How to Write Point of View, Part 9, The Unreliable Narrator and POV

Pictures of single eyes scattered atop one another and ringed by purple, red, or yellow eye shadow. From Pixabay.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Hi SErs! It’s a day of Harmony here at Story Empire 🙂 Today, I’d like to talk about how to write Point of View (POV), and how to use your chosen lens, when employing an unreliable narrator in your story.

The First Person lens/POV choice has often been touted as the only point of view for employing an unreliable narrator. However, as this post will explore, us writers have alternative options we can choose to use.

What is an Unreliable Narrator?

The term ‘unreliable narrator’ was first coined by literary critic Wayne C. Booth in his 1961 book, The Rhetoric of Fiction.

An unreliable narrator is a character or commentator in the story who can lie to the reader, and often, themselves. Such a person presents facts, opinions, and conclusions that aren’t, necessarily, consistent with the actuality of the world and events in the novel. This unreliable person might not even mean to lie. It could be that they have misinterpreted events or have been lied to themselves. The main point is that the information they pass on to your reader isn’t reliable or accurate, and all without your reader knowing this.

A helpful quote:

“These narrators may be insane, angry, strung-out on drugs or alcohol, naive, foreign, criminals, liars, or simply younger than everybody else. They can be comical or absurd, tragic or serious, terrifying or surreal. The one thing they have in common is that they are deceptive.” […] “If unreliable narrators are badly crafted, they can be obvious, manipulative, misleading, confusing, and pretentious. If they are well written, they can be powerful, clever, and fascinating.”

From Writers Write: The 9 Types of Unreliable Narrator

Why Use an Unreliable Narrator?

No matter what the lens, every reader relies upon the narrator/character to tell them about the invented world and what’s going on. They only know as much as the character knows, until they jump into a new head. The only exception to this is where you’re writing in third person omniscient/distant. With this widest lens, your reader has a broader field of vision, which makes it nigh on impossible to lie to them because someone, at some point, knows what’s going on and will give the game away.

TOP TIP:

First person POV is easiest for using an unreliable narrator. But you can also utilise second person and third person close/limited. The trick is to lie convincingly without introducing a character/POV that can give the game away … until you’re ready to drop that bombshell.

How to Use an Unreliable Narrator:

In real life, people lie to us. Just because someone asserts something to us doesn’t mean it’s accurate or true. The exact same thing applies to the people we create in our stories.

Remember:

Any person we make up can act and behave any way we want them to, including just like a person in the real world. And, in fiction, unlike the real world, you–the writer–get to choose the consequences [cue evil laughter]!

Top Tip:

In the POV sections below, I’ve put the POV-relevant pronouns in bold and ‘single quotes’ to help you identify which you would use in each instance.

The Unreliable Narrator and First Person POV:

First person is the most common POV for an unreliable narrator. This is because this narrowest lens is the easiest to utilise with the ‘unreliable narrator’ tool. In first person lens, ‘I’m’ either lying to you, not telling you everything ‘I’ know, ‘I’m’ confused, or ‘I’ simply am not in possession of all the facts. So, although ‘I’m’ talking to you directly, you can’t trust what ‘I’m’ saying. ‘I’ could be a crazy person, a young child, a person with learning difficulties, drunk, or any number of other things. And ‘I’ probably won’t realise how much this affects ‘my’ perception and judgements for quite some time, or even until the end of ‘my’ story.

The Unreliable Narrator and Second Person POV:

While using an unreliable narrator in second person POV can be tricky and is rare, it is entirely possible. If ‘you’ need to jog ‘your’ memory about the ins and outs of second person POV, ‘you’ can find my previous post HERE. Also, ‘you’ will find a list of the entire POV series at the bottom of today’s post. Below are quick reminders of the uses of second person POV …

  1. The reader can become the actor rather than the reader. That is, directly in the action.
  2. The reader can be someone the narrator addresses.
  3. The reader can be the conscience of the narrator.

Number one makes an unreliable narrator impossible because the reader is the narrator/actor. Therefore, the reader knows exactly what is going on. Even if the ‘actor’ fools themselves right up to the denouement, how will it make ‘your’ reader feel at the end of it all? Personally, I would NOT like to take my chances in leaving any of my readers feeling that annoyed and stupid. It’s bad enough when I do that to myself in real life! LOLs 🙂 So, when ‘your’ narrative uses the pronoun ‘you’, take great care not to alienate the reader who, by default, becomes the ‘you’.

Having said all of that, both two and three above give the writer some leeway to play with. In the case of number two, the narrator addresses the reader and tells them things. This means that the narrator has the scope to lie and mislead the reader.

The same applies in number three, even though the reader is the conscience of the narrator. Think of the character who is a psychiatric patient … how reliable would their perceptions be? This question shows us how to use the unreliable perspective even though the reader is the character’s conscience.

WARNING: Though I’ve said we can use second person POV with an unreliable narrator, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you really know what you’re doing.

The Unreliable Narrator and Third Person Close POV:

Although it’s not as easy as first person, the third person lens also lends itself well to the unreliable narrator, as long as it’s close and not distant. In my scary-as-heck book The Glade, I used third person close POV and had the main character be unreliable because ‘she’ wasn’t in possession of certain pertinent facts. Other characters lied to ‘her’ and manipulated ‘her’, and at times, ‘her’ emotions misled ‘her’ too. This allowed me to introduce lots of unexpected plot twists that the readers did not see coming. (I’m not sure what it says about me that I lied so well! Even though in real life I try to keep it honest, I loved misleading my readers here, lols.)

