We have all seen courtroom dramas where the witnesses called to testify get on the stand and are shown to be unreliable.
After the witness tells what they saw, their testimony gets called into question. A good defense lawyer will cross examine a witness to show they could not actually see what happened with any degree of reliabity. Perhaps the day was foggy, or they were four miles away at the time of the alleged crime. Or if that’s not the case, the attorney may introduce facts from the witness’s background that would make them seem unreliable to the jury.
An unreliable narrator is not the same thing as an unreliable witness, but the same principles apply.
When we choose our point of view character, there is usually something that makes them an unreliable narrator as they tell their story. Even if you write a story from an omniscient point of view, your narration can be unreliable because you have biases, and they show.
Take the Tarzan series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The author knew very little about Africa, but that didn’t stop him from setting his Tarzan of the Apes in Africa. Also, Burroughs’ biases were on full display. He cast Tarzan as the foundling son of the English nobility and thus imbued with special measures of intelligence and ability; you know, the old superiority of being a white man. Oh, brother.
All that to make the point that narrators, all narrators, are on the spectrum of unreliability. Some are much more reliable than others. However, today, we want to discuss using more unreliable narrators on purpose to further our plot.
Our point of view characters and even secondary characters can be unreliable narrators too. Don’t miss this excellent way to heighten the mystery and tension in your novels.
What is an unreliable narrator in literature?
Remember this first: perception is reality. Hence, the giant turmoil going on in the United States these days. Second, deeply held beliefs color everyone’s worldview. Third, trauma alters the way a person experiences everyday events. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a good beginning.
We are all unreliable narrators in some fashion, are we not? But let’s not go too far. There is a spectrum, obviously, and most of the time, you will create an otherwise trustworthy narrator who has a blind spot, usually about themselves or about another person.
What are some good examples of unreliable narrators in fiction?
Memorable villains are often unreliable narrators. They are the heroes of the story in their own minds. Usually, there is some trauma in their past that has completely warped their perceptions and attitudes.
Main characters have the same problem with trauma and biases and mistaken perceptions. This truth provides excellent fodder for conflict in your stories, both internal and external.
For sure, I counsel writers to give their main character a lie they accept as the truth.
But a seriously unreliable narrator takes things further than a flawed point of view character.
The unnamed protagonist in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” believes what he did—murdering the man in his care—was justified, but the main character is too lost to reality to successfully hide his crime.
Kuzco, the emperor in “The Emperor’s New Groove,” is a great example of an unreliable narrator. He sees the world through the lens of his absolute power. Pacha’s mountaintop home is obviously the perfect spot to build a new palace and nobody would dare try to usurp the throne. Kuzco believes these “facts” completely, and he is taken by surprise that a) Pacha, the peasant, would dare to disagree with his plans and b) his trusted advisor would try to poison him.
What are the main types of unreliable narrators?
Predictably, academics have bestowed terms on the main types of unreliable narrators, so here goes:
The liar recounts a story to cover their true motive, to disguise their own culpability, or just to survive. They are the most intentional of the unreliable narrators.
Debbie Ocean of Ocean’s Eight is a liar; she develops a plan for a jewelry heist as an elaborate cover for revenge against the man who betrayed her, even fooling her longtime partner in crime for a time. Ironically, Debbie makes no bones about being a criminal; she loves being a con artist. However, she takes pains to conceal her true motives until late in the game. Of course, a successful heist is its own reward.
The madman reveals himself to be crazy or “over the line” as he or she tells their story. I say, take care not to vilify mental illness. Which is more horrifying after all—a person who chooses evil or a person who acts out due to mental illness? Hitler was far more horrifying than Norman Bates from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Also, Hitchcock stepped over the obvious theme of violence against women to vilify gay men. Most men who abuse and kill women are not queer. Just saying.
Poe depicts his main character in “The Tell-Tale Heart” in an almost sympathetic way, and I am okay with that.
Truly, there are plenty of people in the world who choose to hold unsubstantiated and unreasonable beliefs and act on them. Pick any despot. You don’t have to be mentally ill to be a cracked egg and neither does your unreliable madman narrator.
An unreliable witness with PTSD comes under this heading, too, but please, handle with care.
Regardless, do your research whenever you include mental illness in a story. Okay, I will step off my soapbox now.
The picaro is an unreliable narrator who is prone to bragging or exaggeration, like Michael Scott in The Office. He often spouts nonsensical views directly at the camera, and is proven wrong mere seconds later to comic effect. We see through Michael’s braggadocio, of course, and understand the insecurities he unconsciously relates to the audience.
The naif, n-a-i-f, pronounced NI—EEf, is a narrator who is naive—see what they did there? Forrest Gump is a fantastic example of a point of view character who is basically unable to understand the nuances of the people he encounters, but they are revealed to us, regardless.
Scout, the point-of-view character in To Kill a Mockingbird tells her story, for the most part, as though she is still a young girl, though the narrator is looking back as an adult. When the events in the plot unfolded, the narrator was an innocent child. Somehow, the injustice at the heart of the story is magnified by the child’s voice.
