What Is an Unreliable Narrator?

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By Stephanie Brown

Few literary surprises are quite as electrifying as the realization that you’ve been led through a story by an unreliable narrator. Whether the twist is doled out in dribs and drabs or disclosed in a flash, the big reveal that your humble narrator might not be telling the whole truth is one of literature’s greatest feats — provided the author can pull it off, of course. 

A well-written unreliable narrator is thrillingly effective at building suspense, ratcheting up tension, and propelling a story forward. But what is the definition of an “unreliable narrator,” and how has the device been used in literature throughout the years? Join us as we delve into this twisting, turning literary technique, tracing its origins from foundational texts to new works, like The Fury by Alex Michaelides, a mesmerizing murder mystery told by “the king of all unreliable narrators” (David Baldacci). 

“Unreliable Narrator” Definition

An unreliable narrator is a storyteller whose story cannot be fully trusted. Sometimes an unreliable narrator consciously withholds information from the reader or seeks to mislead; other times a narrator’s unreliability is beyond their control. No matter the motivation, an unreliable narrator subverts our expectation that what we’re reading is to be believed — and, as a result, tests our assumptions about believability as a whole. 

Unreliable narrators can be found throughout the history of literature, from the fantastical exploits of Lucius in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (late-2nd century AD) to the tall-tale adventures of Baron Munchausen in Rudolf Erich Raspe’s Baron Munchausen's Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (1785). The literary technique was especially popular among the modernist authors of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and William Faulkner frequently employed the technique and would push it to its limits with a “stream of consciousness” style of writing, where a narrator’s chaotic flow of thoughts is the narrative. Literary critic Wayne Booth is often credited with coining the term “unreliable narrator” after dissecting the differences between reliable and unreliable narration in his 1961 book The Rhetoric of Fiction

Types of Unreliable Narrators

While there are as many varieties of unreliable narrators as there are styles of stories, you’ll generally encounter three types in literature:

Narrators who mislead you on purpose.

This type of unreliable narrator knows they’re playing with the reader. Many times they have a reason to lie — perhaps to protect themselves from retribution or conceal their culpability in a crime. You’ll often find this type of unreliable narrator in mysteries, thrillers, and crime novels, as they keep the reader guessing. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012) is a prime example of multiple narrators knowingly lying to protect themselves in the wake of a disappearance. The Fury by Alex Michaelides delivers an immersive murder mystery set on a bewitching Greek island in which we’re never quite sure if our narrator is telling the whole truth about the murder that just occurred.

Narrators who are lying to themselves (and us). 

Sometimes our narrator is just as confused as we are about what’s going on, whether it’s due to instability, intoxication, or a refusal to accept reality. Often these narrators have lost their grip on the world or are lying to themselves to protect their psyche from a traumatic truth. This type of unreliable narrator is regularly featured in 19th-century narratives. In “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892), for example, we meet an unwell woman who has been placed by her husband under a forced rest cure and slowly slips into madness as she sees a figure “creeping” around behind the wallpaper of her room. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) features a narrator descending into madness under frightful circumstances, even as he tries desperately to convince the reader that he’s of sound mind. 

Narrators who don’t know that they’re unreliable. 

These unreliable narrators don’t necessarily realize or perhaps can’t help the fact that their story is not to be believed in full. Often, unreliable narrators of this type are young, like in Emma Donoghue’s Room (2010), in which 5-year-old Jack is confined to his surroundings and doesn’t comprehend his dire situation as clearly as we do. Mark Haddon’s A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (2002) is told by Christopher, a 15-year-old boy on the autism spectrum who’s trying to solve the mystery of his neighbor’s murdered dog. Christopher’s admitted difficulty in reading emotions means he doesn’t always understand why adults around him make the decisions they do. In Amy Tintera’s Listen for the Lie, narrator Lucy is the presumed prime suspect in her friend’s death. However, Lucy has amnesia from a head injury she suffered the night of the murder and uncovers facts about the case along with the reader.

