As a reader, you rely on the narrator of a story to guide you through the story’s events.
That’s placing a lot of responsibility and power in their hands, because the narrator essentially shapes the whole story! But should you believe everything they tell you?
Defining the Unreliable Narrator
In real life, we’re all unreliable narrators when we tell personal stories, because our individual experiences shape our perceptions, so it’s rare for even just two people to recall every detail of an event in the exact same way.
But in literature, a narrator is considered unreliable when we have reason to doubt what they tell us (or wonder what they aren’t telling us).
Writers often use the literary device of the unreliable narrator to make readers consciously doubt or question whether there’s more to the story, and it’s also a common thriller trope that many writers use to keep readers on their toes and at the edge of their seats.
A narrator can be unreliable because they intentionally misrepresent key facts. Other times, their inaccurate reporting might be the result of an innocent misunderstanding or distorted memory.
Just because a narrator is unreliable doesn’t mean they are necessarily “bad” or dishonest; it simply means there may be more to the story, so it’s important to consider how their perspective and biases might influence the way they tell a story. This can also help you to better assess a character’s motivations.
Examples of Unreliable Narrators
Below are 3 examples from literature of unreliable narrators in thrillers, and the effects they had on their stories.
Warning: Spoiler alerts follow!
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
About halfway through Gone Girl, Amy Dunne takes over the role of narrator from her husband. But up until that point, we were led to believe she was probably dead! We soon realize that neither Amy, nor her husband, Nick, have been completely honest about anything.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Patrick Bateman is a handsome, successful Wall Street investment banker by day, but a brutal serial killer committing the most gruesome crimes by night. Patrick actually confesses to his crimes, but no one believes him—how could someone like him possibly be guilty of such atrocious things? But the real question is whether Patrick is faking his “normal” life, or if he’s truly oblivious to his own darkness.
Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane
In both the film and book, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels arrives on Shutter Island with his partner, Chuck Aule. The island is home to a hospital for the criminally insane, and the pair is there to investigate the disappearance of a murderess—but Teddy soon uncovers shocking realizations about the island and himself.
What Are the Types of Unreliable Narrators?
In a 1981 study, writer William Riggin identified and analyzed different types of unreliable narrators. From his study, five distinct types have been adapted by literary analysts. They are:
- The Pícaro: This narrator has a tendency to lie or exaggerate, usually to boost their own image or social standing. For example, in Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel Moll Flanders, the titular character and narrator lies about being born to a mother in prison so she can wed wealthy men.
- The Madman: The Madman does not intentionally lie or exaggerate, but rather suffers from a mental illness or trauma, such as schizophrenia, paranoia, or post-traumatic dissociation. One example is the psychotic serial killer and narrator of American Psycho, Patrick Bateman.
- The Clown: The Clown doesn’t take their job as narrator very seriously. They intentionally play with conventions and reader expectations, like Tristram Shandy in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.
- The Naïf: This narrator is also not intentionally deceptive, but their immaturity or naivety limit their perception. Examples include Forrest Gump and Huckleberry Finn.
- The Liar: The Liar is a mature narrator of sound mind who deliberately misrepresents themselves and important information, usually to obscure their own past actions. Amy from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is an example of this type, as she deliberately schemes and tells lies to present herself as a victim of her husband’s actions.
Signs a Narrator Is Unreliable
There are some signs you can look for to identify a potentially unreliable narrator.
According to author and literature professor Ansgar Nünning, those signs can be broken into the following three categories:
- Intratextual: The narrator says something that contradicts themselves, displays memory gaps, or blatantly lies to other characters.
- Extratextual: The narrator says something that contradicts your basic knowledge, or logical possibilities.
- Literary competence: You, the reader, know enough about literary tropes, archetypes, or other conventions that you can identify the unreliable narrator.
Evaluating Narrator Reliability
You can’t believe everything you read—that goes for both fiction and real life.
But in literature and film, unreliable narrators can add a layer of depth while keeping you on your toes, as you try to piece together what and whom you should believe.