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Unreliable Narrator

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English Literature

We often misinterpret and misread situations; sometimes, we may even remember events incorrectly. Was the murderer a white man or was he wearing a white coat? Our recollection of events or even our perception of our environment cannot always be relied upon, and this is also true of narrators in fiction.

An unreliable narrator is a narrator whose credibility is compromised and, therefore, whose account of events must be questioned. However, the ambiguity that an unreliable narrator brings can also make a text interesting. When faced with an unreliable narrator, the reader has to decipher the truth of events for themselves – if it is possible to fully understand the truth at all.

Unreliable Narrator: Definition

An unreliable narrator is a narrator whose account must be questioned by the reader once it has been identified that the narrator's account of events may not be the 'true' one.

Characteristics of an Unreliable Narrator

There are a series of factors that can make a narrator unreliable. These include but are not limited to:

  • A deteriorating mental state.

  • A lack of maturity - the narrator could be too young to accurately recall events.

  • Deliberately misguiding readers with a false narrative.

  • Being under the influence of mind-altering substances such as drugs or alcohol.

  • Exaggeration in their narration.

  • Lying to themselves and others.

Unreliable narrator, a human head overlaid with a complex tree silhouette, StudySmarterThe human mind is intricately complex and can be unreliable, pixabay.

Reliable vs Unreliable Narrator

In contrast to an unreliable narrator, a reliable narrator is able to give an accurate and impartial account of events. A reliable narrator's retelling of a story is not tainted by any factors that could make a narrator unreliable, such as the factors mentioned above.

Sometimes, it can be quite easy to distinguish an unreliable narrator from a reliable narrator. For example, as opposed to reliable narrators, unreliable narrators may:

  • Contradict statements they have previously made or there appears to be a fault in their retelling of a memory.
  • Be under the influence of substances such as drugs or alcohol.
  • Recall knowledge that contradicts what readers already know or are expected to know about the world the narrator is in.

However, the distinction between a reliable and unreliable narrator is not always explicit. This is because, as first-person narrators will always include their subjective experiences, their narration may not be accurate due to the influence of their own views, feelings, and experiences.

In general, first-person narration aims to tell the most accurate version of an experience. On the other hand, unreliable narration can also include an extreme distortion of an experience, and there may be hints towards the factors that influence the narrator’s lack of credibility.

In the film Fight Club (1999), the narrator documents his story as his insomnia leads to his worsening grip on reality. Because the narrator's deteriorating mental state is shown as the novel progresses, the narrator can be identified as an unreliable narrator.

The purpose and effect of an Unreliable Narrator

Wayne C. Booth (1921-2005) was an American literary critic who first coined the term ‘unreliable narrator’ in his text The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961). This text explains methods you can employ when reading and writing literary texts. Booth believed that a work of fiction does not have to represent reality or include truth all the way through the text and that, in fact, distance from the truth can lead to a text being more exciting.

The purpose of an unreliable narrator is to withhold information from readers or to intentionally steer readers in the wrong direction. Keeping readers in the dark in these ways can have multiple effects. If the direction of the plot is intentionally unclear, the reader is encouraged to question the presented narrative (or narratives) and consider their own interpretation of the story's possible progression and 'truth' of events.

The use of an unreliable narrator makes a story intriguing; it is different from the typical narrative style which uses a reliable narrator. With an unreliable narrator, readers have little idea what to expect. Furthermore, when there are a variety of possible truths present in the story, a text can become more complex and enticing to readers.

Unreliable narrator, signposts pointing to different directions, studysmarterWhich way is the right way? pixabay.

The five types of Unreliable Narrator

There are many different reasons why a narrator could be considered unreliable, including signs of mental instability, naivety or immaturity, being under the influence of drugs and alcohol, exaggeration, and lies that are told to themselves and others.

