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What is unreliable narration?

Imagine a bike with a wobbly wheel. Can you trust riding it? Exactly! That's how Unreliable Character personality trait is. Wobbly! The word 'rely' is a clue to what unreliable means. When you can rely on something, you can count on it — it's reliable. In the world of storytelling, we have a concept of narrators who are not trustworthy and for many reasons, their reliability is compromised. In creative writing, the unreliable narrator is either deliberately deceptive or unintentionally misguided, forcing the reader to question their credibility as a storyteller. This method works very well in transgressive or postmodern literature.

Edgar Allan Poe called this technique "a novel or vivid effect" in his essay, The Philosophy of Composition. You may ask why writers employ an Unreliable Narrator. In my personal experience, I employ such a narrative so the reader has to figure out the real story. This works well in Transgressive fiction as mostly the protagonist, their emotions, motives, and life is the key point of the whole story.

In this post, we will have an in-depth study to answer what is an unreliable narrator. What makes a narrator unreliable or reliable? How do you prove a narrator is unreliable? Why do we use this narration and how you can build your novel around an Unreliable Narrator?

Image source: from an exhibition originally presented at Hudson Guild Gallery from March 7, 2019, through April 17, 2019. The curators were Jim Furlong and Rick Krieger.

What is an Unreliable Narrator

Let's define Unreliable Character through the characteristics of an unreliable person in reality and not fiction. An unreliable person has at least one of the following 8 traits:

We can see these traits in an unreliable narrator found in fiction and film, and range from children to mature characters. The term was coined by Wayne C. Booth in his book The Rhetoric of Fiction in 1961. (source) In fiction similar to real life, an unreliable narrator is an untrustworthy storyteller or speaker. However, in fiction, the unreliable narrator is deliberately deceptive or unintentionally misguided, leading the reader to question these characters' credibility as a storyteller. To understand and then define the Unreliable Narrator, I would like to give you some examples. Sometimes the narrator's unreliability is made immediately clear. For example, a story may open with the narrator making a plainly false or delusional claim or admitting to being severely mentally ill, or with clues to the character's unreliability like Forrest Gump or Lolita or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Another great example, in this case, is Alex in A Clockwork Orange is a depraved and violent psychopathic teenager 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. But sometimes, the dramatic use of the device delays the revelation until near the story's end such as in the story of Shutter Island or Fight Club. In some cases, the reader discovers that in the foregoing narrative; the narrator had concealed or misrepresented vital pieces of information such as in American Psycho. Such a twist ending forces readers to reconsider their point of view and experience of the story. In some cases the narrator's unreliability is never fully revealed but only hinted at, leaving readers to wonder how much the narrator should be trusted and how the story should be interpreted such as Book of the New Sun or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

One of the earliest English novels using this narrative style is Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders (1722). This novel is told in the first person POV and is presented as a trustworthy person. Moll is a traditional woman in the sense of gender roles, quite believable because of her maternal instincts which are shown to keep her alive. She has many children, and she's very submissive as a traditional role of woman in the 18th century. These traits are made believable, however, the first-person narrative point of view is often very limited to Moll’s knowledge and experience and no one else. When looking closely at Moll, by having limited access to the other characters' opinions and thoughts, the readers are forced to believe the narrator of the story and this made to question whether this character is reliable.

In case of the obvious unreliability of the narrator, "The Repairer of Reputations", the narrator is Wilde, a man who is regarded by others as a lunatic. Eventually, his plans fail entirely, and he dies in an asylum for the criminally insane. In this story from the beginning, it becomes increasingly clear that the narrator is mentally ill. Despite the narrator presenting the facts as he sees them, from the POV of his insane person all these facts are unreliable because they're clearly not at all what is happening in real life.

Another example is the novel "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov, it may seem that the narrator is universally an "unreliable narrator", however, you may not get that feeling from the book easily. He is telling the whole truth about the concrete events that occurred in the story however having one narrator who is an adult crushing hard on a kid makes the trustworthiness of the whole narrative questionable. For me, Humbert is a completely unreliable narrator, and his myopic self-delusion and need for sympathy make many of his statements suspicious. Especially when, he claims Lolita seduced him and that she was in complete control of the relationship.

We can see an example of when the narrator deliberately leaves out crucial information in order to mislead the reader in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: A Hercule Poirot Mystery. Such narration works very well in murder mystery stories. In this book, Dr. Sheppard is an unreliable narrator because of his obvious characteristics such as reticence, his apparent ignorance, and his strain of weakness. However, the narrator doesn't explicitly lie at any point, but he is still unreliable because he withholds information that would completely change the reader's perspective.

So, an Unreliable Narrator for me is "a narrator who is the dominant storyteller and somehow their credibility is compromised through the circumstances in the story or who they are as a person having any signs of mental instability, naivety or immaturity, being under the influence of drugs and alcohol, exaggeration, and lies that are told to themselves and others. Hence, they lead the rational reader the power of interpreting them objectively to expose their unreliability either right at the beginning, gradually, or at the end."

