An Unreliable Narrator: The Good and the Bad with examples! – The Urban Writers

An Unreliable Narrator: The Good and the Bad with examples!

by The Urban Writers

Reading about an unreliable narrator can prompt many questions. More specifically, "What in the world is an unreliable narrator?" Don't fret; before doing some research, we, too, had this question!

unreliable narrator - narrator reliability - unreliable narrators - narrator unreliable - unreliable narrator examples

The Unreliable Narrator Definition

Simply put, an unreliable narrator is a character in a story who is untrustworthy when it comes to telling the story. Usually, these characters are first-person narrators!

But the author is clever in the sense that they provide their unreliable narrator with a deceptive characteristic that is deliberate. Their main goal is to mislead you, forcing you to question the degree of the narrator's unreliability!

Also, having an unreliable narrator does not mean that you need to disregard everything they say. After all, they are meant to be convincing! The degree of truth that they tell will be highly dependent on the author's vision for that character and the type of unreliable narrator they are.

What Is the Difference Between a Reliable and an Unreliable Narrator?

Simply put, a reliable narrator is one that you can trust in absolutely everything they say. If they say someone was murdered by "X," then you can rest assured that "X" did the deed!

Contrastingly, with an unreliable narrator, as we mentioned above, you need to question every word they say. If they say that "X" was the murderer, you need to look for flaws in their logic. They cannot be trusted!

unreliable narrator - narrator reliability - what is the difference between a reliable and unreliable narrator - reliability of narrator

The Four Types of Unreliable Narrators

Unreliable narration is an art form on its own. Being able to convincingly allow the reader to question the actions of a character and draw their own conclusions is the essence of this literary technique.

The main goal of using unreliable narration as a literary device is to fuel a character's unreliability, all while causing you to question the credibility of their storytelling.

But to what extent does this occur? That is based on their assigned characteristics within the following four types of unreliable narrators.

1. The Picaro

A picaro is a type of unreliable narrator that loves to exaggerate their positioning in life (and in the story)! A famous example of how a picaro is used is in the novel Moll Flanders.

Moll Flanders, the main protagonist, was born in prison and decided to tell a few exaggerated lies regarding her social standing.

What was her end goal? Well, it was to ensure that wealthy men would want to marry her. What better way to inherit their fortune? That being said, one can usually pick up on a picaro through their narrative voice.

2. The Madman

Yes, this is exactly what they are! A narrator in this category has a mental detachment from reality. Naturally, a narrator like this will make sure their narrative audience knows this! Let's look at one of the best unreliable narrator examples known to the modern world of literature!

American Psycho is a novel written by the infamous Bret Easton Ellis. In this novel, a curious incident occurs. The reader's expectations are created when Patrick Bateman, who dubbed himself a serial killer, says that he has gone on a killing spree!

Now we expect this to have happened as is, right? Well, the story turns out when one of his so-called victims is found to be alive and well. Is it coincidental, or is everything a lie? We'll let you decide.

3. The Naif

What an odd name for an unreliable narrator, right? Right! But with this odd name comes an odd class of characters. A naif is typically seen as a character who, due to inexperience or age, is unable to communicate the full weight of the narrative.

Let's think of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a book written by Mark Haddon. With the death of the main character's mother and the supposed murder of his neighbor's dog, can we really trust what 15-year-old Christopher is telling us?

Not to mention, a narrator in this category could have mental health issues that make you question the narrator's ability to tell the story. In this case, from a first-person point of view, Christopher has Asperger's syndrome.

Can we really trust his sequence of events when we don't even know if he has a rigid understanding of the world that surrounds him?

Whether it be youthful ignorance or a blatant disregard for telling the full set of events, these unreliable narrators are never to be trusted!

what is the difference between a reliable and unreliable narrator - reliability of narrator

4. The Liar

Many writers decide to include one or more liars in their stories. Not only are they deliberately placed throughout the story's plot, but as soon as the reader discovers their true intentions, every time they pop up, it leaves you thinking, Well, here we go again!

What becomes even more confusing is when a liar is the main character and uses other characters to fabricate a story and present themselves in such a way as not to be caught in their twisted web of lies. In this case, especially in fiction novels, the true intentions of the liar are only revealed near the end of the book.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the perfect example of a case where a seemingly reliable narrator fools every reader near the end of the book! Dr. James Sheppard is tasked with helping Poirot find out who committed the murder.

Because of his status within the community, who would suspect a doctor, right? Wrong! Dr. Sheppard was the one who committed the murder!

As a literary device, the unreliable narrator can be kept in the dark throughout the entirety of the book. But where the true plot twists come into play, there are two unreliable narrators that are working together.

Imagine the drama when they betray each other. We'd read that type of writing any day!

Ways to Create Unreliable Narration in Your Work

So you're gripped! You want to add a hint of deceit and confusion to your novel. Well, we've got you covered.

