Unreliable narrators make for some of the most compelling protagonists in literature. The mystery surrounding their beliefs and their memories can be an effective tool for making your reader question everything they think they know.

Here’s what you need to know about writing these deliberately deceptive characters effectively in your story.

What is an unreliable narrator?

An unreliable narrator is a point-of-view character that the reader can’t entirely trust to be narrating the truth. They may tell their story with only partial truths, or they might outright lie about what really happened. This character doesn’t always deceive the reader intentionally, but might instead narrate their story with such bias that what they consider to be true is actually unreliable.

A reliable narrator tells a complete objective truth, while an unreliable narrator tells a blurry personal truth.

The term came about in the 1960s, when Wayne C. Booth used it in his book The Rhetoric of Fiction. Since then, the unreliable narrator has long been a staple character throughout literature and media.

To understand the difference between a reliable and unreliable narrator, think of someone telling you a story at a party. An unreliable narrator might want to cast themselves in a nice light, so they fudge the truth a little bit to make themselves look good. Maybe they’re intentionally keeping something from you, so they omit details or withhold information.

Whatever their reasoning, they’re telling their story in such a way that you don’t get a full picture of the events. By the end, you’re not entirely sure which were fact and which were fiction.

Luckily, in a novel or short fiction, all that unreliability is typically cleared up by the end of the tale—all secrets revealed so the reader can fully understand the story’s events (or, even if the secrets weren’t entirely revealed, at least make some solid guesses).

The purpose of the unreliable narrator

Unreliable narrators serve a few key functions in well-told stories:

An unreliable narrator increases tension

An unreliable first-person narrator is exceptionally useful in stories wherein tension is key—think thrillers or mystery novels. In these cases, the reader often knows that they’re being kept in the dark by the main character and that’s part of the fun. They keep reading so that they can eventually uncover all of the unreliable narrator’s secrets.

An unreliable narrative reflects the human condition

Sometimes an author might use an unreliable narrator in order to emphasize a literary theme. The Rashomon Effect states that no narration is ever fully the objective truth; we’re all telling our own stories as we see them. None of us are reliable narrators.

Understanding unreliable narrators can mean better understanding life and the world around us.

As such, an author might use unreliable narrator characters to prove a thematic point, particularly in the case of literary themes dealing with moral issues.

An unreliable narrator conflicts the reader

When most readers pick up a book, they expect to more or less agree with a relatable main character. After all, they have to spend so many hours and pages in that character’s shoes, and they expect to enjoy that time. Even if the character is morally ambiguous, the reader will be able to understand where they’re coming from.

However, if your main character is an unreliable narrator that slowly begins to show their hand throughout the book, your reader will need to reevaluate everything they thought about this main character—as well as their own take on the book as a whole. When this effect is pulled off well, it can create a truly buzz-worthy book that will have readers talking (and arguing!) for weeks after they turn the final page.

An unreliable narrator makes your story more interesting

At the end of the day, though, the main thing that an unreliable narrator can do for your story is make it more engaging. Even if you’re not writing a mystery or a thriller, having your main characters hide a few secrets from the reader can give your reader something worth reading for! They keep turning those pages because they need to know what’s going on.

The lie or omission doesn’t even need to be nefarious. There just needs to be something there that’s missing, something that matters to the reader.

For example, look at many books within the romance genre. While the narrators there aren’t typically considered textbook unreliable, many create drama and tension by giving their main characters a secret that they keep from their love interest, as well as the reader. A tragic illness! A secret love child! A wife in the attic! These kinds of secrets give readers a reason to keep reading.

Types of unreliable narrators

Most unreliable narrators use first person narration. This is because first person narration allows the reader to see things subjectively through the narrator’s eyes.

While the reader may not get full access to this narrator’s head, they also can’t see inside any other character’s head. This ensures that the reader knows only what the unreliable narrator tells them—nothing more, nothing less.

Within this first person PoV, unreliable narrators can be broken down into a few sub-types.

The blatant liar

This type of unreliable narrator is lying to the reader knowingly and willingly. They’re speaking directly to the reader and acknowledging that they will tell the reader what they want, when they want, and how they want.

