We’ve all heard of it, but what exactly is an Unreliable Narrator? In this article we look at several ways authors can use this technique to their advantage
The Unreliable Narrator
The unreliable narrator is a popular fiction writing technique that engages the reader by calling into question the ‘truth’ of what we are reading.
If a fictional narrator is inconsistent, or makes bold claims that are contrary to what we believe to be true, we begin suspect that the narrator is playing games with us, and that the ‘truth’ might require some reading between lines
Beyond being a creative way to reveal character and story elements, it’s also useful for engaging the reader. Readers that are actively hunting and looking for clues in the text are more engaged, making the story memorable.
What Perspectives are best for Unreliable Narration?
It’s not a requirement that any story have a character narrator, let alone an unreliable one, but it is important to know the different perspectives that are open to writers.
- First Person Perspective – Written from the ‘I’ Point Of View.
- Second Person Perspective – Written from the ‘You’ Point Of View
- Third Person Limited – Written from the ‘She/He’ Point of View where our perspective is limited to a given character
- Third Person omniscient narrator – Where the narrator is less a character and more an omniscient presence limited only in perspective by the author’s choices.
Of these perspectives third person limited and first person are the best candidates for unreliable narration, as both limit the reader’s experience to a single character’s POV at any given time.
To achieve second person unreliable narration is difficult, but not impossible. Second person works best in short bursts. Unreliable narration in omniscient third person is questionable, as that would likely change the perspective to third person limited.
So when is it good to use an Unreliable Narrator?
You may want to use it in the following circumstances:
- To create doubt in the mind of the reader
- To subtly reveal character flaws in your narrator.
- To give the reader opportunities to guess what’s really going on.
- To create conflict between multiple Narrators or POV Characters
- To give significant plot points more punch.
Regardless of why you choose to use unreliable narration, it’s important to make the choice as early as possible, as it requires forward thinking in your writing plan.
Benefits to the Author
This may seem obvious, but the Unreliable Narrator technique is a good way for authors to remind themselves they are not the character. Putting distance between yourself and characters gives you the opportunity to think about character relationships, and to avoid sinking into Mary Sue / Gary Stu character.