Leaving your readers trying to discover the truth and teaching them not to take acts at face value is what will lead to your novel's popularity skyrocketing. You may even get a film adaptation! So, how do you create the perfect unreliable narrator?

Make Sure to Keep Your Readers in the Dark

You can't divulge all of your character's secrets! How else is the reader going to be shocked when their true colors show?

As a reader, you want to know as much as possible about all of the characters. Whether they are being talked about in the third person or not, we commit everything to memory. But try the opposite.

Next time you are writing, either lie or purposefully withhold information. You'll see how this idea will impact how you write as well as how your readers experience your story.

Make Your First-Person Narrator Unreliable From the Start

Inherently, a reader can classify every character as an unreliable narrator. Why? Because the character is narrating the story based on their own lived experiences and belief system.

When you meet the characters in the story for the first time, always assume that they are telling the truth until proven otherwise. What many authors do when writing their books is give a hint at a specific character's quality that may cause you to question their degree of unreliability.

Whether it is the main character or not, make sure to always include these qualities at the beginning of your story!

Although, in some examples of already-written fiction, the audience figured out who the unreliable narrator was from the very beginning! This happened in A Clockwork Orange, where Alex, who was both the narrator and protagonist, was so deliberately unreliable that the story actually left the reader thinking something was wrong.

Anthony Burgess went further than A Clockwork Orange and put an unreliable narrator in many of his other stories. One Hand Clapping and The Kingdom of the Wicked are two other examples.

Allow the Other Characters to Be a Sounding Board

In a story where there are 15 first-person narrators, surely there have to be a few reliable narrators amongst the group, right? Well, in As I Lay Dying, a novel written by William Faulkner, all 15 of the narrators have a point of view on a single tragedy.

The fun part? Their stories don't align! So, who is actually telling the truth?

Having 15 narrators and needing to think about whose story will align with whose and whose won't at all is a big ask for any author. You want your readers to be able to understand what has happened and the reality that someone is guilty and that nobody is innocent until proven otherwise.

Start by Experimenting With Some Unreliability

All of the examples of unreliable narrators aren't as excessive as in American Psycho. The degree of the narrator's unreliability will be based on the type of story you are telling, the personalities of your characters, the major plot events, and the type of narrative audience in your story.

However, in some cases, no matter how much you try to change the perceptions characters have of each other, it is only at their fatal end that the truth surfaces.

This occurs in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, where Harry believes Sirius killed his mother and father. Only near the end did he realize that this was all a lie!

If your focus is writing short stories in the fiction domain, try making a character unreliable and see how it progresses your story.

With your limited word count, it may be difficult, but if you succeed at doing so, the credibility of the unreliability will add the perfect level of suspense!

A Few More Unreliable Narrator Examples

Looking back at the movies we have seen and the books we have read, we should be able to pick out all of the unreliable narrators.

For example, in Gone Girl, it comes as a major surprise when there is a narrative shift, and Amy Dunne continues with the narration. After all, the audience believed that she was dead. But that was the work of the unreliable narrator, Nick, who was conveniently her husband.

In Rebecca, it is the subjective retelling that makes the narrator unreliable. This novel follows Mrs. de Winter as she talks about the first Mrs. de Winter and how her death was an absolute mystery. But readers of this novel will know that, near the end, credibility became a myth, and the occurrence of specific events told a tragic tale.

From the first page of Fight Club, we suspected that Tyler Durden was not just the narrator's friend. As one of the best examples of unreliable narrators in literature, when we realize that Durden is the narrator, self-preservation goes out the window, and we are left trying to figure out which alter ego Palahniuk pits against him.

The history of using an unreliable narrator is not just used in British fiction, as many literature enthusiasts like to point out. It goes as far back as before the 1800s! The Tell Tale Heart, written by Edgar Allan Poe in 1843; Wuthering Heights, written in 1847; and Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, all used several examples of different unreliable narrators throughout their stories.

Now think about Nick in The Great Gatsby. Would you say that he was a narrator who wanted to deliberately deceive the reader? Or do you think it was his own personal opinions that made the reader not want to trust him from the beginning?

In Summary

A narrator is never purely good or purely evil. At times, a narrator may be so unreliable that the reader starts to detest what is coming next in the story.

But a narrator's job is exactly that: to narrate. The manner in which they do this will dictate the type of story that is bound to unfold.

Luckily, you now have the tools to create the perfect unreliable narrator for your next story. But if you find yourself struggling with how to present your narrator in the story, get a hold of us at The Urban Writers!

We have the best freelancers who will ensure your book has the perfect reliable versus unreliable narrator balance! Why wait? Get in touch with us today!


Ready to Get Started?

Get in touch with one of our Customer Support and Success Representatives! Let’s talk about your content creation needs and how we can help you achieve your goals. Check out our hours of operation.

+1 (855) 742-0902

Or drop us an email

Contact us at and one of our dedicated Customer Support and Success Representatives will reach out to you. We would love to answer any questions you have or provide additional information.
We are looking forward to collaborating with you!