not only changed our perspectives of the main character, it changed the entire story.

Forrest Gump – Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump never sets out to deceive us, but when he tells us he invested in a fruit company or that Jenny’s father loved her very much because he was always hugging and kissing her, we know there’s actually a different story going on.

Nick and Amy – Gone Girl

Gone Girl starts off giving us one version of a married couple and their relationship, steadily revealing the truth as the tale unwinds so that by the end, the delightful innocent couple we met in the opening pages, are deeply flawed, altogether unlikable and untrustworthy people.

Pi Patel – Life of Pi

At the end of Life of Pi, we discover that the whole incredible tale was simply not true, but rather a boy constructing a metaphor of his experiences so he didn’t need to face up to the real and horrifying truth of what happened. This wasn’t a malicious lie, and its purpose can be summed up in Pi’s approach to understanding religion – that we believe the story we like the best. As such, making Pi an unreliable narrator echoes the entire theme of the book.

An unreliable narrator can add depth to a story and make the reader work a little harder.Click To Tweet

My Experiences Writing An Unreliable Narrator

Alistair “Rev” Knight (aka “Priest”), in Skin is a grossly unreliable narrator.

He’s a health fanatic, obsessed with exercise, clean eating and separating himself as “natural” against the Mechs (humans with mechanical implants for strength and/or aesthetics) and Animus (humans with bizarre animal implants for the same).

Rev makes decisions that are completely against his staunch ideals, and by the end, he’s the complete opposite to how he started out. But Rev just can’t see it. He still thinks he’s awesome, and easily justifies his actions to fit his ideologies, while everyone around him sees him for the arrogant monster he is.

I wrote the first draft in the third person, changing it to first person about half way through because Rev himself needed to be telling the tale. I didn’t realise at the time it was because he was an unreliable narrator. All I felt at the time was that his was a voice I could not fully express unless I went deeper into his head.

I also couldn’t justify why Rev was making the decisions he was making. Sure, I could have edited those out, made him make different choices, but it just didn’t mesh with the story.

When it became clear around draft eight thousand (estimated) that Rev was simply a victim of his own warped perspective of life and of himself, the story just fell into place, and I finally knew who this ideological champion really was.

Rev’s still not a likeable character by any means. That was another reason I found writing him in first person easier as I could distance my own voice from his perspectives. But realising he is unreliable makes him, for me, at least a touch more sympathetic and allowed greater freedom in the story.

Have you ever written an unreliable narrator? Tell us about your experiences.
Maybe you have a favourite unreliable narrator from a book? 
Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Kate Krake
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Kate Krake

Kate Krake writes speculative fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of the urban fantasy series Guessing Tales. Kate blogs about popular culture, health, wellness and creative writing. She lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband, daughter and two beagles. Find out more on www.katekrake.com.
Kate Krake
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