The 9 Types Of Unreliable Narrator


There is a long history of unreliable narrators in fiction. There is an even longer list in reality. They are called everyday people.

What is an unreliable narrator?

An unreliable narrator is a first-person narrator with a compromised viewpoint. (Read 10 Ways to Tell a Story – All about viewpoint, to understand what viewpoint means.)

Narrators serve as filters for stories. What narrators do not know or experience cannot be shown to the reader. The first-person narrator is powerful because that viewpoint is the only one we have to judge the events on the page. The reader believes that the narrator will be truthful and provide an accurate account of the story.

When we have an unreliable narrator, the reader cannot trust his or her version of the story.

Theses narrators may be insane, angry, strung-out on drugs or alcohol, naïve, foreign, criminals, liars, or simply younger than everybody else. They can be comical or absurd, tragic or serious, terrifying or surreal. The one thing they have in common is that they are deceptive.

The con man, Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint,  in The Usual Suspects

At some point in a story, the reader realises the narrator cannot be trusted. Something happens – perhaps a lie is uncovered or an identity shown to be implausible. Readers are forced to form their own opinions about the events, and the characters’ motivations, in the story. If the author has not pulled off the initial deception with enough style or enticed readers with the power of the story, they may abandon the book.

Fiction relies on the willingness of readers to suspend belief. Although most of us do this, some readers jump ship when they realise that even the narrator of this make-believe world cannot be trusted. As Holden Caulfield tells us, ‘I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.’ How can we believe anything he says

If unreliable narrators are badly crafted, they can be obvious, manipulative, misleading, confusing and pretentious. If they are well written, they can be powerful, clever and fascinating.

Pat Peoples from The Silver Linings Playbook

Here are nine types of unreliable narrators:

  1. The child. The narrator may be a different age or have completely different life experiences from the other people in the story. They tell their versions of a grown-up story through their limited understanding and experience. Examples: Jack from Room, Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn from The Adventures of Huckleberry Fynn.
  2. The outsider. The narrator may be prejudiced by race, class, politics, culture or gender. If somebody is brought up in a certain way, their version of events will be skewed according to that culture. Examples: Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Nelly from Wuthering Heights, Mrs de Winter from Rebecca, Invisible Man from Invisible Man.
  3. The crazy. The narrator may be going through a difficult adolescence, on drugs, or have an eating disorder: Lia from  Wintergirls, Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower,  Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye
  4. The crazier. The narrator may suffer from hallucinations or dementia, or flashbacks caused by post-traumatic stress. Examples: Pat Peoples from The Silver Linings Playbook, Pi Patel in Life of Pi, Chief Bromden from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Raoul Duke from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Narrator from Candy
  5. The craziest. The narrator may have a mental illness or personality disorder: Examples: The anonymous narrator in The Fight Club, the unknown schoolgirl in The Moth Diaries, Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal,  Humbert Humbert from Lolita, Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, Barney Panofsky  from Barney’s Version, Portnoy from Portnoy’s Complaint, Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island, Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin

  6. The innocent. The narrator may have a lower than normal intelligence, or an inability to deal with reality, or a learning disability. Examples: Forrest from Forrest Gump , Edward Bloom in Big Fish,  Christopher Boone from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,  Bartholomew Neil in The Good Luck of Right Now
  7. The criminal. The narrator may be lying to save himself, trying to be persuade you that what he has done is not wrong, or attempting to blame one of the other characters out of revenge. Examples: Nick and Amy from Gone Girl, John Dowell in The Good Soldier, Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects, Nina and Isobel in Talking to the Dead, Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire, Dorothy L Sayers’s The Documents in the Case.

  8. The ghost. The narrator may be otherworldly. Examples: Dr Malcolm Crowe in The Sixth Sense, Jakabok Botch from Mister B. Gone, Screwtape from The Screwtape Letters, the ghost in The Turn Of The Screw, Lucifer in I, Lucifer
  9. The wilful liar. The narrator is just messing with the reader. This is the least successful type of unreliable narrator and is often the equivalent of someone waking up and declaring it was all a dream. Examples: Pandora in Big Brother, Briony Tallis in Atonement

Can you think of any other types of unreliable narrators?

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© Amanda Patterson

If you enjoyed this articleyou will love:

Follow these links to help you find a reason for your unreliable narrator to behave badly:

  1. When crazy is good – Nine good reasons for your character’s bad behaviour
  2. Eight Personality Disorders – Does your narrator have one of these?
  3. Psychopath or Sociopath – What’s the difference?

This article has 8 comments

  1. Nenad Ristic

    I would also add the honest unreliable narrator… The one who is upfront about the fact that he is unreliable…

    The only example I can think of is the main character in Önly Forward…

  2. Emily

    Which one would Nick Carraway of The Great Gatsby fit into? Innocent? Crazy?

  3. Writers Write

    We think he could be an outsider, Emily.

  4. Cyanne

    What about Julie from Code Name Verity?

  5. Chris guppy

    I would add the narrators from The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying.

  6. Chris guppy

    what about the narrators from the sound and the fury and As I Lay Dying?

  7. Nanette Morton

    An unreliable narrator is any narrator whose version of evens is deliberately called into question within the story itself, either by a declaration of that narrator, or by other characters’ responses to that narrator. (I’m paraphrasing the definition in “A Contemporary Guide to Literary Terms” here.) I’d argue that your definition conflates an unreliable narrator (literature) with an unreliable source (history/journalism). So, for example “Chief” in “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest” says that some of his story might not even be true. He is therefore an unreliable narrator. The narrator of Ford Maddox Ford’s “The Good Soldier” is unreliable because it’s clear that he doesn’t realize that his wife is having an affair. Ellen Dean is NOT an unreliable narrator–she supplies a frame narration, but in no place are we given to believe that what she tells us/Lockwood is not true. The narrator of Invisible Man moves from innocence to experience, but once again, he is not unreliable. The only way these narrators are unreliable is that their viewpoints are limited–they are first person narrators who can only tell the story as it unfolds through their eyes. (Side note: Ellison was drawing on Richard Wright’s autobiography for both The Battle Royal and the Brotherhood.) An unreliable source (which historians are warned about) is someone whose story may be skewed because of politics, etc. etc. (as you mention in your definition.) One source initially deemed to be unreliable is the 19th century slave narrative (“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” is the one that most people are familiar with.) When escaped American slaves told their stories, a white benefactor (usually a minister) wrote a forward, ascertaining that the narrator’s story was true. The minister would do independent research (like writing letters to a former master) to determine the truth of the story. They did this because the audience automatically deemed lower class and/or illiterate people unreliable sources. After the Civil War, the narrations were again dismissed as “propaganda”. (Now, however, things have come full circle. By looking in the county archives, for example, Preston Dickson ascertained the truth of Douglass’s narrative.) Historians will often dismiss oral histories not backed up by paper, for example, because those narrations might be highly skewed.(A person might exaggerate his/her role in events, for example.) Race and gender, however, do not automatically make a narrator unreliable. By that definition every narrator is unreliable.

  8. Jakob Drud

    You could include ‘The Political Narrator’ on this list. A real-world example is Julius Caesar, who was highly unreliable in his writing, telling only the story that put him in the best light and served his ambitions. A fictional character of this kind is found in Gene Wolfe’s ‘Book of the New Sun’, who states several times that he has total recall of events, but who is obviously very careful in choosing how to relate events.

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