Some Examples of Books with Unreliable Narrators:

  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess contains a ‘deliberately unreliable’ narrator who lies to us.
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie contains another ‘deliberately unreliable’ narrator, but this time due to omitting information rather than lying about it.
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel contains an ‘evasive’ unreliable narrator.
  • Forrest Gump by Winston Groom and The Maid by Nita Prose both contain ‘naive’ unreliable narrators who are honest but not in possession of all the facts.
  • Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins), Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn), and In the Woods (Tana French) all used the unreliable narrator to great effect.

Caution:

As with any tool used in fiction writing, you need to have a purpose for employing it. So, consider your reason(s) for using an unreliable narrator before you put it into action.

In Summary: You can use any POV you want, except Third Person Distant, when employing an Unreliable Narrator. Our fictional characters reflect people in the real world, and therefore, are more than capable of lying to the reader. However, before you employ such a character, make sure you have a good reason for doing so. An unreliable narrator can either lie outright to your reader, or they can be honest but confused or misinformed even though they might mean well. Remember: You can do anything you want, as long as you do it well.

That’s it from me today. I hope you’ve found this post useful. I’ll see you again on Friday 18th February, when we’ll take a look at POV and Choosing Tense 🙂

Bio Box for Harmony Kent that links to her website www.harmonykent.co.uk

Part 1, Overview, can be found HERE.

Part 2, First Person, can be found HERE.

Part 3, Second Person, can be found HERE.

Part 4, Third Person Limited, can be found HERE.

Part 5, Third Person Distant, can be found HERE.

Part 6, Common Pitfalls of POV, can be found HERE.

Part 7, How to Choose POV, can be found HERE.

Part 8, Choosing POV, can be found HERE.

©2022 Harmony Kent

66 thoughts on “How to Write Point of View, Part 9, The Unreliable Narrator and POV

  1. Pingback: How to Write Point of View, Part 11, Summary and Wrap-up | Story Empire

  2. Pingback: How to Write Point of View, Part 10, Choosing Tense and POV | Story Empire

  3. Wonderful post you’ve shared, Harmony. It just goes to show that POV is both simple and complex. There are so many angles and nuances to consider when preparing a story. You’ve done a marvelous job in breaking these down. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I read a lot of psychological suspense and it’s the perfect setting for an unreliable narrator. I read The Moonstone years ago and you’re actually aware as you’re reading it that the narrator’s point of view can’t be trusted and it added to my pleasure reading it. This is a great series, Harmony! xx

    Liked by 1 person

  5. So many possibilities you just shared Harmony! When writing in first person it is easy to miss, hide, or even lie. Each POV offers ways to bring in an unexpected twist, great post!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Can we first talk about the beautiful layout of this post? It’s such a treat for the eyes, Harmony! I think it deserves a little appreciation! 😉 Now as for the post, THANK YOU. Please keep teaching me, SE Fam! It’s funny, I once had someone tell me that 3rd person is the only real way to write. I changed an entire draft because of that. It’s so nice to see posts like these, explaining the different POVs and highlighting them, talking about what makes each a great option when you know what you’re doing. So again, thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I really like books where I can’t trust the narrator, Harmony. They’re so good at leading the reader astray, and you’re right about the opportunities for surprises, twists, and turns. They are hard to do though! I think it’s something that is easier planned from the beginning when writing a book since it’s often a big part of the plot and/or mystery. Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. This is an excellent series, Harmony, and if I haven’t mentioned it before, I’ve been saving the links to each post for future reference. As to Unreliable Narrators, I only remember one book where I was smacked in the face when the lead character, who had been very sympathetic throughout, suddenly came clean that he had done all the bad things, and laughed at the reader for not realizing it sooner. I was so angry, I threw the book across the room and have never read that author since.

    Now, this could be a case of him handling the technique all wrong, but it definitely was not the good kind of surprise ending where the big reveal leaves you shocked in a “why didn’t I pick up on that sooner?” kind of way. I love those, as long as the bread crumbs were always there, and you don’t feel like you’ve been had. This one was done in a way that could only be described as “deceitful,” to my mind, so I’ve never even thought about using an unreliable narrator, myself. But now you have me intrigued as to how this technique really should be used, and wondering if I might want to give it a try, too. Great post and definitely food for thought. Thanks! 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    • You most certainly read how it’s done terribly badly. When done well, it’s a brilliant twist that the reader will love! Any plot surprises need to be foreshadowed somehow and not be from out of nowhere. The true skill is finding the balance so it’s not immediately obvious while at the same time leading up to it. Definitely have a play with this technique. Thanks for your support, Marcia 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Excellent explanation, Harmony. In a sense, one could argue all psychological thrillers have unreliable narrators because the emotional turmoil never lets them see the full picture as clearly as they should. Thoughts?

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I love a good unreliable narrator, Harmony, and appreciate the up close look at what makes them tick and why. Unreliable narrators turn up a lot in psychological suspense and domestic thrillers which comprise a huge chunk of my reading. I have yet to write one myself, but after reading this post, I’m tempted.
    Excellent information here!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Another great lesson. Harmony. I have not been tempted to use an unreliable narrator but you make it sound like so much fun. Maybe I’ll give a short story a crack and see how it goes. First-person is where my thoughts are sending me right now. Thank you

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Another fantastic POV post, Harmony! I can see where an unreliable narrator could add dimension to a story. I have never used this POV, but I’m intrigued. I have started a new series that is uncharted territory for me, and I revisited your post on Omniscient POV yesterday. I’m telling you that just so you know these posts are valuable! Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Wow! A lot to soak in here. I write primarily in third-person POV, and have only recently written a (yet unpublished) story in first person. Can’t see myself ever writing in second person POV. As far as the unreliable narrator, you’ve given me something to think about. Great post, Harmony!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Pingback: How to Write Point of View, Part 9, The Unreliable Narrator and POV – Stuff I want to read

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