An unreliable narrator may reflect any number of these signs; however, there are also certain types of unreliable narrators you can look out for; in 1981, William Riggan identified five different categories: picaros, madmen, naifs, clowns, and liars.1

The Picaro

This unreliable narrator is unreliable because they have a tendency to exaggerate when recalling events.

A famous example of a picaro type of unreliable narrator is Don Quixote in The Ingenious Gentleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes, simply known as Don Quixote. The novel follows the adventures of Don Quixote, a middle-aged man who yearns for adventure. Don Quixote chooses to become a knight, and he is knighted in what he describes as a castle but is actually an inn. Another one of Don Quixote’s exaggerations is that he falls for a beautiful princess named Dulcinae who is really a peasant girl named Aldonza. Don Quixote attempts to practise valiance and chivalry in his actions as these are qualities knights are supposed to have. Readers cannot rely on Don Quixote’s retelling of events because it is grossly exaggerated. This makes Don Quixote an unreliable narrator, specifically a picaro.


The etymology of 'picaro': the word 'picaro' is a Spanish word meaning 'cunning', 'lacking honour', or 'mischievous', which are characteristics often exhibited when someone exaggerates.

The Madman

With this type of unreliable narrator, their lack of credibility is caused by mental issues that conflict with reality.

Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962) features narrator Alex as an unreliable narrator. Alex is an example of a liar and madman. He retells the story under the influence of drugs and is mentally unstable, which are both characteristics linked to the madman type of unreliable narrator. Alex is also a liar because he actively manipulates and lies to the readers and other characters. Alex exhibits psychopathic behaviour and Burgess makes Alex narrate and interact with other characters in a way that makes this clear.

The Naif

The Naif, or 'Naïf' in William Riggan's words, is an unreliable narrator because they are very young and so cannot accurately recall events. The Naif may also be unreliable because they don’t have enough experience to be able to perceive events in a factual way, either in certain areas of life or in general.

Scout Finch, the protagonist of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is an example of The Naif.Scout is a young child who documents her experiences growing up in the Deep South. Because her father, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer, she is exposed to the racial prejudices prevalent in her community. As she is a young child, Scout experiences many things for the first time and doesn’t fully understand the complexity of the events that happen around her. When Atticus defends Tom, a young black man falsely accused of assaulting Mayella Ewell, Scout does not understand why the justice system is prejudiced and unfair. Readers rely on what she learns from Atticus to understand the complexities of the situation, rather than relying solely on Scout’s account.


The etymology of 'naif': the word 'naif' comes from the Old French word 'naïf' meaning 'naïve'. Naïvety is often associated with youth and inexperience.

The Liar

With this type of unreliable narrator, their lack of credibility is due to the fact that they are lying. This is a common choice for an unreliable narrator, and the lies can take the form of fabricated stories or lies of omission, among others.

The novel Life of Pi (2001) by Yann Martel features narrator and protagonist Piscine Molitor 'Pi' Patel, a young boy who is known as ‘Pi’ throughout the novel. Pi tells his story of being stranded on a lifeboat he shares with a tiger, a hyena, an orangutan, and a zebra. Once he is rescued, readers are told another version of events where he is at sea with a sailor, the ship’s cook, and his mother. Readers understand that Pi fabricated the story of himself being stranded with animals as the true version of events would be too traumatic for him.

The Clown

The Clown is a narrator who does not take narrations seriously and consciously plays with conventions, truth, and the reader's expectations.

An example of a Clown is Tristam Shandy, the protagonist in The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman (1759–67) by Laurence Sterne. The novel is a biography of Tristam's life and is littered with digression, double entendre, sarcasm and insults. These features make it difficult to know which facts to take seriously when reading Tristam's biography and the recount of events.

Unreliable Narrator: Examples

We Need To Talk About Kevin (2003) by Lionel Shriver

The narrator in this novel is Eva Khatchadourian. She is Kevin’s mother and narrates the events before, leading up to, and after her son Kevin’s attack on his high school in which several students are murdered and injured. Eva is an unreliable narrator because her retelling of memories may not be factually correct due to her bias as Kevin's mother. Her trauma as a result of her son's actions may also lead to her retelling being not as objective or factual as it could be.

Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights is about the struggle of the protagonist Catherine ‘Cathy’ Earnshaw when choosing between her suitors, Edgar Linton and Heathcliff. The narrators in Wuthering Heights are Nelly Dean and Mr Lockwood. As Nelly is known for exaggerating the events she recalls, she is an example of the picaro type of unreliable narrator. Mr Lockwood uses the information Nelly provides him to form his own judgements on the events in his own writing. Because he receives his information from the unreliable narrator, Nelly, his own narration is unintentionally unreliable because it is not based on objective truth. Mr Lockwood could, therefore, be considered an example of the naif type of unreliable narrator.

How to create your own Unreliable Narrator

When creating an unreliable narrator, you must first decide on what characteristics your narrator has that makes them unreliable.

If your narrator is unreliable due to telling lies or untruths, you have to be able to construct their lies in a way that is plausible. It should not be easy to see through your narrator's lies and making your narrator intelligent or giving them a backstory that explains why they are unable to confront the truth helps keep the deception believable.

If you want your narrator to be unreliable due to mental instability like psychopathy in the case of Alex in A Clockwork Orange, for example, you should research typical characteristics of a psychopath and weave them into your narrator’s words and actions.

If your narrator is unreliable due to their tendency to exaggerate, make the exaggerations interesting. Your narrator’s exaggerations should show the attitude they take when they view the world. For example, in Don Quixote, the protagonist and narrator Don Quixote's exaggerations show his redeeming qualities of chivalry and kindness as he still helps those in need.

If your unreliable narrator is naive, this could be demonstrated by contrasting their perspective with those of other characters. The naive unreliable narrator is 'innocent' in all or some respects. This does not necessarily mean that they never do 'bad' things, but that they have gaps in their knowledge or understanding.

Above all, when using an unreliable narrator, don't reveal too much of the truth all at once. Reveal the truth incrementally, as this keeps the story interesting and also makes the writing process more fun for you as you create a complex journey that builds up to a final reveal. Furthermore, giving your unreliable narrator redeeming qualities gives readers a reason to keep reading, whether to better understand the narrator's motives or in the hopes that the narrator will learn and change.

Unreliable Narrator - Key takeaways

  • Wayne C. Booth (1921-2005) was an American literary critic who first coined the term ‘unreliable narrator’ in his text The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961).

  • An unreliable narrator is a narrator whose credibility is put into question once the reader identifies that their account of events may not be true.

  • In contrast to an unreliable narrator, a reliable narrator is one who is able to give an accurate and impartial account of events.

  • Characteristics of an unreliable narrator include but are not limited to: signs of mental instability, naivety, being under the influence of drugs and alcohol, exaggeration in their narration, and lying to themselves and others.

  • The five most common types of unreliable narrators are the madman, the liar, the picaro, the naif, and the clown.

  • The purpose of an unreliable narrator is to withhold information from readers or to intentionally steer readers in the wrong direction. The effect of this is that readers are kept in the dark about the direction the plot is going in, and this can make a text more interesting.


1 William Riggan, Pícaros, Madmen, Naïfs, and Clowns: The Unreliable First-person Narrator,

1981.

Unreliable Narrator

A reliable narrator’s retelling of a story is an accurate and impartial account of events. An unreliable narrator's retelling of a story is inaccurate and influenced by one or many factors.

An unreliable narrator's account of events must be questioned by the reader. The narrator's credibility is put into question once you have identified that their account of events may not be factually true.

Some of the factors which make a narrator unreliable are: 

  • A deteriorating mental state.

  • A lack of maturity, as the narrator could be too young to accurately recall events.

  • Deliberately misguiding readers with a false narrative.

