Friday, June 2, 2017

Unreliable Narrators: What They Are and How to Write Them

[Author's note: This opening paragraph needs to be read in a Mexican accent]

So I was on twitter looking for blog post ideas, right? And I was like, "Ese, what you want me to write a post on?" And a couple of people, they're all, "You should do something on unreliable narrators, ya know?" And I got excited 'cause, like, that's delightful. Unreliable narrators are so cool, bro! You know what I'm sayin'?

[Author's note: Only about 12% of you will have any idea of what just happened. Go clue the rest of the confused readers in by leaving a comment below.]

Obviously, that's not how this post came into being. It happened more like this:

So what was with my original story? It was told by a very unreliable narrator. Who some of you may or may not know. Seriously. Who recognizes the narrator? Leave a comment. I must know.

Anyway, unreliable narrators are a favorite of mine. Plus, I'm not one to turn down requests from followers when they promise me adorable baby animals. Onwards!
Hannah Heath: Unreliable Narrators: What They Are and How to Write Them
What is an unreliable narrator? 


A narrator who isn't reliable. Duh. 

Fine. It goes a bit deeper than that. An unreliable narrator is somebody who either cannot or will not tell the story the exact way that it happened. Maybe they simply are not privy to all of the details and are not upfront about this fact for various reasons. Maybe they are very biased and, without realizing it, allow their bias to seep into their narrative. Maybe they are trying to make themselves (or their friends) look good. Maybe they are insane and don't even realize that they're not telling the story straight. Or maybe they simply think it's funny to lie to you. 

Here's something you may not know about unreliable narration: 

All novels written in first person use unreliable narration, though in varying degrees. Why? Because nobody is reliable. Some less so than others, sure, but even if a person tries as hard as they can to recount events exactly as they happened, that person will still end up telling a slightly different story than what actually happened. 

Many novels written from any non-omniscient POV use unreliable narration. Just like with 1st person, this can often be unintentional. 

When should you use an unreliable narrator? 

Unreliable narration is excellent for creating mystery and intrigue. It's a classic when it comes to psychological thrillers and horror. It can be good when you're writing characters who are massively flawed, writing pure characters in a massively flawed system, are using POV switches between multiple characters who are all very different from each other, or are writing a character with a mental illness. It is excellent if you are trying to show the grey areas of life, create tension, or keep your readers in suspense. 

It can work for any type of story, but is best used to create conflict and provoke thought. 

What are some books with unreliable narrators? 

Harry Potter: We spend a lot of time suspecting the wrong people because Harry is a biased person, thus creating mystery and plot twists. He is an unintentionally unreliable narrator and is not malicious, simply a hurting, angry, and confused person who has the unfortunate tendency to hold grudges and see things from only one point of view. 

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson: This is an excellent novel where the main character slowly goes insane. The narrator has two different levels of unreliability: One level where she is clearly losing her mind. And one where, even before she begins to clearly go crazy, she seems incapable of clearly judging the motives of those around her....Thus making it nearly impossible for the readers to understand them, either. It is expertly used to enhance the psychological thrill of the book. 

Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky: This novel is told from the bitter, skewed perspective of an old man. We know almost from the start that he is unreliable because he pretty much tells us he is. His unreliable narration is used to help along the satire and social critiquing that is a focus of the story. 

Other examples of varying levels of unreliable narrators include: The Life of Pi, The Great Gatsby, Flowers for Algernon, Wuthering Heights, The Yellow Wallpaper, The Hunger Games (specifically the later books in the series), and Pretty Much Any Story Told by Loki. And those are just the one's I've read (or seen) and can easily remember. There are many others. Feel free to leave the titles in the comments section below! 

How can you write an unreliable narrator? 

I have tips. 

1. Pick a reason for their unreliability. People don't usually twist a story without reason. What motivates your narrator's unreliability? Is she/he protecting himself/herself? Protecting friends? Trying to make a point? Is he crazy? Or just ahead of the curve?
Is she herself being lied to? Pick an angle. There can be multiple reasons. In fact, when it comes to normal people, there is almost always more than one reason that people spin a story.

