Unreliable Narrator: Definition & Examples
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 8 min read


  1. What is Unreliable Narrator?
  2. Types of Unreliable Narrators
  3. Characteristics of Unreliable Narrators
  4. How to Identify Unreliable Narrators
  5. Uses of Unreliable Narrators in Literature
  6. Unreliable Narrator Examples in Literature

Ever found yourself engrossed in a riveting novel, only to realize that the storyteller has been pulling the wool over your eyes? That's the magic of an unreliable narrator—a tool that can transform a simple tale into a mind-boggling puzzle. This blog will explore the definition of an unreliable narrator, its types, and how it's used in the literary world. So, let's dive right in—no woolly deceits here, promise!

What is Unreliable Narrator?

At its most basic, the definition of unreliable narrator refers to a character who tells a story with a lack of credibility. There's more to it, though. Let's break it down.

A Twisted Tale-Teller

Imagine you're hearing a story from a friend—let's call him Jack. Jack's known for his tall tales, and you're aware that his version of events often strays from the truth. In the literary world, Jack would be called an unreliable narrator. This term refers to a character whose telling of the story is not completely accurate or credible due to various reasons. It's like a game of telephone, where the story changes as it passes through the narrator's perspective.

More Than Meets the Eye

Remember our friend Jack? While his stories are embellished, they give you an insight into his character—you understand more about Jack's personality, his fears and desires, through his skewed storytelling. Similarly, an unreliable narrator reveals more than just the plot. They expose their biases, their misunderstandings, and their personal traits, adding depth to the narrative.

A Tool of Intrigue

Unreliable narrators are like the magicians of literature—they can transform a straightforward narrative into a mystery. As you read, you're not only following the plot; you're also trying to decipher the reality beneath the narrator's distortions. This narrative technique keeps you hooked, turning pages to uncover the truth.

So, to sum it up, an unreliable narrator is a character whose recounting of events may not be entirely accurate or trustworthy, due to their biases, misunderstandings or personal traits. They add a layer of intrigue to the story, making you question what is real and what is an illusion. The definition of an unreliable narrator, therefore, goes beyond mere untruthfulness—it's about the unique perspective they bring to the storytelling.

Types of Unreliable Narrators

Now that we have a clear definition of an unreliable narrator, let's explore the different types. Like the many shades of color in a rainbow, unreliable narrators come in various forms, each adding a unique twist to the narrative.

The Delusional Dreamer

Meet Alice, a character who lives in a world of her own, where reality and fantasy merge. She is a delusional narrator, one who can't distinguish fact from fiction. This type of narrator adds a dream-like quality to the story, making you question what's real and what's a figment of Alice's imagination.

The Biased Observer

Remember your friend who always takes sides? In literature, we call him a biased observer. This narrator's views are colored by personal feelings or opinions. They might favor one character over another or interpret events according to their own beliefs. Reading their narrative is like seeing the world through tinted glasses—you get a skewed version of events.

The Inadvertent Liar

Imagine a child narrating a complex political drama. Sounds amusing, right? This is an example of a naive or inadvertent unreliable narrator. They don't intend to mislead, but their limited understanding or innocence leads to an unreliable narration. This type of narrator adds an element of innocence and charm to the story, making it both engaging and thought-provoking.

The Calculated Deceiver

Picture a suave spy, spinning a web of lies to conceal his identity—this is the calculated deceiver. This narrator deliberately misleads the reader, often for self-serving purposes. Their narration is a puzzle, filled with clues and red herrings, and it's up to you to solve it.

Each type of unreliable narrator lends a distinctive flavor to the narrative, making it more captivating and multi-dimensional. Whether it's Alice's dreamy tales, the biased observer's slanted views, the innocent misunderstandings of the inadvertent liar, or the calculated deceiver's intriguing puzzles, unreliable narrators turn simple stories into complex narratives that engage and challenge the reader.

Characteristics of Unreliable Narrators

So, what makes these unreliable narrators... well, unreliable? Let's dive into some common traits that define these fascinating characters.

Contradictory Statements

One common characteristic of an unreliable narrator is the tendency to make contradictory statements. It's like they're playing a game of "two truths and a lie," except it's not always easy to tell which is which. This inconsistency in their narrative can leave you scratching your head, wondering what to believe.


Unreliable narrators often have strong opinions and biases that color their narrative. It's like listening to a die-hard sports fan talk about their rival team—you're probably not going to get an objective account. This subjectivity can add layers of complexity to the story, making it more engaging.

Limited Knowledge or Understanding

Remember the inadvertent liar we talked about earlier? Some unreliable narrators have a limited understanding of the events they're describing. This could be due to their age, innocence, or a lack of information. Their narrative can feel like a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces—you have to fill in the gaps with your own interpretations.

Hidden Agendas

Some unreliable narrators have ulterior motives or hidden agendas. They might withhold crucial information or present a skewed version of events to manipulate the reader's perception. It's like they're holding all the cards and only revealing what suits their game.

