Unreliable Narrator

From MasterClass:

An unreliable narrator is an untrustworthy storyteller, most often used in narratives with a first-person point of view. The unreliable narrator is either deliberately deceptive or unintentionally misguided, forcing the reader to question their credibility as a storyteller.

The unreliable narrator is a common literary device in which the storyteller either deliberately or accidentally misleads or conceals key details from the reader. It is a potent storytelling device that allows authors to convey a story from the perspective of a character whose veracity is in question (due to mental or emotional immaturity, for example).

This kind of narrator is especially common in first-person narratives, which is not surprising considering that this kind of narration has a tendency to emphasize the reasons why a story is being told. When an unreliable narrator leads the reader astray, it forces the reader to question the narrator’s reliability as a storyteller.

Are all narrators unreliable? Omniscient narrators tend to be the most reliable because they know everything in a story and don’t have personal vested interests in the plot and, as a result, don’t feel the need to twist the truth to suit their own purposes. On the other hand, there are also narrators with limited points of view who don’t know or understand everything that’s going on.

Whether a story is told from the first-person or third-person perspective or narrated by someone who is omniscient or with a limited point of view, the narrator could still be considered unreliable when he or she conceals key aspects of the story. When reading a story, we can only speculate as to the narrator’s motives.

What are some reasons that the narrator of a novel would purposefully not be reliable? When the narrator’s point of view isn’t reliable, most likely the author would like to make readers think for themselves. Creating unreliable narrators on purpose is a means of instructing the reader to maintain a healthy skepticism. Readers are also afforded the opportunity to provide their own insights into the unfolding events.

Pi Patel, the narrator of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, serves as an excellent illustration of this particular kind of unreliable narrator. He relates a tale of being shipwrecked and being forced to share his lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a tiger. When done effectively, stories like this are particularly engaging since the reader is kept in the dark about the real motives of the narrator the entire time.

Further Reading

Unreliable Narrator, Wikipedia

How Crime Writers Use Unreliable Narrators to Add Suspense by Emily Martin, Novel Suspects

Isn’t Every Narrator an Unreliable Narrator? by Christopher Hermelin and Drew Broussard, Literary Hub

Is There Such a Thing as a Reliable Narrator? by Stacey Megally, Book Riot

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