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The Role of the Unreliable Narrator

By Lee Purcell from Bookbaby blog

An unreliable narrator, as we can see from these examples, can misdirect, add intrigue, and fundamentally change the trajectory and moral of your story.

The unreliable narrator plays an integral role in many fictional works. As a literary device, an unreliable narrator can flavor a novel with mystery, intrigue, multiple dimensions, or, in some cases, red herrings. The narrator may be flawed by mental illness, naivety, violent emotions, a naturally deceptive nature, exaggeration, or some other nefarious motive.

In the hands of a skilled author, the observations and point of view, skewed by the narrator’s perspective, can deepen and enliven a storyline.

Alicia Western in Stella Maris

“She’s a cunning little bitch. Every other word is a lie, no doubt. What is the linguistic connection between devious and deviant?”

This is how Alicia Western mockingly refers to herself when conversing with her therapist in Cormac McCarthy’s novel Stella Maris, perhaps the last novel that will be written by the 89-year-old author.

Alicia, who voluntarily admits herself to a psychiatric institute (known as Stella Maris) demonstrates a masterful knowledge of mathematics, philosophy, quantum physics, and the ineptitude of conventional psychiatric practices. She consistently runs verbal rings around Dr. Cohen in a storyline that consists entirely of a running dialogue between Alicia and her doctor.

The nature of reality is an underlying theme throughout, and the backstory offers a glimpse into the Manhattan Project and the people who developed the atomic bomb (including Alicia’s father). Alicia also talks about her “horts” (short for cohorts) — beings who share many of her waking hours — including the Thalidomide Kid, a little person with flippers for arms who cohabits with her from time to time.

Throughout the dialogue, Alicia’s keen observations and acute insights into the nature of her perceptions give the reader pause as to whether she is truly experiencing mental illness or looking through a window into a world that is all too real.

A Maggot (and its various unreliable narrators)

The challenge in this novel by John Fowles is to identify someone who is a reliable narrator out of the cast of characters — all of whom find deceit as natural as breathing. A Maggot involves a quest to uncover the truth about the journey of a small band of travelers — four men and a woman — and the murder and disappearance of members of their group.

Henry Ayscough, a London lawyer hired by the father of one of the travelers, attempts to unravel the mystery by deposing the individuals. His questions and each character’s answers (underlying the drive to ferret out the facts of the journey) make up a large part of the book.

Set in the 1730s, with the story largely told in the third person, the novel employs different narrative devices, including the author’s modern-day observations and descriptions of supernatural forays that blur reality.

Alternately frustrating and fascinating, Fowles plays with the notion of veracity and shifts the vantage point that is revealed by a host of unreliable narrators, all of them tinkering with reality.

Piscine Molitor Patel in Life of Pi

The core of this fantasy adventure novel involves the struggle of Pi, formally Piscine Molitor Patel, to survive a shipwreck on a lifeboat populated by a variety of zoo animals that are being transported on the ill-fated ship. With companions that include a spotted hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, Pi grapples with life-and-death issues for 227 days before the lifeboat washes ashore on a beach in Mexico.

The novel shifts gears after that and is based around conversations with officials from the Japanese Ministry of Transport. As an archetype for the unreliable narrator, Pi shapes his tale to fit the acceptance of the officials, constructing different versions of events, trying to find a story that the officials can believe and accept as true.

About belief, author Yann Martel says, “If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”

Alex in A Clockwork Orange

Alex, the protagonist of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel, offers an opportunity to get inside the mind of a sociopath. His attitudes to his own violent behavior and the justifications for the brutality that defines his life are cloaked in a charismatic veil made evident in the first-person narration.

As a narrator, Alex is noteworthy for turning social values upside down and looking at the world in a way that makes his violent acts seem like a glorious celebration by fun-loving comrades out to enjoy the best thrills the world has to offer. He’s also noteworthy for his slangy affectation that colors the story, as evidenced by this passage of his description of a piece of classical music:

Oh it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets three-wise silver flamed, and there by the door the times rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder. Oh, it was wonder of wonders. And then, a bird of like rarest spun heavenmetal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now, came the violin solo above all other strings, and those strings were like a cage of silk round my bed. Then flute and oboe bored, like worms of like platinum, into the thick toffee gold and silver. I was in such bliss, my brothers.

After his arrest for murder and consequent imprisonment, Alex undergoes a procedure to help him recognize his evil nature and institute reforms in his behavior. His attitudes to this procedure and its outcome, in comparison to the rebellious Alex we met in the first part of the book, are a provocative book-end to the discussion on good versus evil.

What are other examples of unreliable narrators?

Once you become familiar with this literary device, you can spot it easily in other works and see its effects. In Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, the perceptions of the new Mrs. de Winter shift as she settles in her home in the place of the deceased Mrs. de Winter, the impossibly perfect Rebecca. Her narration from a skewed point of view becomes increasingly unreliable as she struggles with self-doubt and indecision.

Teddy Daniels, in Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, is a classic case of an unreliable narrator handled so skillfully, the reader is inclined to believe him until the fabric of his story starts to unravel toward the end of the book. An analysis of this technique appears in this post.

Transform your story

In the last chapter of Stella Maris, this exchange takes place between Alicia and Dr. Cohen (reproduced with the usual lack of punctuation and other communication conventions that McCarthy eschews):

It occurred to me that when a patient unburdens herself of some intimacy—even if the therapist might like to think that he’s earned a new level of trust, it may not be that at all.

So what may it be at all? Do you think.

It could be that she’s afraid that the therapy is threatening to reveal some other intimacy she considers more private. Although I grant you that might be hard to imagine.

I would tell you something I dont want you to know in order to conceal something that I really dont want you to know.

Something like that.

Sounds a bit shrinky to me.

Misdirection can come in many different forms. Keep this literary device in mind when writing and see if the role of the unreliable narrator can add to your storyline. To be believable, offer some clues early in the narrative that hint at the unreliability of the character. Withhold some of the information in the story, revealing it later — possibly at a critical juncture — to create a pivotal moment that resolves some (or all) of the uncertainty.

The reader’s distrust of the unreliable narrator shouldn’t upend the entire storyline but frame it in a way that enhances the logical flow of the narrative. Done successfully, this can be a very powerful tool in your writing toolbox that can transform your story, and even the meaning of your story, as your reader discovers the truth.

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