The Unreliable Narrator: A Comprehensive Guide for Writers

The unreliable narrator is a powerful and widely used narrative technique that can add depth, intrigue, and complexity to your story. In this article, we will explore the concept of the unreliable narrator, discuss how to use it effectively in your writing, and provide captivating examples from literature to help you understand the technique’s full potential. With this knowledge in hand, you will be better equipped to create engaging stories that leave your readers guessing until the very end.

The Unreliable Narrator: A Comprehensive Guide for Writers

What is an Unreliable Narrator?

An unreliable narrator is a character who tells the story but cannot be trusted to provide an accurate or complete account of events. This can result from a variety of factors, such as personal bias, mental instability, deliberate deception, or simply a lack of knowledge. By using an unreliable narrator, writers can introduce twists, misdirection, and suspense, as well as provoke readers to question the nature of truth and reality.

Types of Unreliable Narrators

The Deliberately Deceptive Narrator

This type of narrator intentionally lies or manipulates information to serve their own purposes or to mislead readers. For example, in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Amy Dunne fabricates her own disappearance, leaving behind a diary that points to her husband as prime suspect. Throughout the story, readers are deceived by Amy’s lies, making for a thrilling and unexpected reading experience. 

This type of unreliable narrator could also be lying to protect someone they feel respect or responsibility for. This is seen in stories like The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The narrator, Nick Carraway, tells us about Jay Gatsby and his longing to reunite with his love, Daisy Buchanan, even though she is married. Nick’s closeness to the situation and respectful admiration of Jay Gatsby leaves us to question the truth of his account.

The Mentally Unstable Narrator

Mental illness or instability can cause a narrator to perceive events inaccurately or to convey a distorted version of reality. In The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, suffers from mental instability, which colors his perception of the world and other characters. As a result, readers must sift through Holden’s subjective account to determine what is true and what is a product of his troubled mind.

The Naïve or Innocent Narrator

A narrator who is inexperienced, naïve, or innocent may misunderstand or misinterpret events, leading to an incomplete or inaccurate account. In To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, the young narrator, Scout Finch, does not fully understand the racial prejudice and social injustice that permeate her small Southern town. Her limited perspective forces readers to piece together the truth from her observations and interactions.

How to Use the Unreliable Narrator in Your Writing

One of the most powerful effects of the unreliable narrator is its ability to subvert reader expectations. By presenting a version of events that is later revealed to be false or incomplete, you can create surprising twists and turns that keep your audience engaged and guessing. This can be done in a variety of ways:

  • Subverting CONVENTIONS and OBLIGATORY MOMENTS. Understanding how to use and subvert the CONVENTIONS and OBLIGATORY MOMENTS of your genre can help you create mystery and uncertainty within your narrative.
  • Planning out your novel. To build suspense and intrigue, incorporate subtle clues throughout your story that hint at the narrator’s unreliability. This can include inconsistencies in their account, other characters questioning their credibility, or moments of self-doubt. It is important to plan the location of each of these clues to create a balance between reality and falsehoods. For more help planning out your novel, check out the Story Grid’s NARRATIVE PATH.
  • Establish an authentic voice and journey for your narrator. While it’s important to establish your narrator’s unreliability, it’s equally crucial to make them a relatable and engaging character. Readers should feel emotionally invested in the narrator’s journey, even if they doubt the veracity of their account. One of the most effective ways to create an engaging unreliable narrator is to give them a unique and compelling voice. This helps to create a sense of authenticity and enables readers to connect with the character. This delicate balance can be achieved by providing moments of vulnerability, sincerity, or insight that humanize your narrator.

By using an unreliable narrator, you invite readers to become active participants in the story, challenging them to decipher the truth from the character’s biased or distorted account. This can create a more immersive and interactive reading experience, as readers must piece together the puzzle and draw their own conclusions.

Examples of Unreliable Narrators in Literature

  1. Humbert Humbert in Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: As the narrator of this controversial novel, Humbert Humbert is a manipulative and self-serving character who justifies his immoral actions through eloquent language and charm. Readers must navigate his biased account to determine the true nature of his relationship with the young Lolita.
  2. Patrick Bateman in American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis: The protagonist and narrator of this chilling novel, Patrick Bateman, is an affluent Wall Street executive with a hidden life as a serial killer. His narration is filled with gruesome descriptions of violence, yet his reliability is called into question as the line between reality and his delusions becomes increasingly blurred.
  3. Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey: Chief Bromden, a patient in a mental institution, narrates the story of Randle McMurphy’s rebellion against the oppressive Nurse Ratched. Chief Bromden’s perspective is shaped by his paranoid delusions and hallucinations, forcing readers to question the accuracy of his account and the true nature of the institution.
  4. Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë: As the primary narrator of this classic novel, Nelly Dean, a servant in the Earnshaw and Linton households, recounts the tumultuous love story of Heathcliff and Catherine. However, Nelly’s personal involvement in the events and her own biases and opinions shape her account, leaving readers to question the extent of her reliability.


The unreliable narrator is a versatile and compelling narrative technique that can enhance your storytelling by adding depth, intrigue, and complexity. By understanding the different types of unreliable narrators, learning how to use this technique effectively in your writing, and drawing inspiration from the examples provided, you can create engaging stories that challenge your readers to question the nature of truth and reality. As a writer, the unreliable narrator offers endless opportunities to explore the intricacies of human perception, memory, and emotion, making it a powerful tool for character development and narrative innovation.

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