  • Being under the influence of mind-altering substances such as drugs or alcohol.

A reliable narrator's retelling of a story is accurate to the facts known to the author. An unreliable narrator's retelling of a story contradicts what readers already know or are expected to know about the world the narrator is in. 

According to William Riggan, the 5 types of unreliable narrators are:

  • The Madman
  • The Naif
  • The Picaro
  • The Liar
  • The Clown

Final Unreliable Narrator Quiz

Question

What is an unreliable narrator?

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Answer

An unreliable narrator is a narrator whose account of events must be questioned by the reader. The narrator’s credibility is put into question once you have identified that their account of events may not be factually true.  

Show question

Question

What makes a narrator unreliable?

Show answer

Answer

There are a series of factors that can make a narrator unreliable. These include but are not limited to:

  • deteriorating mental state.

  • lack of maturity- the narrator could be too young to accurately recall events.

  • Deliberately misguiding readers with a false narrative.

  • Being under the influence of mind-altering substances such as drugs or alcohol.

Show question

Question

How do you tell if a narrator is reliable or unreliable?

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Answer

A reliable narrator is able to give an accurate and impartial account of events. The reliable narrator's retelling of a story is not tainted by any of the characteristics of an unreliable narrator that may include but are not limited to: signs of mental instability, naivety, being under the influence of drugs and alcohol, exaggeration in their narration, and lying to themselves and others. 

Show question

Question

What are the 5 types of unreliable narrators?

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Answer

The 5 most common types of unreliable narrators are the madman, the liar, the picaro, the naif, the clown.

Show question

Question

Explain this type of unreliable narrator: the madman.

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Answer

With this type of unreliable narrator, their lack of credibility is caused by mental issues that conflict with reality

Show question

Question

Explain this type of unreliable narrator: the liar.

Show answer

Answer

With this type of unreliable narrator, their lack of credibility is due to the fact that they are lying. This is a common choice of an unreliable narrator and the lies can take the form of fabricated stories or lies of omission, for example. 

Show question

Question

Explain this type of unreliable narrator: the picaro.

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Answer

This unreliable narrator is unreliable because they have a tendency to exaggerate when recalling events.  

Show question

Question

Explain this type of unreliable narrator: the naif.

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Answer

This unreliable narrator is unreliable because they are very young and so cannot accurately recall events. The naif can also be unreliable because they don’t have enough experience in life in general or certain areas of life to be able to distinguish events in a factual way. 

Show question

Question

Why is Wayne C. Booth important in the discourse about the unreliable narrator?

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Answer

Wayne C. Booth (1921-2005) was an American literary critic who first coined the term ‘unreliable narrator’ in his text The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961). Booth believed that a work of fiction does not have to represent reality or include truth all the way through the text, as are typical literary rules.

Show question

Question

What is an example of the madman in unreliable narration and why are they unreliable?

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Answer

Narrator Alex in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange (1962) is the madman. Alex is unreliable because he exhibits psychopathic behaviour and lies to characters, so his narration of events is not credible or factually accurate. 

Show question

Question

What is an example of the liar in unreliable narration and why are they unreliable?


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Answer

Narrator Pi in Yann Martel's Life of Pi (2001) is the liar and therefore an unreliable narrator because he creates an alternate version of events whilst stranded on a boat. 

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Question

What is an example of the picaro in unreliable narration and why are they unreliable?


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Answer

Narrator Don Quixote in Don Quixote (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes is a picaro. Don Quixote exaggerates the events that happen during his adventures as a knight. 

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Question

What is an example of the naif in unreliable narration and why are they unreliable?

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Answer

Narrator Scout Finch in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is a naif. Scout is a young child who is naive as she has new experiences and develops an understanding of these new experiences. 

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Question

Explain this type of unreliable narrator: the clown.

Show answer

Answer

The Clown is a narrator who does not take narrations seriously and consciously plays with conventions, truth, and the reader's expectations. 


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