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The Unreliable Narrator: Definition, Examples, and How to Make It Work

From Edgar Allan Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart" to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, the author's use of an unreliable narrator is one of the most fascinating literary devices used in storytelling. While there have been unreliable narrators dating back to the work of the Ancient Greek playwright, Aristophanes, the term was coined by Wayne C. Booth in his book, The Rhetoric of Fiction.

What is an unreliable narrator?

An unreliable narrator is one that is not to be fully believed. His or her credibility is compromised due to some admission of insanity or an obviously false claim that the reader knows is incorrect, or due to the story revealing information about the narrator that makes the reader question the believability of claims made.

The unreliable narrator as a literary device can be used for dramatic effect to create an ending with a twist (such as Gone Girl), or can be merely hinted at by other characters as a way to make the reader question if the narrator should be trusted. However it is used and revealed, having an unreliable narrator is an excellent way for an author to psychologically thrill his or her audience. Nothing can be taken at face value. And if the narrator, the primary "voice" of the story can't be trusted—then who can?

The use of the unreliable narrator is also a reminder that any story told from first person point of view has limitations. In reality, all humans are unreliable narrators. Whenever a person recalls an experience, the recollection is subjective and might not include all relevant details—either because the details were missed entirely, or were forgotten in the time that passed between the event and the later description of it. Some people forget or omit details as a type of self-preservation. Others do it to avoid negative consequences. Still others omit details simply because they didn't notice them.

Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl
Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl is an example of an unreliable narrator.

Types of unreliable narrators

In his book Picaros, Madmen, Naifs, and Clowns: The Unreliable First-Person Narrator, author William Riggan explored the types of first-person unreliable narrators often seen in literature. He narrowed it down to the following list:

The Pícaro

This is a narrator who is prone to exaggeration and bragging and is unreliable due to his or her tendency for tall tales. Some examples include Moll Flanders in the novel by the same name written by Daniel Defoe, Simplicius Simplicissimus by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen, and Felix Krull from the unfinished German novel, Confessions of Felix Krull by Thomas Mann.

The Madman

This is a narrator who has a mental disorder resulting in dissociation, schizophrenia or paranoia. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk gave us one of the best examples of this type of unreliable narrator in the discovery that the insomniac narrator and Tyler Durden were one and the same. Some other examples are Franz Kafka's narrators, Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal, Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire, and Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho.

The Clown

This is a narrator who toys with the truth and the reader's expectations. Examples of this type of unreliable narrator include Tristram Shandy in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.

The Naïf

This type of unreliable narrator is a narrator with a limited understanding or point of view. One of the best examples of this is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Other examples of naïves include Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield, from J. D. Salinger's 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye, and Jack from Emma Donoghue's novel, Room.

The Liar

This is a narrator who purposefully lies to the audience. John Dowell in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier is an example of this type of unreliable narrator.

Some unreliable narrators are a mix of several of these categories. For example, in A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, the narrator is Alex, a depraved and violent psychopathic adolescent who has no desire to change. In this sense, he is the antihero of the story and represents an unreliable narrator who admits to his deception, so is The Liar (based on Riggan's types). It's made clear that he is manipulating the reader, especially with his use of the term "brothers" when addressing his audience. His constant drug use and seeming mental instability, along with a fictional jargon called Nasdat to manipulate and lie to other characters, paints him as unreliable from the beginning of the narration (and thus, also The Madman).

Alex from Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange
Alex from Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange is an unreliable narrator on many different levels.

Outside of Riggan's types of unreliable narrators, the following can also be found in modern literature.

The narrator who evades the truth out of self-preservation

A good example of this type of unreliable narrator is Pi Patel, the narrator of Yann Martel's Life of Pi. He tells a story of being adrift at sea and sharing his lifeboat with a zebra, orangutan, hyena, and tiger. When his story is questioned for its implausibility, his rescuers (and thus, the reader) learns of another version of the story in which he is adrift at sea with his mother, a sailor, and the ship's cook. The rescuers find connections between the two versions of the story and choose to accept the version with the animals, understanding that the alternative (and more likely version) would have been extremely traumatic for the boy.

The narrator who doesn't know all of the truth

Rachel in The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins is an example of this type of unreliable narrator due to her frequent alcohol-induced blackouts and her lies to other characters. Her explanation of her whereabouts is unreliable and her connection to the mystery of the novel is questioned due to her loss of memory due to drinking. In this sense, she doesn't quite fall into Riggan's category of The Naïf, but her perspective and memory are indeed limited.

How to use the unreliable narrator in your writing

If you've chosen to write a story with an unreliable narrator, you're on the right track. Writers have been using this exciting literary device to create blockbuster stories for centuries, and it is still as exciting as it has ever been for readers to discover that the narrator might not be trustworthy (or might be completely crazy). Put simply—it's a great way to hook your audience and create a compelling, memorable character.

Here are a few tips for using an unreliable narrator as a literary device in your writing:

Make your narrator seem very clever

We all know that for a lie to work, careful planning is often needed. Liars have to cover all the bases and intuit how their lies might be discovered, by whom, and how to avoid that happening. This is why, particularly if your narrator is the type who lies on purpose, making him or her incredibly clever and intelligent is the easiest way to pull off turning them into a memorable unreliable narrator. In the real world (as in, outside of fiction), liars must work hard and plan carefully to keep their lie from being discovered.

Make your narrator do something "out of character"

When your narrator, who is normally a fine, upstanding citizen, suddenly does something out of character, their reliability is immediately called into question. Having them do something that surprises the reader is a great way to set up an unreliable narrator—especially if you don't plan to wait until the end to make the unreliability part of the story's twist.

Consider making your narrator the "bad guy"

From A Clockwork Orange to American Psycho, having an unreliable narrator who is also a villain is a great way to set up a fascinating story. The trick to this is making sure your narrator is also likable. There have to be some redeeming qualities or some reason for your audience to keep turning pages, otherwise you'll lose your reader's attention quickly.

Make your narrator authentic

If you are toying with the trust of your readers by using an unreliable narrator, it is especially important to keep your narrator authentic and believable. While many unreliable narrators are narcissists, pathological liars, and/or mentally unstable, staying within an authentic framework when creating them will keep your readers engaged. Even narcissists have a predictable pattern, and various mental illnesses display certain symptoms that should be evident if this is the direction you plan to take with your narrator as a character.

However you plan to use an unreliable narrator, whether to add depth to his or her character or to create a surprise twist at the end of your story, don't reveal too much too soon. Readers automatically assume that the narrator is telling the truth and enjoy the surprise when they learn their preconceived notions aren't exactly correct. The unreliable narrator is a great storytelling device when used correctly and should be explored by every writer at some point in his or her writing career. You'll have as much fun creating one as your readers will have reading his or her unreliable tales.

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