These are just a few characteristics that define unreliable narrators. They might not all display these traits, and some might exhibit other quirks. But one thing's for sure—unreliable narrators make for a captivating narrative that keeps you on your toes!

How to Identify Unreliable Narrators

Now that you know the definition of an unreliable narrator and what makes them tick, let's look at how you can spot one in the wild world of literature. It's like a literary scavenger hunt!

Look For Contradictions

Remember when we spoke about unreliable narrators making contradictory statements? Well, that's your first clue. If a narrator's account is full of inconsistencies or contradictions, they might not be the most trustworthy source of information. It's like trying to follow a map that keeps changing directions - confusing, right?

Check for Bias

Another sign is a strong bias or subjectivity. If the narrator seems to favor certain characters or events, or if they always present one side of the story, they might not be giving you the full picture. It's like getting a movie review from a superfan - there's probably more to the story than they're letting on.

Notice Missing Pieces

Does the story feel like a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces? If a narrator seems to have a limited understanding of the events they're describing, or if they're conveniently leaving out certain details, they might be unreliable. It's like trying to piece together a story from a toddler - there's likely more to it than meets the eye.

Be Aware of Hidden Agendas

If the narrator seems to have an ulterior motive, or if they're trying to manipulate your perception, be careful. They might have a hidden agenda. It's like a magic trick - what they want you to see might not be the whole truth.

Identifying unreliable narrators can be a fun and challenging part of reading. It adds a layer of complexity to the story and keeps you engaged and on your toes. So, next time you're reading a book, keep these tips in mind, and you might just spot an unreliable narrator!

Uses of Unreliable Narrators in Literature

Alright, we've defined the unreliable narrator, we've explored how to spot one, now let's take a look at why authors decide to use these tricky characters in their storytelling. It's like adding a secret ingredient to a recipe to make it more interesting.

Creating Suspense and Intrigue

Unreliable narrators are often used to create a sense of suspense or intrigue. By keeping the readers on their toes, and constantly questioning the truth of the narrative, authors can build an atmosphere of uncertainty. Think of it as a literary rollercoaster ride - you're never quite sure what's coming next!

Exploring the Subjectivity of Truth

Another use of the unreliable narrator is to explore the idea that truth can be subjective. By presenting events from the skewed perspective of an unreliable narrator, authors can challenge the reader's perceptions and assumptions. It's like holding up a funhouse mirror to reality - everything is slightly distorted, and nothing is as it seems.

Highlighting Character Flaws

Unreliable narrators can also be used to highlight character flaws or psychological complexities. By allowing these characters to present their own skewed version of events, authors can provide a deep insight into their personalities and motivations. It's like going on a journey through the labyrinth of their mind - there's always something new to discover.

Providing a Unique Voice

Finally, unreliable narrators can offer a unique and compelling voice in a story. Their distinctive perspectives can add depth and complexity to the narrative, making the story more engaging and memorable. It's like listening to a piece of music played in a different key - it has a completely different feel to it.

So, as you can see, unreliable narrators are not just a random choice by the author. They serve specific purposes and add a unique flavor to the story. It's like a chef choosing to add a pinch of spice to a dish - it transforms the whole experience.

Unreliable Narrator Examples in Literature

Now that we've covered the definition of unreliable narrator and explored its role in literature, it's time to dive into some specific examples. These are like the cherries on top of our literary sundae, giving us a taste of how these concepts play out in real stories.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Who could forget Holden Caulfield? This teen narrator is the embodiment of unreliability. His bitterness, juvenile perspective and tendency to exaggerate make him a classic example of an unreliable narrator. It's like trying to get directions from someone who keeps getting lost — you're never quite sure if you're heading the right way.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

This modern thriller provides a double dose of unreliability with its two narrators, Nick and Amy Dunne. As their marriage unravels, so does the truth, with both characters presenting conflicting versions of events. It's like watching a tennis match with the ball of truth constantly being hit back and forth.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Briony Tallis, with her wild imagination and misunderstood observations, leads us down a path of deception for most of the novel. It’s only towards the end that we realize the extent of her unreliability. It's like taking a stroll through a maze — you think you're on the right path, only to hit a dead end.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Patrick Bateman, the protagonist, is a deeply disturbed individual whose narration is as erratic as his behavior. The line between reality and hallucination is often blurred, making him a fascinating example of an unreliable narrator. It's like trying to follow a map drawn in a dream — confusing, disorientating, but oddly compelling.

And there you have it! Examples of unreliable narrators can be found in books from all kinds of genres, and each one adds a unique twist to their story. It's like tasting a variety of exotic spices — each one leaves a distinct flavor in your mouth.

If you enjoyed exploring the concept of unreliable narrators and want to learn more about storytelling techniques, you might be interested in the workshop 'Treatment Writing For Documentaries' by Reshelshah. Although focused on documentaries, this workshop offers valuable insights into crafting compelling stories and can help you enhance your narrative skills across various genres.