These characters can be difficult to write, as well as polarizing among readers, so it’s not as common as other types. However, there are a few examples of the blatant liar in some works of classic literature, as well as in some modern thrillers. One such example is in A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess; the narrator Alex manipulates the audience and his story to suit his purposes.

The liar with a purpose

This type of unreliable narrator has a reason for their lying and that reason is often somewhat innocent—or at least sympathetic. They’re not just lying for the fun of it. They have, as most readers could agree, a good reason.

Maybe they’re not outright lying, either. They could simply be omitting details. Maybe they’re trying to justify their actions. Maybe they’re trying to protect themselves.

Whatever the reason, they’re omitting things or changing things within their story for a guiding purpose.

An example of the liar with a purpose is the narrator in The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, in which a young boy lies out of what the reader assumes is self-preservation.

The liar with flair

Sometimes, the liar embellishes or exaggerates details of their story, maybe to make their role more grandiose than it is. This type of narrator is sometimes called a “picaro.”

You may know this type of unreliable narrator in real life. They always have some tall tale to spin, some big story about the wildest night out, or the biggest fish they’ve ever caught, but you know to take their stories in stride and with a grain of salt.

One example of the liar with flair is Fflewddur Flam from Lloyd Alexander’s The Black Cauldron.

The unwitting liar

The unwitting liar doesn’t realize they’re omitting things from their story. They’re not lying to the reader intentionally. In many cases, the unwitting liar is an individual who is overly naive, such as a child.

Some narrators are unreliable because they don’t have all the information.

In some cases this naive unreliable narrator could be misleading the reader because they themselves have grown up believing a lie.

The narrator in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca could be considered an unwitting liar, as she tells the story based on the lies she herself has believed.

The impaired liar

In some cases, the unreliable narrator in a story is unreliable not because they’re trying to lie or they’re overly naïve. Sometimes, they’re dealing with some sort of impairment or a mental illness.

For example, the liar could be unintentionally misleading the reader due to something that impairs their judgment or memory; a character who struggles with substance abuse might not be able to give a full and accurate account of events.

In other instances, the unreliable narrator could be dealing with an illness that distorts their perception of events. There are many types of conditions that include distortion of reality among their symptoms, including psychosis, dissociative disorder, and schizotypal personality disorder.

Examples of the impaired liar include Rachel in The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and the narrator from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club.

How to write your own unreliable narrator

Unreliable narrators aren’t the easiest characters to pull off, but when written well, they can quickly become reader favorites. Here are a few things to remember when adding one of these narrators to your own writing.

Know your narrator’s secrets

While you may not be revealing all your narrator’s secrets right away, you should still be aware of them, as well as the motivations behind your narrator’s unreliability. If you can determine why your narrator is unreliable and what they’re hiding before you start writing, you’ll save yourself a world of trouble when it’s time to revise.

Clue your reader in gradually

The biggest mistake you can make when writing an unreliable narrator? Waiting until the very end of your book, pulling the rug out from under your readers’ feet, and saying, “Never mind! They were lying the whole time!”

It’s tantamount to ending a story with, “And then they woke up and realized it was all a dream.”

Give your readers subtle clues that your narrator’s account is unreliable pretty early on. Make it obvious that details are missing and gradually lead them up to the big reveal of “the truth.”

Reveal just enough

However, while you should clue your reader in, don’t clue your reader in too much.

Your reader should go into your story trusting the narrator to some degree. Only after a few chapters should they start to realize that things aren’t as they seem. If you open with the narrator outright lying or fumbling their lies immediately, you’ll have less opportunity for a dramatic reveal later on.

Consider using other narrators

One way to showcase an unreliable narrator? Introduce several narrators to your story, and make it so that their experiences don’t quite add up.

If you allow your readers a glimpse into another character’s point of view, either to illustrate the events of the plot or to show the way they perceive your main character, you can emphasize the unreliability of your narrator.

You can use external narrators to reveal these supposed victims in a new light.

