You can use a variety of literary devices to add conflict and tension to narrative fiction.
But few make readers work harder than the unreliable narrator, a device that, true to its name, allows the storyteller to take readers on a wild goose chase as they determine what’s true, what’s not, and why they feel bamboozled.
An unreliable narrator ignorantly or intentionally offers inaccurate information that misleads or confuses the reader.
The viewpoint narrator must speak and act consistently with his character. We see things through his eyes, hear things through his voice, and intuit his character through his actions.
Most of the time, this is an accurate, reliable version of events, but an unreliable narrator holds a different, distorted view, and tells the story accordingly.
The minute readers pick up on any inaccuracy, his credibility is shot, and so begins the game of the unreliable narrator.
Types of Unreliable Narrators
Author William Riggan breaks them into the following five categories:
1. Picaro. A narrator with a propensity for exaggeration.
Examples: Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe, Nelly in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Michael Scott in NBC’s The Office.
2. Madman. Suffering from PTSD or something similar, this narrator has a severe mental illness.
Examples: Patrick Bateman in American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, Tyler Durden in Fight Club by Chuck Palaniuk, Franz Kafka’s narrators.
3. Clown. Thinks storytelling is a joke and toys with readers.
4. Naïf. An immature or ignorant narrator who sees things only through his own point of view.
Examples: Huck in Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Forrest in Forrest Gump by Winston Groom, Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Rachel in The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Dr. Malcolm Crowe in The Sixth Sense, a film written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
5. Liar. A narrator who intentionally misrepresents the truth, often for self preservation.
Examples: Dr. Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, Pi Patel in Life of Pi by Yann Martel, Amy and Nick in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.
How to Write an Unreliable Narrator
Most successful unreliable narrators are charming. Your goal is for the reader to like them enough to keep turning the pages. (Even antagonists should have likable, redeemable qualities.)
Tip #1: Plant seeds of doubt early.
Have other characters raise questions.
For example, your unreliable narrator mentions winning a contest. “Wait a minute,” says a secondary character, “I thought Johnny won that.”
Readers begin to wonder why he does this. For attention? Because of some sort of insecurity?
Continue to make him likeable so readers remain in his corner, even if they’re disappointed in him. Ideally, your character will grow and change from an unreliable character into a trustworthy, reliable one.
Tip #2: But remain consistent.
Don’t begin with an unreliable narrator and switch halfway through. If you’re going to turn him into a reliable narrator at the end, inject life changing events that alter his perspective and grow him.
Tip #3: The reward is in the payoff.
Some authors prefer to reveal the unreliability of their narrator early, allowing readers to experience the story through two (or more) viewpoints: theirs and that of the unreliable narrator(s).
Sometimes the reveal comes as a surprise during the climax—a much riskier move. Readers don’t like to feel they’ve been had.
Employing an unreliable narrator can help magnify your theme, add plot twists, and create complex characters that build trust with readers.
Character Development Worksheet
If you’re an Outliner, a character arc worksheet like this one helps you get to know your characters (even the unreliable ones).
If you’re a Pantser like me, you may prefer to dive right into the writing. Do what works best for you.