Types of Unreliable Narrator

As mentioned previously, there are many traits or reasons why a narrator is considered unreliable based on various signs, however, there are also certain types of unreliable narrators that won't show these signs easily until very end of the story. In his book, "Picaros, Madmen, Naifs, and Clowns: The Unreliable First-Person Narrator" (1982) William Riggan identified five different categories: picaros, madman, naifs, clowns, and liars as the main types of unreliable narrator to which I will add 3 different levels to madman (bad, sad, mad) along with fantom, and maverick.

  • The Naïve narrator (Naïf) is unreliable because of their lack of experience. These characters are sometimes children or immature adults. Examples: Jack from Room, Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn from The Adventures of Huckleberry Fynn.

  • The Outsider may be someone new in town or of a different racial or socioeconomic background than the rest of the characters in the story and prejudice may pollute their perspective. Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Nelly from Wuthering Heights, Mrs de Winter from Rebecca, Invisible Man from Invisible Man.

  • The Picaro is a narrator who likes to exaggerate. Sometimes these narrators make the best storytellers however, readers have to keep the narrator's tendency toward hyperbole in mind.

  • The Madman who has lost touch with reality. They can tell a compelling story that may not reflects the truth. Here I add my 3 categories of bad, sad, mad:

    1. The Bad may be undergoing a difficult period in their lives, on drugs, or have an eating disorder. Examples: Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye

    2. The Sad may suffer from hallucinations or dementia, or flashbacks caused by PTSD. Examples: Pi Patel in Life of Pi, Chief Bromden from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Raoul Duke from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

    3. The Mad may have a mental illness or personality disorder. Examples: The narrator in The Fight Club, Barbara in Notes on a Scandal, Humbert from Lolita, Patrick in American Psycho, or The Cervantes from Don Quixote.

  • Liar intentionally deceives the reader. These are rare to encounter, but they tell a nuanced story and it's job of the reader to try to sort fact from fiction. Examples: Pandora in Big Brother, Briony Tallis in Atonement.

  • The Fantom may be ethereal. Examples: Geras from Enaro, Jakabok Botch from Mister B. Gone, Lucifer in I, Lucifer

  • The Maverick may be lying to save himself, trying to persuade the reader that what he has done is not wrong, or attempting to blame one of the other characters out of revenge. Examples: Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire, Amy from Gone Girl, John Dowell in The Good Soldier

Unreliable Narrator POV (Point of View)

Unreliable first-person narrators are most commonly written from the first-person view. The reason is that the first-person POV limits the narration to the main storyteller so this way the character lying to the reader can control the story. Also, it's the character and not the author who is lying which makes sense. While unreliable narrators are almost by definition first-person narrators, there are unreliable second- and third-person narrators, especially within the context of film and television, and sometimes also in literature. (source) In this section I will briefly discuss third-person POV deep and limited which you can use to create unreliable narrators.

Third Person Deep Narration: AKA third-person intimate or third-person close is a type of narrative that can be used in the Unreliable Narrative style in which the line between the character and the narrator's voice is the character's voice. This POV offers many benefits of a first-person narrator but with more flexibility, especially when creating an unreliable narrative. This takes readers into the head and heart of a character, allowing the story to be seen and felt through the character's experiences and history and thoughts and feelings. Example: Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Stephen King’s Secret Window, and Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island:

Teddy said, “I don’t know, Chuck. You think they’re onto us?” “Nah.” Chuck
tilted his head back, squinting a bit in the sun, and he smiled at Teddy. “We’re
too smart for that.”
“Yeah,” Teddy said. “We are, aren’t we?”

Normal third-person limited:

In this viewpoint, the story is told from the close perspective of one character. It still mainly uses third-person pronouns but creates the immediacy and intimacy of a first-person narrative without being trapped inside the protagonist's head. As a result, it creates a sense of ‘narrative empathy,’ making it easier for readers to imagine themselves in the viewpoint character or as their confidante. Example: Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls", which sticks with Robert Jordan's consciousness who shares:

"This Anselmo had been a good guide and he could travel wonderfully in the mountains." Robert watched as Jacob smiled at Susan and approached her, shaking her hand. As he heard them exchange warm pleasantries, Robert fumed with jealousy. If he comes near her again, he’ll regret it, he thought. 

So, here we are with a general understanding of Unreliable Narratives. In the next post, I will discuss how you can create an Unreliable Narrator based on these factors more in-depth.

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Apr 26, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

One of the most thorough, intelligent, and easy to understand articles I have read in a very long time on this subject. I shared it with my students and my social media. I am definitely going to go read more from this author.

Neda Aria
Neda Aria
Jul 30, 2023
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Thank you for your comment. I'm an educator myself and I'm glad you liked this post as much to share it with your students.

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