Catherine Stine's IDEA CITY

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

U for Unreliable Narrators

Today for A to Z, I'll talk about the literary term, Unreliable Narrator.
A unreliable narrator in a novel is a character who either has limited knowledge of facts or insight into himself and therefore spouts suspect ideas and "facts". It can also be a character who lies to himself or others, and takes shady paths of action. This is one of my favorite literary tools when creating characters! First of all, it makes the reader really have to think things through: is this character telling the truth? If not, why not? Or, in the case where the character is ignorant or lacking information, it allows the reader to be the smart guy, to have a laugh or two at the expense of the character! Readers like to be in the know, it's a fun logics game.

Are you still fuzzy about this concept? Let me give you some specific examples. A guy might be lying to himself about how much in love he is with a girl, but the reader knows differently through careful analysis of the text, and by how the guy is acting in a way that proves what he says is emotionally untrue. Or a criminal could be trying to verbally convince someone, even himself, of his innocence.
In the celebrated novel The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, the narrator, literally Death is the quintessential "outsider". Death is an unreliable narrator in that he is opinionated and intentionally misleads people. He tries to make sense of the human condition, without ever having been human. Arguably the most famous unreliable narrator is Vladimir Nabokov's Humbert Humbert in the novel Lolita. Humbert's mind is so clever that he makes an almost convincing case that pedophilia is just fine. Of course, the reader knows better, and determines that Humbert is quite troubled. But the uncanny magic of using the unreliable narration tool, is that we can see the character's humanity--whether it be Humbert or Death itself--seeping through all of the warped layers.
Have you ever created an unreliable narrator? In what way was your character unreliable? Do you know of other great unreliable narrators in books?


  1. My favorite unreliable narrator is from Notes from the Underground. I've tried one a few times and fallen flat. But, I keep trying because of my deep love of the insane and socially awkward Dostoyevsky character.

  2. Ah, Underground Man, I used to teach that to my college lit students. Yes, he is supremely unaware of his motivations, and only later has an inkling. At that point he kind of freaks out and tries to squash down his horrific realizations.

  3. Yes, I wrote a story where one of the secondary characters is an alien spending the whole first three-quarters of the book denigrating humans as inferior, when there is actually much he admires about humans that he won't admit. He was an unreliable narrator for sure.

  4. My first experience with an unreliable narrator was The Murder of Roger Akroyd by Agatha Christie. :)

    I also like the title character in the Alcatraz books by Brandon Sanderson.

    I've never deliberately tried to create an unreliable narrator.


  5. Good one, Jaycee!
    Erin, I have to admit, I have not yet read Agatha Christie. But it makes sense that in murder mysteries, there would many unreliable narrators, and shady characters in general!

  6. I've never tried to do this, but I want to. I thought about it recently. I have a book and I have the unreliable narrator. Now on to write the story, man! :-)

  7. Thanks for the explanation. I've never tried it, but may some day.

  8. What I love more than the unreliable narrator is the narrator who is completely convinced that they're being reliable, even though they aren't.

    1. May I direct to Severian in Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, beginning with Shadow of the Torturer. Severian claims to have perfect memory (his eidetic memory is stated as a fact by Gene Wolfe in Shadows of the New Sun). In spite of this, some critics and analysis claim him to be an unreliable narrator

  9. I love unreliable narrators, especially the kind that slowly reveal their unreliability to the reader. It's such a cool feeling when you start to piece the "real story" together.

    Great post!


  10. Doesn't the unreliability negatively impact the story?

  11. "The Book Thief" is one of my favorite books-one that I will read again, eventually, to my children when they are a tad older and we are studying the sketchier parts of history.

    I find your post very motivating-in a way,it gives confidence to doubt by providing permission not to know everything, and even to be wrong, while the narrator comes up to speed (or doesn't) as the characters unravel themselves. Hmmmm...

  12. I love unreliable narrators too and use them all the time. Especially because I write YA, and kids that age are generally unreliable about the facts. I just finished Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson and talk about an unreliable narrator!

  13. I did a critical paper that included a discussion on The Catcher In The Rye and found that as I wrote about the concept of the unreliable narrator, I began to think that its unfortunate that this literary tool gets kind of a bad rap...I mean if you think about it all first person fiction, in theory, is unreliable, but who cares? I mean as we walk through our days and narrate the story of our own lives, that's a some what unreliable interpretation because it is one...but that doesn't mean it isn't interesting, funny, and valuable, right? Three cheers for the unreliable narrator!