Tuesday Terminology: Unreliable Narrator

There’s an implied contract that goes along with a fictional account (and in nonfiction as well). The audience generally assumes that the voice telling the story is being factual and honest about the events taking place.

Sometimes it’s great to violate that trust.

An unreliable narrator is the voice telling the story that gives the reader reason to think that what’s on the page “ain’t necessarily so.” This can be an effective way to add a twist to your work—or to make the readers think about the narratives they read everyday and assume are factual (news accounts, bios, etc.).

There are some rules that go along with producing an unreliable narrator:

  • An unreliable narrator is not an unbelievable one. That may seem obvious, but the whole point is to make the reader reevaluate the story later when the narrator is unmasked. So, let the narrator fool the reader in a way that seems to make sense.
  • On the other hand, there have to be enough clues to let the reader slowly uncover that the narrator isn’t being forthright. This is the toughest part, since the clues cannot be so subtle that the reader misses them and neither can they be too obvious (unless you want the audience to know early on). You could, for example, simply let the narrator know things that only the murderer would know.
  • Just telling a story falsely doesn’t make the narrator unreliable. That is, if the readers don’t see what you’re doing, then they may just assume that the story is what it appears to be. They’ll miss that the narrator is hiding things. You may have wanted the reader to know that Jason (the narrator) really stole the money, but they may simply believe the story Jason tells about Amanda stealing it. There has to be a clear unmasking.

Any famous examples of an unreliable narrator that you enjoy? (One hint: Henry James)


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