Unreliable Narrator - Overview and Examples

Brett Grell, Suzanne Sweat
  • Author
    Brett Grell

    Brett Grell has been in education for over 23 years. He taught high school English for 12 years before moving into curriculum development as an administrator. He has an EdS and MA in School Superintendent and Education Administration from University of Nebraska at Kearney, and BA in English and Secondary Education from Knox College.

  • Instructor
    Suzanne Sweat

    Suzanne has taught 12 years in the NC Public School System and three years at Campbell University. She has a master's degree in English Education.

Learn the definition of an unreliable narrator, explore the various types of unreliable narrators, and review examples in short stories, novels, and movies. Updated: 10/13/2021

Table of Contents


What is an Unreliable Narrator?

The narrator is the person telling us the story. They may or may not be a character in the story, but they are not the same as the author. Authors use different types of narrators to tell their stories because different people have different points-of-view. An author may want to have a character in the story tell it (1st person), make you a character in the story (2nd person), or tell the story from an outside perspective (3rd person). Within these, there are specific types. One is the unreliable narrator.

The term "unreliable narrator" was first coined by Wayne C. Booth in 1961, though the technique has been used for centuries. The unreliable narrator is a type of 1st person narration. Therefore, the narrator is a character in the story and shares what he/she sees, thinks, hears, and experiences. In the case of the unreliable narrator, however, readers know that they can't fully trust that what the narrator is telling them is true or accurate. The narrator is unreliable.

The reasons that a narrator might be unreliable are varied. They may show themselves to be mean, hurtful, and willing to lie to anyone to get what they want. They may instead be suffering from dementia as they tell the reader a story from their past. Or perhaps they're too young to really understand what's happening, or they are shown to have extreme biases against others. Regardless of how, or how quickly, the reader at some point comes to understand that not everything they are going to be told in the story is the objective truth. They read the remainder of the story with this knowledge.

Purpose of an Unreliable Narrator

An unreliable narrator can be an extremely powerful tool for a writer. It creates intrigue for the reader when they have to invest in trying to figure out what parts of the information they've been given is true. That is one reason that unreliable narrators often show up in mystery stories. Unreliable narrators can also make characters more complex and interesting. An author may show the unreliable nature of the narrator slowly, with the reader only coming to understand with a deep knowledge of the character. There are three primary reasons an author will turn to an unreliable narrator:

  • Theme: When an unreliable narrator is slowly revealed and it causes the reader to reexamine the major parts of the story in this new light. This makes them think about the story, and the theme, more closely.
  • Tension: If the reader knows early in the story that the narrator is unreliable, this can cause tension and intrigue for the reader as they try to figure out what is true from the information they're being given.
  • Twist: An unreliable narrator can be a technique authors use as part of the plot. The character's dishonesty is part of, and usually revealed at, the climax of the story.

Types of Unreliable Narrators

There are three main types of unreliable narrators. The distinctions between the three are based on their own awareness of their dishonesty and their motivation for their dishonesty. The three main types are:

1.Deliberately Unreliable Narrators: These are narrators who deliberately lie to their audiences. They intentionally make misleading statements or misrepresent the truth, taking advantage of the fact that they are the only perspective that is known.

2. Evasively Unreliable Narrators: These narrators alter the truth as they tell the story, but don't do it intentionally. They may be trying to justify their actions or beliefs through their description, and may or may not be aware they are doing so.

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  • 0:42 Definition
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Frequently Asked Questions

What is meant by an unreliable narrator?

An unreliable narrator is one who, because of motivation, character, or another characteristic (age, experience, etc.) either deliberately or not, is not completely truthful and/or forthcoming in their telling of the story.

What is an example of an unreliable narrator?

Examples of texts with unreliable narrators include: Gone Girl, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Life of Pie, The Raven, and The Cask of Amontillado.

How do you know if a narrator is unreliable?

Authors will build in clues that you should begin to distrust the narrator. This could be them telling the reader something they know to be untrue, being deceitful with another character, or having a perspective that is, by position, limited.

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