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How to Write an Unreliable Narrator

How to Write an Unreliable Narrator

first draft plotting prose Mar 24, 2024

Hello, my dearest reader. I hope you're doing well. I'm writing this from my bed –as I do almost everything from my bed, ps: don't be a freelancer– but I also have the flu and so far, it's been a terrible winter. 

But how are you? How is your writing going? You can always let me know in the comments. 

Today we're gonna talk about one of my favorite perspectives to write from. The narrator that's always lying, the one that can't be trusted: the unreliable narrator.


What is an unreliable narrator?


First things first. An unreliable narrator is usually a first-person narrative. Let's review this. The first person implies that I tell you the story through my point of view. I am not a God –though I would love to be– and I am unaware of how other characters think or feel. I can only see the world through my eyes, and even if I tell you what others tell me, there's always a slight chance that I get it wrong, that I misread them or interpret their words or actions in a different way than they intended.

ALSO: How to Choose your Narrator

So, the first person is ideal for this narrative type: there's a lot of space between one's perception and the actual reality. However, not all first persons are unreliable narrators. The difference relies on the truth and the lies. 

But a concept like truth is very subjective, right? Something might be true for me but not for you, an ideology or a feeling, or even the things we see, we might interpret them differently. But if we dig a little deeper into this, we can assure that all first-person will tell you their truth –even if the truth doesn't match the reality– but an unreliable narrator will lie to you on purpose.


When to use it and why it works


But why does this character lie to us? You're a perfect reader, you follow them everywhere they go, why would this narrator abuse your confidence like that? The answer is simple.

They sell stories that are not true with the desperate hope that someone will believe them.

Unreliable narrators could be killers or criminals hiding themselves or they could be girls telling the night of their wedding, saying everything was perfect. Both are liars, but most importantly: they look for your compassion. 

They want you to love them. They need someone, a reader, a listener, who will trust them and feel sympathy for them so they can redeem themselves for their actions.

But watch out.

Cuz they also want to trick you. 

Unreliable characters have secrets, and they want us to discover them. Eventually, we know who the killer is. What happened on that wedding night. But first, we need to care for these characters, and they will do anything they can to keep us in the dark. Sometimes, they even win.

ALSO: Crafting Complex Characters

Writers create characters, but for some reason, I feel like the unreliable narrator creates a character for themselves. Sometimes they might have a fragmentary personality, but there's always a conscience of not being fully honest with their audience. 


How to write an unreliable character


Luckily for you, writer, you're already at an advantage when it comes to this type of narrative. 

When we see something written down we don't tend to question it so much. If someone tells you they have the flu, why would you even think they don't? If an irrelevant fact slides through the narrative, and you're not seeing that person or hearing them, then, why would it occur to you that it's not true? Cuz it's not, I don't have the flu, and in my country, it's not even winter, but we believe what we read. Especially if our narrator is someone we're familiar with, it is like talking to a friend, we're not suspicious of the ones we trust.

But here's a list of things you should keep in mind with a narrator of this kind:

  • First of all, separate reality from narrative. You should know what is happening for real and what is happening in the constructive narrative of the character telling the story.
  • The narrator might not be the protagonist, but they should take an important role in your play. Relate them with other characters, other characters are distractions in our lives. 
  • Keeping this in mind, what does he/she/they know, and what do they choose to tell? Why?
  • How they describe things, situations, and feelings must have a purpose. It's not just a description, it is also valuable information that the reader will absorb to believe this narrative. 
  • Are they too descriptive? Or, on the contrary, do they tell very little? Remember, this is pretty much like lying. Giving no detail means someone's in a rush and wants to get out of it. Giving way too much can also be a mistake; they might filter clues to the truth. I'm not saying don't do these things; I'm saying do them knowing your unreliable character might get discovered. 
  • It's easier if your character is telling the story by heart. Meaning the events already occurred in the past. So there would be a distance that the reader will allow and relate to the lack of memory instead of holes in our narrative.
  • Give them a secret or a motive. Are they lying because they're pathological liars? Because it's simply fun? Then you have an interesting character to talk about, and their psyche should be really complex. On the other hand, maybe your characters don't enjoy lying but feel like they have to. Why? What are they hiding? 
  • The style and tone of your narrative voice—is it sad, nostalgic, full of regret, witty, neurotic, or ironic? Is this character manipulative of their environment? Whatever they are, it's going to be represented in the phrasing that you use. The words you choose to tell this story will be a fundamental lead. 


Signals to catch a liar


To write this right, you will want the reader to feel suspicious at one point. The idea is to fool them at first, but not forever. Regardless of how your story will end –if the narrator confesses their crime or not– you should give the reader a few hints so they get this hazy feeling, so they know something is off. There´s no fun otherwise. An unreliable narrator that never gets caught is just another character telling their truth.

So what are the signals of an unreliable narrator?

  • Contradictions. Did they tell you the room was blue in chapter one but it's suddenly green in chapter five? Do they confuse other characters' names? Do they appear in a different place than the one they said they would be? 
  • Memory. Do they use their lack of memory as an excuse?
  • Obviously, lies. Do you catch them telling other characters a lie, something you know is incorrect because the narrator admitted to you first? Then, why trust the information they provide you?
  • They get a little bit defensive when asked questions by other characters.
  • Their behavior changes around the course of your story –all characters change, but the unreliable narrator has a tendency to get worse. 
  • We can describe unusual feelings that give the reader a sense of fatality—that something is really, really bad. Giving your character a strong obsession, hallucinations, or even madness will definitely get your reader to pay attention. 


What genre suits best for an unreliable narrator


What I like about this narrative is that it feels like falling through a rabbit hole. For mystery writers, this is ideal. Though this narrative can be in any genre, and tell any kind of story, it works when there's a secret and in consequence, a plot twist. A victim that ends up being a stalker. A disappeared child that ends up being the protagonist (not lost at all). Everyone that appears to be someone they're not. But also, stories that appear to be things they are not.

ALSO: Writing a Jeepers Creepers Mystery


Second and third person


There are cases when a very cryptic and witty writer uses second or third-person but it's a little bit more complicated. Why? Cuz when we have different points of view telling the same event is easier to catch when something is off. 

For example, if we’re trying to solve a murder mystery and we have only one witness to tell what happened, then we use their story to follow some leads, and we compare the evidence with their deposition. But if we have more than one witness, things change. We interview them all and there are contradictions and oppositions. So what do we do? We get suspicious right away. The charm of an unreliable character relies on appearing to be… reliable. And that happens easily when we have only one person telling the story at the time.

I'm not saying that writing an unreliable narrator in second or third is an impossible task, but it's for sure, a very challenging one.


A little extra help


To sum up, unreliable narrators are very fun to write and are the ones providing a great plot twist at the end of your story. For that, plotting and structure can help you get a better idea of how to proceed. So I will let you here the fundamental course that will help you plan a greater story:

With Novel Plotting Academy, you will learn how to plan a novel, tips for growing up a story and make your great characters even more memorable. So, what are you waiting for?


Juliana Palermo
Written for The Plottery

Juliana Palermo lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She's 22 but hasn't learned how to do her taxes yet. She works as a freelance editor and book cover designer, but you will find her drinking coffee and daydreaming during working hours. She is currently writing her first fantasy novel. You can find her as @julippalermo both on Instagram and Twitter. 

If you need her, you can say her name three times in front of a mirror and she will appear with a cynical smile. But let me warn you, her jokes are not as funny as she promised, and if you invited her in, there's a chance she will never leave.



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