Include actions that don’t add up

As you decide how to reveal just enough clues to your reader, consider making it so that your main character acts one way and says something else. They say that they want the best for their family, but then they act in ways that don’t support that. They say all that they want in life is their next big break, but then they self-sabotage at every turn. They say they’re doing something because they love Character B, but do they really?

Give your narrator an unassuming persona

There are people in life that we just assume would never lie to us—a parent (until we get old enough to realize the truth, that is), a partner, a best friend. Beyond this, there are stereotypes and stock characters that we likewise assume would never lie. The gentle old lady who lives across the street and is always baking cookies. The kindly priest with a good heart and a helpful disposition. The modest elementary school teacher who works tirelessly in her community.

However, these fronts are just the type to effectively lie to your readers and make them question not only the individual character, but also their own assumptions about the world.

Examples of effective unreliable narration in literature and media

To see how this looks in practice, let’s examine some effective unreliable witnesses in our favorite stories.

Jack in Room by Emma Donoghue

In this book-turned-movie, Jack is an excellent example of an unwitting liar. He’s not telling half-truths because he’s actively trying to conceal something or because he has some sort of nefarious intentions. He’s just a five-year-old boy, telling a story as a five-year-old boy understands it. Because of this, the audience doesn’t get the whole truth right away.

Nick and Amy Dunne in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

In this thriller novel, readers have no idea who to trust because there are two unreliable narrators instead of just one.

Just as Amy leads the other characters in her story astray using her diary entries and other carefully plotted “clues,” so does she lead the reader astray. Similarly, Amy’s husband Nick likewise omits information from his narrative so as to make himself come off as innocent as possible. Each tries to lead the reader in the wrong direction.

One could argue that both of these characters are blatant liars, though a case could also be made for Nick being a liar with a purpose. Whatever your opinion of them, these unreliable narrators make for a twisty-turn-y book with lots of big, shocking reveals.

The narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe

Unreliable narrators are just as popular in horror stories as they are in thrillers and mysteries. Such is the case in this famous example, “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe.

In this story, our narrator describes what could be a horrific haunting, but, on the other hand, could simply be the narrator going mad.

By the end of the story, we know that the narrator being consumed with guilt over a murder; but, due to the nature of the narration, readers are left to make their own decision regarding whether the story’s events are truly paranormal or just symptoms of mental instability.

A talented storyteller can subvert reader’s expectations by writing an unreliable narrator.

Don Quixote in The Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes

In this classic work from the 17th century, Don Quixote is one of the earliest examples of an unreliable narrator. More specifically, he’s a great example of both the liar with flair (the “picaro”), as well as the impaired liar.

The novel clearly states that Quixote is dealing with some sort of mental illness that makes it difficult for him to separate reality from fiction. Thus, he spins tall tales for the reader, and all are grand and over the top… until the reader is clued in that things are not as they seem: Don Quixote’s fair lady is a peasant girl, and the giants he conquers are windmills!

Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Nick Carraway is a very interesting narrator, as he’s a full character playing a part within this classic story, but he’s not the true protagonist—even if he is the narrator. Instead, he tags along with the real cast of main characters—Daisy, Tom, Jordan, and Gatsby—watching their dramas unfold and relaying them to the reader.

However, because Nick isn’t a fully impartial narrator, and his background and world views impact how he relays information, he’s a bit of an unwitting liar. He’s just telling the story how he sees it through his own internal lens.

This is an example of F. Scott Fitzgerald using the unreliable narrator as a means of conveying a theme. The viewpoint of innocent Nick Carraway, relatively poor and from the Midwest, dropped into the lives of these rich, decadent, and more or less foolish individuals, paints a picture of the similar foolishness of the American dream, materialism, and excess.

An unreliable narrator can add intrigue and tension to your stories

Whether you’re attempting to create tension, or use your work to comment on the human condition, an unreliable narrator can help you do so. With a little plotting and getting to know your characters on a deeper level, you can effectively use this literary technique to keep your readers guessing, keep them coming back for more, and ultimately create a story that they can’t put down until the very last page.