The clown is the unreliable narrator who treats everything as a joke and toys with the reader; this is a clever way for an author to reveal deep-seated pain, hurt that the narrator dares not acknowledge.
Danny DeVito’s character, Bill, in The Renaissance Man, would fall in the clown category. At first, the viewer is uncertain how to take the main character because he is such a wisecracking jerk. As the movie continues, though, we see the truth; Bill is a man who has lost his way and is simply trying to get his life back.
Flynn Rider (not his real name) from Disney’s animated movie, Tangled, is a clown. He shares the narration with Rapunzel, who is herself an unreliable narrator, a good example of a naif because she has lived an unnaturally sheltered life.
Flynn is also a liar, a criminal on the run, so he is both a clown and a liar. It is possible for an unreliable narrator to fit in more than one category.
How do you write an unreliable narrator?
You can let the reader in on the narrator’s unreliability right from the start, like Michael Scott or Forrest Gump, or go for the big reveal at the end, as happened in the movie, The Sixth Sense.
Spoiler alert; skip the next paragraph.
In *The Sixth Sense,” the main character has been dead all along, but he doesn’t know it and neither does the viewer. The seeds for the big reveal are there all along—heck, the kid tells Malcolm very early in the film: “I see dead people.” And in the same conversation, he says, “They don’t know they’re dead.” Ahem. Hint, hint. Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink.
The second time you watch the film, you will see clues throughout the plot, and that is the way to do it. Plant the clues, and then do the big reveal. Your audience will go, “Ohhhh.”
If your narrator is a liar, they can confess this up front, or you can help the reader “catch them in a lie” early on. Make it early. This is sort of like writing a whodunit and showing the gun in the drawer long before it becomes a part of the puzzle.
If your narrator is a naif or a picaro or a clown or a madman, you pretty much have to establish this from the beginning, although a madman unreliable narrator could be a big reveal if you craft it carefully.
A way to establish unreliability is to have a character do something small that seems out of character. Doing this will raise the readers’ suspicions—either the idea the character might have a dark side or the glimmer of a soft heart beneath a crusty exterior.
Isn’t every person capable of great violence or betrayal or lying or unexpected heroism or sacrifice or speaking truth? Whichever way it goes, this sort of event will give your reader a clue about the character’s unreliability.
The Moment of Truth
Of course, you wouldn’t use an unreliable narrator as your main character in every story, but if you have a particular purpose or an idea that hinges on one, then go for it.
As I mentioned at the beginning, your main character needs to learn something or shake off a lie or a prejudice in order to grow. It’s scary to think we all believe something—something!—that is untrue. There is some lie we have accepted, be it a misunderstanding or an embellished family story or a prejudice we learned at mother’s knee.
Some lies are harder to shake off than others, and changing the way we think involves a readiness to face the truth. What pushes us to face the truth? Is it hardship or the loss of a friend or witnessing a crime or injustice?
The lie your character accepts as true needs to be clear to your readers, and then you need a moment of truth in which your character comes face-to-face with the falsehood. This new truth can power the remainder of the story, as in “The Christmas Carol” by Dickens, when Scrooge sees his chance to make amends and does so with all his heart.
I take it back, your character can refuse to accept a truth, no matter how clearly it is presented to them. This, then, would be a negative growth arc, in which the character plunges deeper into a darkened understanding. There is too much dissonance between what they want to believe and what is. They are not ready and never will be.
Rolfe Gruber, the Austrian delivery guy from “The Sound of Music” springs to mind. He buys into the Nazi propaganda and ultimately betrays the Von Trapp family because he chooses nazism over everything else. Clues to his character are evident right from the start, beginning with his secret meetings with Liesl Von Trapp, followed by his unpatriotic acceptance of the German cause.
If Rolfe were cast as the main character of his own story, he would be an unreliable narrator, casting himself as the hero. Do you see? He could be a liar or a madman or both unless you gave him a redemption arc. There. I just gave you a story idea for free.
Use an unreliable narrator to support your theme.
If you have an unreliable narrator, be sure to use their lies, their exaggerations, their naive observations, their mad ramblings, or their jokes to support your theme.
Forrest Gump tells Jenny, “I may not be a smart man, but I know what love is.” Love in its purest sense is the theme of the movie. In all his interactions with the people he meets, Forrest is loveable, no matter how he is treated.
Today, we have discussed what an unreliable narrator is and the main categories of unreliable narrators, namely: the liar, the madman, the naif, the picaro, and the clown. Each has a place. We have also discussed the mirror moment, when the character meets the lie they have accepted as truth face to face. They must make a choice to accept the truth or continue on their self-destructive path. We also discussed disclosing their unreliable nature early on, overtly or covertly. Make use of unreliable narrators when you can to enhance your conflicts and your themes.
- “5 Ways Trauma Makes Your Character an Unreliable Narrator” by Lisa Hall-Wilson on Writers Helping Writers
- What Factors Can Make Eyewitness Testimony Unreliable?” from Hildreth and Rueda Law
- “How to Write an Unreliable Narrator” on Jerry Jenkins blog
- “8 Tips to Writing Unreliable Narrators” by Deb Caletti for WritersDigest.com