2. Decide why it's important to the story. How does this unreliability affect the storyline? You can use it to create tension. If your character isn't aware of her own bias, it can be used to cause her to make an incorrect choice that leads to a plot conflict. If the reader isn't aware of the bias, you can use it to spring an unexpected plot twist. The options! How will you ever choose? 

3. Decide whether you want the unreliability to be noticeable. There are two main ways you can spin this. #1: Your reader knows the narrator is unreliable. #2: Your reader has no idea your narrator is unreliable...Or at least doesn't understand the extent of their unreliability. #1 can cause mystery, thrills, and engage the reader as they try to discover the true story behind the narrator's words. #2 allows you to spring plot twists, unexpected endings, and emotional reveals. You can completely misdirect your readers. However, don't go too far with this. No reader wants to feel tricked. Thrilled and surprised, yes. Cheated? No. A truthful secondary character can help offset completely unreliable narrators.

4. Don't feel the need to make the narrator a bad guy. While unreliable narrators can be manipulative, narcissistic, or sadistic, they aren't always. Sometimes they are victims of their own lies. And sometimes they are honestly just confused. Yes, unreliable narrators can be antagonists. But they don't have to be by default.

And there you have it. Unreliable narrators. What they are. Where you can find them. How to write them. Now somebody give me my adorable baby animals. They were promised to me. A niffler is preferred.

Before you go, leave a comment telling me about your favorite unreliable narrators! Are you writing an unreliable narrator? Tell me about him/her below!

Related articles:
7 Tips for Writing in Deep POV
How to Effectively Write from Multiple POVs
7 Tips for Writing Emotion Into Your Story

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20 comments:

  1. Have you ever read Shutter Island or The Girl on the Train? Both excellent uses of an unreliable narrator. In Shutter Island the main character thinks he's a cop who's been sent to a mental hospital to investigate a missing patient. I won't say what was really happening because it would completely spoil the story for anyone who wants to read it, but it's a perfect example of a narrator who is unreliable because he's lying to himself.
    The Girl on the Train uses a kind of unreliable narrator I've never seen anywhere else. The main character is an alcoholic who has blackouts. She relies on another character, her ex-husband, to tell her what happened during the periods she can't remember. But he's actually a sociopath who's been lying to her to cover up his own abuse. She's an unreliable narrator because she's letting someone ekse narrate her story for her and that person is unreliable.

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    1. I've actually never read either of those. I didn't know Shutter Island was a book (shhhh, don't tell anyone), though I have seen parts of the movie and was intrigued. Now I'm excited to check out the novel!

      Thanks for the cool comment. Now I have reading to do. =D

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    2. Two great examples of onreliable narrator, Tamara.

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  2. *whispers* Is the opening paragraph supposed to be narrated by that one guy (I completely forget his name) from Ant-Man? Or am I totally off the mark here? By the way, awesome post! I have been wondering a bit about how unreliable narrators work, and I was excited to see this in my inbox. Please do 'Problems with Edgy YA' (from the Twitter poll) next!

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    1. YES! 10 points to Aria! It is the guy from Ant-Man. His name is Luis and I really, really want an entire Marvel movie done with him as a narrator. =D

      Problems with Edgy YA is the planned post for next Friday. I'm excited, so I'm happy you'd like to read it. Glad you liked this post!

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  3. For some reason I read the first paragraph in Mario's voice...guess I need to work on my mental Mexican accent (and watch Ant Man xDD). And I caught the Inigo reference! <3 Anyway, great post! Definitely helpful.

    Niffler shower: https://images.search.yahoo.com/search/images;_ylt=A0LEV1yjvDFZ0D8A0edXNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTByMjB0aG5zBGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDBHNlYwNzYw--?p=niffler&fr=crmas

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    1. Sooooo. I went back and read the opening paragraph in Mario's voice. Now I can't stop laughing. =D And yes, Ant Man is totally worth the watch just for Luis alone.

      I'm so glad this post helped you out! And high fives for catching my Inigo reference. That was a really hard one to get.

