unreliable narrator

Unreliable Narrators: The liars, criminals, and sociopaths of fiction

A narrator tells the story of a book, but an unreliable narrator is a character who tells a story that lacks credibility. The unreliable narrator adds the concept of questioning the credibility of a main character, whether it’s through what they say or how they react when new information gets presented. Writers most commonly use unreliable narrators in genres like mystery and supernatural fiction because they create suspense that keeps readers guessing until the last page.

The speaker’s credibility can be questioned at the start, or an author can choose to give subtle hints about trusting the narrator. Authors use their own imaginations to sprinkle in unreliable or questionable details that change the story over time. Sometimes a plot twist or the presentation of new information will cause the reader to question if they’ve been mislead by a character.

The unreliable narrator is not the same person as the author. Memoirs and personal experience essays don’t use the unreliable narrator device because the writer is speaking from their own experience. Therefore, this literary concept is most often seen in fiction because it’s usually used as a storytelling device.

Further Defining the Unreliable Narrator

The term unreliable narrator was first used by Wayne C. Booth in his book, The Rhetoric of Fiction. In his book, he writes:

“I have called a narrator reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say the implied author’s norms), unreliable when he does not.”

According to Wayne, two things must occur for an unreliable narrator:

1. First, the author must establish the “implied norms of the work.” This means the author builds a society where certain constructs exist. The world can be based on our own or made up by the author, but these constructs indicate how life’s supposed to be. The characters live within in this world and will interact with the setting.

2. For a narrator to be unreliable, (s)he must have a delusional view of this world. Whenever an unreliable character speaks, what they say won’t be congruent with the norms presented. Unreliable narrators are most likely looking to hide something or attempting to rationalize their behaviors. They’re unreliable due to their self-interest and have a motivation to keep their secrets.

An unreliable narrator can:

• Be biased towards a certain viewpoint
• Be mentally unstable
• Be a liar
• Have a warped sense of morals or reality

When should you use an unreliable narrator?

While there isn’t a concrete list of when you can and can’t write an unreliable narrator, choosing to use this kind of character should make sense for your story.

Think about the purpose of using the unreliable narrator. Do you need someone to mislead the other characters in the story? Are you interested in exploring a world through a character who might not be the most trusted in their background? Do you want the reader to initially trust the character you’re speaking from just to turn things on their head? Consider the pros and cons of developing an unreliable in your story.

There’s certain genres where unreliable narrators are most common. If you’re writing a murder mystery, oftentimes the criminal will be an unreliable narrator because he has a distorted sense of reality. Other genres such as supernatural or psychological fiction use unreliable narrators to help motivate their characters and provide context behind their protagonist’s rationale.

Examples of the Unreliable Narrator

Unreliable narrators come in all shapes and sizes; some might be sneaky while another might be a drug addict. While it’s hard to make a concrete list of definitive unreliable narrators, here’s five of the most common types.

  1. The murderer/criminal. The murderer/criminal is an unreliable narrator that’s lying to hide their heinous crime. They’re looking to avoid doing their time in jail and want to prove their innocence. The murderer will leave details out of their story and filter the truth, which will be revealed as inconsistencies within the plot arise. An example of the murder/criminal is Amy from Gone Girl because she’s looking to frame Nick for murder.
  2. The innocent bystander. This is the character who knows the truth but continuously doubt it. They might choose to disbelieve what they know because they’re scared, afraid of change, or can’t bear mistrust other characters. An example of the innocent bystander unreliable narrator is Mrs. Bunting in The Lodger. Mrs. Bunting has reasons to suspect the lodger in her spare room is a murderer, but continuously doubts the evidence throughout the novel.
  3. The outside narrator. The outside unreliable narrator is an individual that’s telling a story directly to another character. This character might be biased or misleading on purpose, or they might not remember some details to thicken the plot. An outside narrator might not be trustworthy due to motivation, race, class, or politics.
  4. The crazy. The crazy unreliable narrator has a warped perception of the universe. They might have a different sense of what judgement and justice means, and will work to achieve their ideals. The crazy will push their own agenda at all costs and will not even stop to think about a second opinion. An example of the crazy is Light Yagami from the manga Death Note. In this series, Light finds a notebook that has the power to kill people, and he uses it to kill criminals in order to “cleanse the world” according to his standards.
  5. The psychopath. The psychopath is a character that might have a mental illness or personality disorder that affects their sense of morality. They don’t feel sorry for their crimes, and they continuously justify their actions. Psychopaths are usually presented as normal, but their true colors unravel as the plot unveils. An example of the psychopath is Patrick Bateman from American Psycho because he starts off as a normal business man; however, the reader finds out he treats murder casually, and his reliability as a narrator comes into question the more heinous his acts become.

While there’s more instances you can use an unreliable narrator, these five are a great starting point for studying how you can develop your own unreliable narrator. Decide if your character fits one or more characteristics of these examples, and work to see if an unreliable narrator’s right for you.

You Could Argue Any Narrator isn’t reliable

Yes, this is true; every person has their own background, morals, and biases. We also don’t always remember things exactly the way they happened. Even psychologists have proven that sometimes our own memories can mislead us.

However, this doesn’t mean that every story utilizes this literary device. An unreliable narrator is clearly hiding something or has a motivation that’s inconsistent with society. They’re the ones that are greedy, murderous, delusional, and in denial, but they just don’t want you to know.

When is a narrator not reliable?

Think of it this way: the main difference between a narrator that’s reliable and one that isn’t is their intention. Characters like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter from Harry Potter or Rainbow Rowell’s Cath from Fangirl aren’t unreliable because they aren’t looking to deceive the reader. They tell the world as they see it, and when they find out information that thickens the plot, they aren’t looking to mislead us.

One character that’s often inappropriately assigned the unreliable narrator label is Ellen Dean from Wuthering Heights. While she is an outside narrator telling the story of Heathcliff to Mr. Lockwood, at no point in time is she trying to deceive him in her story. Instead, her telling the story is how the main narrative is simply chosen to be presented. There’s no sense of falsehood questioned in this story.

Meanwhile, characters like Amy from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or Patrick Bateman from Bret Easten Ellis’s American Psyhco both have reasons to filter information from the reader. Amy’s looking to frame Nick for murder; Patrick is a flat-out sociopath with a warped sense of reality. These liars present their stories as normal until it’s necessary for the reader to doubt their version of the story. When something is revealed about these characters, the reader will question everything that’s been said, causing them to be unreliable narrators.

What do you think?

Can you think of unreliable narrators in fiction? If so, who’s your favorite one? Let me know in the comments below!

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