Have you ever finished a book and thought to yourself: This story didn’t turn out quite as I thought it would? One story that leaves its readers with this feeling of discomfort is Gone Girl, and it is the use of an unreliable narrator that allows authors like Gillian Flynn to keep readers on the edge of their seats.
Let’s find out more about this strategy so that you too will know how to write a story with an unreliable narrator.
What Is an Unreliable Narrator?
Many authors choose to tell a story by having the main character (or several characters) act as a narrator. They explain what is happening to the reader.
Sometimes, authors decide that the narrating character should tell the story differently from how it is actually happening. This choice means that, essentially, the character is explaining things from their perspective, but that perspective is inaccurate or confusing.
Intentional Versus Unintentional Unreliable Narrators
When you choose to use an unreliable narrator, you first need to decide whether they are intentionally or unintentionally misleading the audience.
An intentional unreliable narrator knows they are distorting the truth or leading the audience astray. In contrast, an unintentionally unreliable narrator is someone who doesn’t know they are conveying incorrect information, possibly because they are naive, have cognitive challenges, or wholeheartedly believe what they are saying is true for whatever reason.
Types of Unreliable Narrators
Unreliable narrators come in many shapes and sizes.
Here are five of the most popular ones (but a character can be a mixture of these types or something slightly different):
- The first type is the clown. This is a character that likes to tell stories, makes jokes, or teases the reader.
- The liar is a calculating, intentional unreliable narrator that lies about many things. Their statements hold some truth, but the reader cannot trust what is being said; however, the reader doesn’t always know this from the start.
- Some characters, called madmen, have a mental illness, struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or have some other mental health concern that makes it difficult for them to tell the truth. They explain things in the way they understand, but the narration is tainted by their mental condition.
- A naif unreliable narrator is someone who is naive. They don’t know any better and tinge their narration with misleading information because they don’t know there is more to the story. Younger narrators (like children) and inexperienced characters almost always have a touch of unreliability.
- The final type is a picaro, which is a character that exaggerates. They add details to stories that make the situation seem more dire than it is.
Become Inspired by the Gone Girl Unreliable Narrator
One of the best unreliable narrator examples is from the novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. In this psychological thriller, readers first encounter Nick, the husband of a missing woman, who twists the truth about his wife. Nick is the initial unreliable narrator.
Halfway through the book, however, the narrator suddenly switches to Amy Dunne, the wife, who readers believed was dead. Amy furthers the concept of the unreliable narrator so readers don’t know who to believe anymore.
Popular Unreliable Narrator Examples
Gone Girl is just one novel that uses unreliable narrators to good effect. Many other well-known novels have also used this approach.
One of the best unintentionally unreliable narrators is Forrest Gump. His low IQ results in him telling unreliable stories, but Forrest is such a likeable character that it is easy to forgive his tales.
In The Great Gatsby, Nick becomes an unreliable narrator because he claims not to judge others and to present the facts plainly and as they are, all the while still allowing his personal biases to slip in and taint his storytelling.
Another famously unreliable narrator is Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. He goes as far as stating that he is unreliable in the first paragraph of the novel, which immediately causes his credibility to be called into question by the reader.
How to Write a Story With an Unreliable Narrator
If your fingers are itching to get started on writing with an unreliable narrator, then you might be wondering how to use this literary technique properly in your story.
Here are some of our best tips for using an unreliable narrator in your novel:
Question Reliability From the Start
Every character has their own personality so ensure your unreliable narrator is that way from the start. You can’t suddenly make them unreliable halfway through or change them into someone reliable.
Be true to the character and commit to the unreliable narrative as soon as you write the first sentence.
Let Your Character Lie
When a character lies, readers become uneasy because they know the character isn’t trustworthy. Remember to expose these lies in some way throughout the text, either immediately, at a later stage, or even through the storytelling of other characters.
Another way your character could lie is through omission. They might be silent about important information that is clear for others or the reader to see or that comes to light later in the book.
When you create an unreliable character, you have to pull this idea throughout every element of their lives. They have to be unreliable everywhere, whether it is at home, with friends, or at work.
Be consistent with the narrator’s personality and don’t give them places where they suddenly become reliable. That would cause readers to re-evaluate the character’s credibility, so think about every aspect of their narration and presence in your novel.
Hide the Real Motive
Every character has a motive (or sometimes many) for their actions and behaviors. Characters become more unreliable when you make it seem as if their motivation is one thing when it is something else entirely.
Think about what your character truly wants and then consider what opposite motivations they could have. By introducing the reader to alternative motives, you keep them on the edge of their seat.
Create an Intelligent Protagonist
Many times, authors create unreliable protagonists that seem to have some kind of mental limitation. Why not try the opposite of this strategy?
Make your protagonist someone who is much more intelligent than they seem initially. For example, Amy in Gone Girl seems innocent but later turns out to be a calculating mastermind capable of much more than the reader ever thought possible.
Make the Protagonist the Good Person
When you think of an unreliable narrator, you might think of a “bad guy” immediately. This doesn’t have to be the case. Forrest Gump, for example, is a good, likeable character, albeit unreliable.
If you don’t want your protagonist to be a manipulator, sociopath, or bad person, then consider finding a way to make them more positive. This can be done with unintentional unreliable narrators or by making them liars to salvage a situation or protect another character.
How to Write an Unreliable Narrator in a Flash
Writing an unreliable narrator may still seem like a bit of a challenge. You already have a good idea of what your character needs to do to be an unreliable narrator, so here are some tips that apply to your manuscript as a whole.
Keep the Reader in the Dark
Usually, an author sets the scene so well that the reader already has more information about what is happening than the protagonist has. This allows the reader to predict what will happen.
Try flipping the script so that readers are kept in the dark while characters have a plethora of information. However, don’t share this information with readers; instead, make it known as the story progresses.
Uncover Unreliability With Secondary Characters
Nobody knows that a character has lied or told a half-truth until it is exposed in some way. Supporting characters are an excellent way to expose the lies told by the protagonist.
Allow your secondary characters to question your protagonist’s version of events, give them their own version to tell, or allow them to be a victim of the protagonist. All of these things allow you to uncover the unreliable narrator to the reader over time.
A less malicious way of uncovering the unreliable narrator’s mistruths is to let them use a secondary character as a sounding board. It could be a friend to whom they tell a story that picks up on conflicting ideas or someone who was at the same event but remembers it differently in the discussion.
Readers expect a story to go a certain way. In a romance, this could be the meeting of two people, some kind of conflict, and reconciliation through a grand gesture. Readers also get to know characters and expect them to act in a similar way.
To increase your narrator’s unreliability, come up with an unpredictable act for them to commit. This will foster tension and unease among readers.
While it’s good to be unpredictable and interesting with your unreliable narrator, you still have to write a realistic novel. Your story has to be believable for it to work.
Always keep your story as close to real-life as possible so that readers buy into it. As soon as things are too suspicious or out-of-character, readers will question the novel and its essence will fall apart.
Time to Write
Now that you know how to write an unreliable narrator, it is time to put your ideas onto paper.
This can be daunting, especially if you are still uncertain about the direction of your novel. Let us help you with the heavy lifting by investing in one of our fiction packages.
We can help to make your story a reality, so contact us today.