      Niffler shower?Oh my gosh. Thank you. *goes off and dies of happiness while surrounded by Nifflers*

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    2. Ha! I read it in Mario's voice too, looks like I'm not the only one =)

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  4. Oooooohhhh... This was good, Hannah! :)

    My current wip has a somewhat unreliable narrator. He is rather jaded and harsh in his opinions. And this extends to the seemingly happy-go-lucky secondary character who is all about kindness, joy, and open-mindedness. The MC looks at the SC in one frame of mind (unreliable) and it slowly begins to come to his attention that she isn't exactly the way he perceives her. There's much more to her than a smiling face and shallow laughter. But he won't see that until much later in the story... when he becomes an *enlightened* character! :D

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    1. Thank you!

      Your WIP sounds awesome! I love books that take a happy character and show what's beyond the smile. It's such an important concept that not everyone is what they appears to be, and thus people should be kinder in their thoughts (and actions). So wahoo for you! Your book sounds amazing!

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  5. Hey :)

    I haven't thought about unrealiable relatives before, but the post was really interesting. One question: Who was the unrealiable narrative in Wuthering Heights and why? It's been a while ago since I've read it ... do you mean Catherine?

    PS: Sorry for any mistakes, English isn't my first language.

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    1. Your English is great! I know for sure that if I tried to write in any other language but my own I'd be having major trouble, so I'm impressed. =D

      Good question about Wuthering Heights! That one is a bit harder to pick up on. The story is told by two characters: Nelly Dean and Lockwood, both living in different houses and corresponding with each other about the main characters in the story. Nelly is far from reliable: She mentions that she hates Heathcliff, which makes her very biased in her storytelling. There are parts where she appears to have embellished characters/scenes to make the story more interesting. There's also hints at the fact that she downplays her own participation in the story to make herself look good.

      Also, Lockwood appears to be very biased and doesn't seem to be a very good judge of character.

      So, all in all the story feels very slanted because both narrators are injecting their own feelings into the story. I left the book unsure of the true characters and events. It's quite an interesting read (though not a favorite of mine).

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  6. Luis!!
    Also,it's really neat to think back now to books with unreliable narrators that I hadn't thought of in that light.

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    1. Yes! *high five*

      And yes, learning that some books are unreliably narrated does really change the entire plot/the way we view the story. =) Thanks for the comment!

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  7. Another great post, Hannah! :)
    My favorite unreliable narrator is in "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" by Agatha Christie. I won't spoil the plot for those who haven't read it, but I will say that without the unreliable narrator the story would be completely different (and not nearly as good!)

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    1. Oooo. I love Agatha Christie, but have yet to read that one. Bumping it to the top of my list. =D Thank you!

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  8. This is really great. Please don't ever delete your blog, it inspired me greatly. I'm a Christian too, and I love books and it's my dream to write...some people delete their very good blog's and it's very sad, so don't delete yours, 'kay? Thanks.

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    1. I'm so happy to hear this! Don't worry: This blog is absolutely staying up. =) Thank you for the encouragement! It's always awesome to know that people enjoy reading my posts.

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  9. My first thought for an unreliable narrator was Kvothe from The Kingkiller Chronicle. Remembering that the story is told from his perspective adds a whole new dimension to an already great take.

    Also, I find using unreliable narration is a great way to show a character's misperceptions, worldview, and just general flaws and strengths. It also lets me build other characters, especially when I'm switching between multiple POVs. So one character may be internally conflicted because they are concerned about another character's lack of trust, then jump to that second character who can only see an exterior of confidence from the first character and is nervous for other reasons but has complete faith in the previous character. That kind of scenario lets me show the intricacies of their relationship, the insecurities, and their outward appearance, as well as build tension for the coming events and the date of their relationship.

    Great post!

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  10. Hmm... "The Goose Girl" by Shannon Hale. It gives an awesome perspective on Ani's relationships, betrayals, and hesitation to trust (it's also one of my very favorite books ever, as in, up there with Harry Potter - at least for me - and I definitely suggest it!).

    I for sure used unreliable narrators in my novel. The MC is trying to solve a mystery to save her kingdom (and her own loneliness), and there were one or two crucial twists that wouldn't have worked if she hadn't been unreliable.

    I also think unreliable characters add to the ability for the reader to connect to the characters or narrator. The reader feels closer to them, in a way, since they only know what the character knows - and that isn't quite everything.

    I really enjoyed this post! Thanks! :))))))

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