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What effect does an unreliable narrator have on the reader?

By BBC Maestro

Last updated: 29 March 2022

Have you ever read a story where it turns out the narrator wasn’t quite telling the whole truth? When well executed, this storytelling technique can be incredibly effective at building tension and keeping the reader entertained, page after page.

The unreliable narrator is a popular storytelling device amongst established authors. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Paula Hawkin’s The Girl On The Train and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time are all prime examples of books with unreliable narrators. If you’re an aspiring writer, read on to understand the power of using an unreliable narrator to tell your tale.

A girl reading

What is an unreliable narrator?

An unreliable narrator is a character in your novel that misleads the reader - either intentionally or unintentionally. Usually stories featuring unreliable narrators are told from a first-person point of view, where the character speaks directly to the reader.

“The first person is very immediate, very powerful, it puts you right inside the character. It allows for some really nice literary tricks, (such as) the possibility of an unreliable narrator. Unreliable narrators are marvelous fun,” says Alan Moore in his BBC Maestro storytelling course.

In real life, we only ever experience events through the lens of our own perspective. So it could be said we are all unreliable narrators, because we only ever retell events from a singular point of view. Add to that our personalities, personal experiences and motivations, and it’s clear that there are many different ways to tell the same story.

Remember, if our characters are based on people we know in the real world, they will be more authentic (proceed with caution, make sure you don’t get too personal!). You could craft your narrator using this free downloadable character bio template, and use it to understand their back story and reasons for being unreliable in telling the story.

To an extent all types of character can be an unreliable narrator. Perhaps they have misunderstood something, or believe something another character told them which was, in fact, a lie. However, not all unreliable narrators are intentionally deceptive.

There are certain characteristics that hint to the reader the narrator may not be completely reliable at relaying the truth of a story. These characteristics include:

  • Exaggeration - the narrator may exaggerate elements of themselves, events in the story, or other characters
  • Detached from reality - if the narrator has mental illness or impairment they may themselves struggle to tell the difference between what is real and what is not
  • Naivety - children have a different way of seeing the world from adults, so young narrators can prove to be unreliable witnesses to the events of story
  • Deceptive - for a variety of reasons your narrator may choose to lie and conceal the truth from the reader, these reasons could be nefarious or perhaps even admirable

What effect does an unreliable narrator have?

Using an unreliable narrator gives you the opportunity to add a surprise plot twist later on in your story. The moment where the narrator is revealed to the reader can be thrilling and lead them to reflect on everything that has happened so far in the plot through new eyes. It can also spur them on to uncover the truth at the heart of the story and keep turning the pages of your book.

In his writing course, esteemed writer Alan Moore describes how that moment of discovery feels for the reader. “You realise he’s lying to us. He’s lying to himself. He’s editing his past. This is a fantastic insight into a character that makes you feel very close to the story. You figure out something about the character from the way they talk, the way they express things, you’ve made this revelation.”

A selection of books

How does the unreliable narrator create tension?

The unreliable narrator adds tension and suspense to a novel for one good reason: one minute you trust the narrator, the next you are questioning everything.

In the run up to the ‘big reveal’ many writers choose to hint that the narrator may not be completely trustworthy - sometimes from the very first page, but more often once the narrator has lulled the reader into a false sense of security.

 This technique creates intrigue and raises questions in the reader’s mind. Questions which compel the reader further through the story as they search for answers.

You can completely deceive and betray your readership and they will thank you for it. You will have given them such a surprise, that it will actually be delightful.
- Alan Moore, British storyteller

How to create an unreliable narrator

If you’re playing with the idea of using an unreliable narrator in your writing, there are a couple of things you should bear in mind.

  • Holding back information is key. Let your narrator tell the story, but don’t reveal everything up front.
  •  Keep it consistent. Even if your narrator is inconsistent with their retelling of a story, this approach in itself must be consistent. Otherwise you risk frustrating the reader.
  • Go big or go small. An unreliable narrator can make small mistakes which lead to interesting plot twists, or they can tell huge untruths that impact the entire world of the story.

Remember, the unreliable narrator is an exceptional storytelling device you can use to help your book stand out from all the others. Try writing a story with an unreliable narrator today - what are they hiding? What don’t they want the reader to know? Let your imagination run wild.


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FREE video lesson: Creating credible characters

With iconic writer, Alan Moore