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Unreliable Narrator: The Character You Can't Trust

Unreliable narrators are one of my favorite characters to read. Trying to decipher intentions and finding inconsistencies in a story always keeps me more interested in a plot. I especially love domestic thrillers as they create storylines that can be based in reality yet are still full of devious falsehoods, twists and turns, and lots of unreliable narrators.

Utilizing an unreliable narrator can be a wonderful way to create suspense and engage readers. This is a literary device that can be challenging, but also very fun to employ. Examples of this device are seen throughout classic and modern literature, in works such as Rebecca, Lolita, Gone Girl, and The Girl on the Train. Writers use these conflicting characters to bring about deeper thought and engagement in readers.

There are different ways to construct an unreliable narrator. Your character may have a substance problem that contributes to blackouts in memory or dishonesty. Perhaps the narrator is also the killer, telling the murder from their point of view, seeming innocent until the end. A narrator’s reliability can be affected by their age or mental status as well.

A story told by a 7-year-old will not present the same reliability as an adult. In the same way, introducing a suspected mental illness can color all of that character’s words. At other times, fear alone can be enough to cause doubt in a character. A narrator embroiled in paranoia and scared for their life often will not see things quite clearly.

Now, how do you introduce an unreliable narrator that is still believable or relatable? First, the unreliability must be in place from the start, even if it is not entirely obvious. You can use the narration to set up small inconsistencies that will be noticed throughout the story. This allows readers to begin to pick up on these hints on their own, rather than having them bluntly stated. Readers will feel accomplished if they notice the inconsistencies and awed if they don’t.

Another idea is to introduce several narrators, each telling the story from their point of view and each with varying degrees of reliability. This is a wonderful way to engage your reader and urge them to relate to a specific character in the group. It also provides a terrific storyline for plot twists and character development. Knives Out is an entertaining example of this.

If you’re having trouble writing with an unreliable narrator, you can always start out with a morally reliable yet knowledgeably inept character. Unreliability can be read many ways. They can provide the reader with information the character believes is accurate. A student spreading gossip from her new school, for example. Then experiment with intentional unreliability, using your character to twist the narrative and plant falsehoods. You can have readers begging for more as they reach the end!


About the Author: I live in East TN with my partner, two sons, and cats. I currently attend The University of Memphis Global where I am pursuing a degree in Professional Writing. I love books of all genres, but especially mysteries and horror.


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