How to Write an Unreliable Narrator
No one likes a liar in real life, but it can be thrilling to slide into the head of a dishonest character in fiction. Maybe they choose to embellish, hide part of the truth, or tell us a story that can’t possibly be real (or can it?).
As writers, these characters can make for narrative goldmines, letting us hide things from the reader while still holding onto their trust and encouraging them to keep turning pages to find out the truth.
What makes a narrator unreliable?
An unreliable narrator is generally (but not always) a first-person narrator. These narrators give the reader reasons to question their credibility. Perhaps they’re an amnesiac, an alcoholic, a gossip, a pathological liar, or even a psychopath— like American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman.
Writers can use unreliable narrators in any genre, but they’re common in mysteries and thrillers. Think of Rachel from Paula Hawkins's novel The Girl on the Train. She tells us from the beginning her story might be inaccurate due to her alcoholism. If she can’t be certain what’s real and what isn’t, how can the reader know? The unreliable narrator heightens the story's suspense, pulling the reader in and not letting them go.
Another way writers use unreliable narrators is to give the main character more nuance and depth. No one tells the truth one hundred percent of the time. But why the character lies provides readers a glimpse into their inner psyche. Are they the type that lies to spare someone’s feelings? Or are their lies a cover for their role in something sinister?
Those are the tip of the unreliable narrator iceberg. Let’s dig deeper into the various ways unreliable narrators can be used in your writing to take things to the next level.
Give your narrator a reason to be unreliable
Amnesia is a popular trope for a reason. Readers love to discover what happened in a character’s past alongside the character. Tension builds on each page as clues are slowly revealed.
Some characters are only forgetting a small portion of time—such as when a crime occurred. In Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood, Nora wakes up in a hospital. She remembers attending a bachelorette party weekend and that someone was hurt, but she can’t remember who or why, or how she ended up in the hospital. Clues are sprinkled throughout each chapter as the tension builds, making it impossible for readers to know what happened until Nora herself remembers. The reader is compelled to keep following Nora, wondering if she’s telling the truth about her amnesia.
Drug addicts and alcoholics can also make compelling unreliable narrators. Readers know their addiction drives their decisions and can affect their memories. Developing a character with an addiction can also make them more relatable, allowing the reader to see firsthand the impact on the narrator’s life and experience it as their own.
Make your narrator smarter than average
While addicts and amnesiac characters may not know they’re lying, the clever unreliable narrator knows exactly what they’re doing. Think of Amy Dunne in Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. She stays a step ahead of everyone else with her knowledge, not only of police investigations but of people. She psychologically manipulates more than one person in her efforts to get what she wants.
This technique also helps when the narrator is the one playing detective. In Holly Jackson’s A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder series, Pippa often knows more about the cases than the police, and she uses that to her advantage. Readers trust smart characters to know what they’re doing, even if that character is holding something back.
Use more than one narrator
A surefire way to create a great unreliable narrator is to have multiple characters telling the story. In Gone Girl, Amy isn't the only unreliable narrator—both she and Nick are hiding things from the reader. Which parts of their stories are true, and which are lies? Flynn uses their contradictory narratives to keep the reader guessing all the way to the end.
In Karen M. McManus’ One of Us is Lying, readers go into the story knowing they’re being lied to by at least one character. But since there are multiple narrators, each with their own secrets to hide, the author can continually withhold information from readers and characters alike. And once all or most characters are established to be liars, readers might be side-eyeing each narrator, but they’ll be flying through the pages to find out the truth.
Make your narrator unreliable from the start
The reader only sees the story through the eyes of the narrator. Therefore, it's important to establish the narrator's unreliability from the very beginning, not just when it's time to add in mystery or a shocking reveal.
Imagine your narrator is a high school student. How could you establish that they aren't being entirely truthful? Maybe they claim to be the smartest in their class, but a teacher remarks on their current failing grade. This slight contradiction might not seem like much at first, but sprinkling in little bits of similar moments tugs on the reader’s subconscious to pay closer attention. If they're lying about this, what else could they be lying about?
Make them a villain
Every villain is the hero of their own story. Carolyn Kepnes’s novel You, and the Netflix show based on it, tell the story from Joe Goldberg’s point of view. He’s just a regular guy working in a bookstore. He’s funny! He’s charming! He murders his girlfriends when they aren’t the perfect women he imagines them to be.
Making your villain the unreliable narrator allows you to craft a point of view character that readers will like and empathize with— even as that character commits atrocities.
Readers and viewers alike can't help but root for Joe. Even though we know from the start he’s lying and that his actions are horrible, because we're seeing the story from his point of view, we find ourselves wanting him to succeed.
Unreliable narrators can make your writing more intriguing to readers and you as well. To discredit them, or hint they may not be sincere, you will need to get deep into their heads and find out what makes them tick. Once you have that information, you can decide how and when you’ll dole out twists and turns to the reader.
Half the fun of being a writer is being able to dive into someone else’s head. Go ahead and make that head slightly—or extremely—untrustworthy!