The Unreliable Narrator

The Unreliable Narrator_NovelSuspectsIn any story, the narrator is our guide, shaping the way we see settings, characters, and events. No matter who the narrator is—first, second, or third person—we as readers are affected by the way the story is told to us through the narrator. Everything we learn and everything we know is seen through this filter. So what happens when we as readers can’t fully trust what a narrator is telling us? That’s when you have an unreliable narrator.

An unreliable narrator is a narrator whose credibility has been compromised in some way. And while the unreliable narrator trope has become extremely popular in the mystery, suspense, and thriller genres, you can find unreliable narrators in all sorts of stories. Unreliable narrators are featured in all kinds of film and literature, from thrillers and suspense to fantasy and sci-fi to children’s stories.

The term “unreliable narrator” was coined by American literary critic Wayne C. Booth in 1961. In The Rhetoric of Fiction, Booth wrote that a narrator is “reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say the implied author’s norms), unreliable when he does not.” This definition suggests that an unreliable narrator occurs when the reader and the author share a version of reality to which the narrator does not conform.

But let’s break that down a little bit more and look at some examples.

Here’s the deal. There is more than one way a person’s narration can be unreliable. In Living to Tell About It, literary critic James Phelan expanded on the duties of the narrator and the ways narrators can be unreliable. According to Phelan, it is the job of the narrator to “perform three main roles—reporting, interpreting, and evaluating; sometimes they perform the roles simultaneously and sometimes sequentially.” So based on these roles, there are a few different ways narrators can be unreliable.

First of all, an unreliable narrator might misreport, misinterpret, or misevaluate what they are narrating. Sometimes this is intentional, sometimes it’s by mistake. There’s also unreliability through the act of leaving out important details. In other words, narrators might also underreport, under-interpret (or underread), or under-evaluate (or under regard). So, basically, is a narrator telling the story incorrectly? Or are they not telling the whole story? Either way, their story becomes unreliable.

While this all may sound good in theory, how does it work in actual fiction?

Here are some examples (warning: some details here may be considered spoilers):


Now that we’ve looked at some of examples of unreliable narrators and what unreliable narrators do, the question remains: why? Why feature an unreliable narrator in your story? Why are unreliable narrators so popular, especially in crime fiction?

For those of us who love mysteries, thrillers, and suspense stories, we love to feel like we’re a part of the action. An unreliable narrator requires the reader to be an active participant in the story. We can’t just sit back and accept the reality presented to us because we know the narrator might not be telling the whole truth, for a wide range of reasons. Beyond the story, this makes the narration itself into a puzzle. What can we trust? What blanks are being left open, and what information can we fill out just by paying close attention to what the narrator doesn’t tell us? Or doesn’t want us to know? Asking these questions and search for answers is endlessly fascinating. And so fun. This is why the unreliable narrator will always be a mainstay in the world of fiction.

Emily Martin has a PhD in English from the University of Southern Mississippi. She’s a contributing editor at Book Riot and blogs/podcasts at Book Squad Goals.