Today on Writer’s Glossary…
A narrator is the person telling a story within your work. And an unreliable narrator is a
character who’s version of events cannot be trusted. They could be a character who is duplicitous or manipulative by nature, as in Barbara from Zoe Heller’s novel Notes On A Scandal. However, a narrator could also give us cause to doubt due to their state of mind, such as Haulden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, who describes himself as a liar, but as the novel progresses we realise he is also suffering from mental illness.
Often an unreliable narrator is unaware of the fact that they are warping the truth. They may be blinded by loyalty or duty, such as the butler in Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro or they may just be naive, like Huckleberry Finn. It’s the author’s job to lay clues for the reader. Perhaps you leave it to the end to reveal that the narrator is unreliable or you play with the uncertainty all the way through, as Heller does.
This is a powerful tool for writers, allowing them to unsettle the reader and play with preconceptions, as well as misleading them. Clues and foreshadowing are vital to ensure readers don’t feel cheated, allowing them to think back and have ah-ha moments or even reread the story to see it from a fresh perspective. When it’s done well, an unreliable narrator is fantastic, but proceed with caution.
See also: Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov, Life of Pi by Yann Martel