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What is an unreliable narrator?

Updated: May 5, 2023

An unreliable narrator is a character that tells you the story with some kind of lack in credibility. This technique can be difficult to pull off but if you do, it can be so effective. As a reader, you feel like you can trust the narrator, they are the one guiding you through the story. However, just because they are the narrator, it doesn't mean they're the 'good guy' or that they can be trusted. Some of the best stories are when the narrator not only deceives the other characters in the book, but the readers too.

When to be an unreliable narrator

What's great about this technique is that there are no rules, therefore having a unreliable narrator is not restricted to any genre, style or story. An unreliable narrator isn't just about having a huge twist in your story, you can also use it to show truths, innocence or evil in a character or story.

How to be an unreliable narrator

There are many ways to use this technique, and I think the best way to use it is by thinking outside the box. The last thing you want is for your reader to expect what is about to happen, this will completely ruin what you're trying to do. Be bold and imaginative, but here are some ideas to get you started.

Make them a liar - If throughout the story they lie, to the reader or to other characters, again it can be subtle or obvious way to show their unreliable. You don't have to use this technique for a big plot twist, it can be for characterisation or style.

Section it up - If you're telling the story from more than one perspective, this is a really easy but effective way to have an unreliable narrator. The inconsistencies in the story can be an interesting and subtle way to show that one of them (or both) isn't reliable.

A direct address - Open up a direct line of communication with the reader where the narrator directly address them throughout the story. This builds trust with the reader, making them even more blind sided if it comes out that your narrator is unreliable.

Use your other characters - The reactions with other characters. The way other people in your story interact with your narrator is a great way to show that perhaps you narrator isn't fully reliable.

An outside perspective - A narrator may not be reliable if they aren't fully aware of what is happening. This is a good way to add a lot of dramatic irony to your story, and although they may not understand what's going on, the reader might...

Want to try it?

A few examples where the narrator wasn't fully reliable.

Gone Girl - Both the narrators Amy and Nick lie throughout their sections. It's interesting because both characters believe they are right, but their stories contradict each other.

To Kill a Mockingbird - This is a really interesting example of the unreliable narrator as you may have not even considered Scout to be unreliable. The story is told by a child, who doesn't fully understand what is going on, therefore we can only see and understand what she does. This doesn't necessarily mean that we see less, it just means that we see from a different perspective.

You (Netflix Show) - This is a great example of the unreliable narrator. Throughout the series, Joe directly addresses the audiences, and tries to make us understand where he is coming from, his reasoning and why he does what he does. But, what we see, is very very different.


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