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Unreliable Narrator | Narrative Perspective Explained

In our previous article of the Narrative Perspectives, we talked about the first-person narrator. We know that the first-person narrator tells the story in their voice. They are not always aware of all the facts. But should we always believe the narrator and everything they say? This is the case of the unreliable narrator.

In this article, we will define unreliable narrator, exploring its characteristics and its significant role in storytelling.

What is the Unreliable Narrator?

An unreliable narrator is a narrative device where the person telling the story is not entirely trustworthy. They may intentionally deceive the reader, have a limited understanding of events, or possess a biased perspective.

This lack of reliability can manifest in various ways, such as withholding crucial information, distorting facts, or even fabricating events entirely. The unreliable narrator challenges the reader’s perception of truth and forces them to question the authenticity of the story being presented.

Characteristics of an unreliable narrator can range from intentional deception to psychological factors. Some common traits include a distorted worldview, emotional instability, or a propensity for self-delusion.

Their unreliability may also stem from a lack of knowledge or understanding, making their narration unintentionally flawed. These characteristics contribute to the complexity and depth of the narrative, adding layers of intrigue and suspense.

Wayne C. Booth coined this term in his book “The Rhetoric of Fiction“, explained how an unreliable narrator is. It has a narrative function, such as misleading the reader/viewer or putting the character in question in a negative light.


What is an Unreliable Narrator in literature?

An unreliable narrator in literature is a character who tells the story but lacks credibility or distorts the truth. This unreliability can result from mental instability, bias, deliberate deception, or a limited understanding of events. Unreliable narrators challenge the reader’s interpretation of the narrative and add complexity to the storytelling, often leading to deeper exploration of themes and perspectives in the text.

The role of an Unreliable Narrator in storytelling

Unreliable narrators serve a crucial role in storytelling by adding complexity, depth, and ambiguity to the narrative.

They introduce an element of unpredictability and challenge the reader’s preconceived notions of truth and reality. By questioning the reliability of the narrator, the reader becomes an active participant in the story, forced to engage in critical thinking and interpretation.

The reader’s awareness of the narrator’s unreliability also affects their emotional investment in the story. It creates a sense of suspense, as they navigate through the twists and turns of the narrative, never quite certain of what is true or false. This heightened engagement with the story enhances the reader’s overall experience and leaves a lasting impact.

Moreover, the unreliable narrator can be a powerful tool for exploring themes such as identity, perception, and the subjectivity of truth. Their unreliability often reflects the flaws and limitations of human perception, highlighting the complexities of the human experience.

Types of Unreliable Narrators in literature

Unreliable narrators come in various forms, each providing a unique lens through which the story is presented.

  • Mad narrator. The protagonist’s mental instability affects their perception and interpretation of events. This type of narrator can create an atmosphere of uncertainty and unease as the reader must decipher what is real and what is a product of the narrator’s disturbed mind.
  • Child narrator. The narrator lacks the maturity and experience to fully comprehend or accurately convey the story. Their innocence and naivety can lead to misinterpretations or omissions, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps and uncover the true meaning behind the events.
  • Unreliable witness. The narrator’s bias or personal agenda skews their account of events. This type of narrator can manipulate the reader’s emotions and opinions, blurring the line between fact and fiction.

Unreliable Narrator vs. Biased Narrator: what’s the difference?

While an unreliable narrator and a biased narrator may appear similar, there is a distinct difference between the two. An unreliable narrator lacks credibility due to their intentional or unintentional misrepresentation of events. Their unreliability stems from their flawed perception or lack of knowledge.

On the other hand, a biased narrator presents a subjective account of events, influenced by their personal opinions, beliefs, or prejudices. Unlike the unreliable narrator, a biased narrator may genuinely believe in the accuracy of their narrative, even though it may be skewed or one-sided.

Common techniques used by Unreliable Narrators

Unreliable narrators employ various techniques to deceive or mislead the reader.

  • Selective presentation of information. They may choose to omit crucial details or present events out of chronological order, creating a fragmented and distorted narrative. This deliberate manipulation keeps the reader on their toes, questioning the reliability of the narrator’s version of events.
  • Ambiguous language or double entendre. Through carefully chosen words and phrases, the unreliable narrator can plant seeds of doubt or subtly hint at alternate interpretations. This linguistic manipulation adds an element of mystery and intrigue, forcing the reader to read between the lines and search for hidden meanings.
  • Break the fourth wall. The unreliable narrator may even break the fourth wall, directly addressing the reader and acknowledging their own unreliability. This metafictional technique blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction, challenging the reader’s perception of the story’s truth.

Unreliable Narrator examples in popular literature

Numerous literary works have employed the unreliable narrator to great effect.

One notable example is “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, narrated by the troubled teenager, Holden Caulfield. Through his cynical and emotionally unstable perspective, Holden presents a distorted view of the world, forcing the reader to question the authenticity of his narrative.

Another famous example is Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” narrated by Humbert Humbert, a pedophile who manipulates the reader through his charming yet morally reprehensible voice. Humbert’s unreliable narration forces the reader to confront their own complicity in sympathizing with such a morally corrupt character.

A clear example of the Unreliable Narrator is Italo Svevo‘s Zeno’s Conscience. Zeno Cosini is the unreliable narrator of this story. To appear better than he is in the eyes of Doctor S., Zeno distorts the facts of the past and constantly alters his judgments.

Criticisms and controversies surrounding Unreliable Narrators

While the unreliable narrator is a widely celebrated narrative technique, it is not without its criticisms and controversies.

Some argue that unreliable narrators can be frustrating or confusing for readers who seek a straightforward and objective account of events. Others believe that the use of an unreliable narrator can undermine the reader’s trust in the narrative, leading to a sense of detachment or skepticism.

Furthermore, the unreliable narrator has been criticized for perpetuating harmful stereotypes or reinforcing negative biases. When done insensitively or irresponsibly, the use of an unreliable narrator can inadvertently promote harmful ideologies or misrepresent marginalized communities.

“We commonly do not remember that it is … always the first person that is speaking.”

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Crafting intriguing narratives: utilizing Unreliable Narrators with bibisco

Unreliable narrators add layers of complexity and intrigue to storytelling by casting doubt on the story’s reliability.

With bibisco novel writing software, writers can effectively employ the unreliable narrator technique to create suspense and engage readers.

The software’s intuitive features allow writers to craft narratives from multiple perspectives, experiment with different points of view and seamlessly weave together the nuances of unreliable narration.

Unrealiable Narrator - bibisco's project explorer
bibisco’s project explorer

By providing tools for character development, plot structuring, and narrative exploration, bibisco empowers writers to master the art of storytelling through the lens of an unreliable narrator.


The unreliable narrator continues to captivate readers and writers alike, offering a unique perspective and challenging the boundaries of storytelling. Its ability to introduce ambiguity, depth, and complexity has cemented its place as a powerful narrative device.

By questioning the reliability of the narrator, readers are encouraged to engage actively with the text, unravel hidden meanings, and explore the intricacies of human perception.

Through examples in literature, we have witnessed the impact of unreliable narrators in shaping our understanding of the human experience. From exploring the depths of madness to the subjective nature of truth, the unreliable narrator forces us to confront uncomfortable truths and challenge our preconceived notions.

In conclusion, the unreliable narrator remains an enduring and significant aspect of literature, leaving an indelible mark on readers and enriching the storytelling landscape.

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