Unreliable narrators have become a popular and fascinating storytelling device in literature and film. By presenting a flawed and potentially deceptive narrator, authors and filmmakers are able to add layers of complexity and suspense to their stories. Viewers and readers are left questioning what is true and what is not, leading to unexpected plot twists and revelations. One prime example of this is the movie Joker, which kept audiences on the edge of their seats with its portrayal of the mentally ill and unreliable character, Arther Fleck.
An unreliable narrator may distort or deceive the events they present, potentially leading to a biased viewpoint. In literature, readers expect the narrator to be trustworthy and provide an accurate portrayal of events, guiding them through the story.
What could be the reason for choosing an unreliable character as the narrator of a story?
Let’s take a closer look at how writers use unreliable narrators to create a more impactful story.
What is an Unreliable Narrator?
An unreliable narrator is a character who tells the story, but their version of events is not entirely trustworthy. They may be lying, delusional, or simply have a limited perspective. Question the narrator’s point of view when reading a story to uncover any personal biases, prejudices, or emotions that may impact their views and make the story more intriguing.
Unreliable narrators captivate readers/viewers by presenting events that may not be reliable, engaging the audience’s imagination and critical thinking, creating tension/fascination, and keeping them engrossed in the story.
Why Write Unreliable Characters?
There are several reasons why an author might choose to write a deceitful and untrustworthy narrator.
- Create suspense and keep the reader guessing about what is really happening in the story. By presenting a character who may not be telling the truth or who has a skewed perspective, the author can create a sense of uncertainty and tension that can keep the reader engaged.
- Explore themes such as truth and perception. By presenting a character who has a distorted view of reality, the author can challenge the reader’s assumptions and encourage them to question their own perceptions of the world around them.
- Highlight the limitations of human knowledge and understanding. By presenting a character who is flawed or biased, the author can show how difficult it can be to truly know and understand the world. This can be a powerful reminder of the complexity of life and the need for humility and open-mindedness.
In my writing, I find the unreliable narrator an enjoyable technique as it adds an element of excitement. The unpredictability of the character’s actions keeps the reader on their toes.
Unreliable Narrators Examples
Here are some popular unreliable narrators in contemporary fiction.
One classic example from celebrated literature is Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” Holden is a teenage boy who is struggling with mental health issues, and his narration is often erratic and contradictory.
A noteworthy illustration can be seen in Amy Dunne’s character from Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl.” Amy endeavors to manipulate both her husband and the police and her narrative is deliberately deceptive. Alternatively, her husband is not any better. Nick Dunne is an untrustworthy storyteller, and his depiction of his marriage is distorted by his own desired reality.
And finally, in Kazuo Ishiguro’s haunting story Never Let Me Go we meet the unreliable narrator of limited experiences. The story is about a group of students in a safe and protective boarding school in England. Due to Kathy’s limited exposure to reality, the narrative depicts her as an unreliable narrator.
At times, I would even consider Ponyboy Curtis from S.E Hinton’s The Outsiders to be a UN just based on his naivety concerning his views on the schism between the Socs and the Greasers. I would argue he did not understand the severity of the feud and how it truly affected the community.
Please take a look at the video below for a detailed explanation of the various types of unreliable narrators.
How to Write an Unreliable Narrator
While character creation can be tricky, there are some specifics to follow when writing a character that is purposefully misleading.
Here are some important points to consider when creating an unreliable narrator.
It is crucial to establish their unreliability at the beginning of the story. This can be achieved through their behavior, conversations, or thoughts.
For example, Arthur Fleck gave the illusion that he was in a relationship with the woman in his building – when in actuality he created that relationship to give him the validation that he needed to complete his transformation into Joker. His reality was truly based on the false backstory that was given to him by his narcissistic, psychotic, and delusional mother, Penny Fleck.
It would be best if you also gave the reader or viewer enough information to question the narrator’s version of events without giving away the entire plot.
Finally, you need to have a clear reason for this character to be ‘unreliable’.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- What are you trying to accomplish with this device?
- Is this character’s unreliableness a pivotal device in the story’s plot?
- Is this character deliberately unreliable or is it a consequence of their environment?
If you are looking for inspiration for an engaging unreliable narrator, I highly recommend exploring different examples. If you’re in search of a compelling example of an unreliable narrator, I urge you to check out Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.” This literary work is not only an easy and pleasurable read, but it also happens to be one of my personal favorites from my time in college.
Unreliable narrators are a powerful tool for writers who want to add tension and complexity to their stories. These characters can act as catalysts for others to build conflict and excite your readers. By creating a narrator whose version of events is not entirely trustworthy, writers can keep their audience engaged and guessing until the very end. Establish the lack of reliability of your narrator from the start, and make sure you have a clear purpose for using this technique.