How to Spot an Unreliable Narrator

Part of the fun in reading a story told by an unreliable narrator is picking up the clues along the way! Perhaps the narrator lies to another character or contradicts claims they’ve made a few pages ago. They could display behaviors or personality traits that inhibit their ability to tell the whole truth, whether it’s an intensifying detachment from reality, recurring memory lapses, or being under the influence of something. You might also notice incongruent details between the narrator’s claims and the world at large: Perhaps they make an objectively false statement or boast of outrageous accomplishments and abilities that you know are not true. Of course, an unreliable narrator might make it easy on you by declaring their slipperiness right out of the gate. Elliot Chase, the unreliable narrator from The Fury, begins his narrative with the following evasive opener: “This is a tale of murder. Or maybe that’s not quite true.”

Novels with Unreliable Narrators

Once you know how to spot an unreliable narrator, you’ll start to see them everywhere you look. Here are a few of our favorite novels that feature unreliable narrators. 

The Fury by Alex Michaelides (2024)

In his newest mystery thriller, Alex Michaelides delivers a swirling whodunit told by an unreliable narrator for the ages. Inspired by old-school locked-room murder mysteries, The Fury transports us to an idyllic Greek island where ex–movie star Lana Farrar invites a few of her most glamorous friends for a visit. The getaway is splendid until simmering jealousies return, a tempestuous windstorm descends, and someone ends up dead. Now everyone on the island is a suspect. Elliot Chase, a charismatic playwright and one of Lana’s guests, narrates the mystery, addressing the reader directly as he delivers “a story unlike any you’ve ever heard.” Of course, Elliot’s also a suspect, and his winking, wickedly unreliable narration keeps you guessing at the killer’s true identity as it cleverly deconstructs the mystery genre itself.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides (2019)

For a double dose of thrills from Michaelides, check out The Silent Patient, the author’s blockbuster psychological thriller debut. The narrative is told in the first person by Theo Faber, a forensic psychoanalyst, as well as through the diary entries of Alicia Berenson, Theo’s institutionalized patient who stands accused of murdering her husband. As the novel progresses, the parallel accounts intersect to reveal that Theo’s story is far from complete, causing the reader to spiral back through the narrative in search of the truth.

Listen for the Lie by Amy Tintera (2024)

In bestselling YA author Amy Tintera’s adult debut novel, Listen for the Lie, narrator Lucy is as reliable as one can be…when that person suffers from amnesia. The morning after her best friend was murdered, Lucy was found walking down a road covered in her friend’s blood. The residents of their small Texas town pronounced Lucy guilty immediately, but there was no evidence, and Lucy was never charged. Years later, a popular true crime podcaster starts looking into this intriguing cold case, and Lucy decides to help him track down the killer — even if it means implicating herself.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (2015)

The Girl on the Train features three narrators — Rachel, Anna, and Megan — all of whom have something to hide and reasons to be unreliable. Rachel, our protagonist, is a self-destructive drinker who frequently blacks out to the point that she doesn’t trust her recollections. Hawkins’s acclaimed thriller uses the unreliable narrator technique both as a compelling storytelling concept and a way to explore how women’s stories are often not believed.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)

In this bestselling work of literary fiction by Yann Martel, the novel’s unreliable narrator illustrates the ways we rewrite the story of our life in the face of trauma. Pi, a young Indian boy, recounts his harrowing lost-at-sea experience to officials after he washes up on a beach in Mexico. He offers two accounts of survival: One is an extraordinary tale, while the other tells of brutal suffering. Pi’s rescuers — and the readers of Life of Pi — have to choose which one to believe. 

American Psycho 

By Bret Easton Ellis (1991)

Patrick Bateman in American Psycho is one of literature’s most chilling unreliable narrators as he lives out the disturbing double life of an investment banker by day and a serial killer by night. Bret Easton Ellis’s postmodern masterwork is an excellent example of both stream-of-consciousness storytelling and of a narrator slowly losing his grip on reality to the point that neither he nor the audience is sure what to believe.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd 
By Agatha Christie (1926)

WARNING: Stop reading now if you want to avoid spoilers to this classic crime novel!

Agatha Christie is the undisputed Queen of Crime and an inspiration for contemporary mystery and thriller writers like Alex Michaelides. Yet she caused a stir in 1926 upon the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Why? Because she broke with a foundational convention of the whodunit: The narrator can’t turn out to be the killer. After all, if we’re privy to the killer’s thoughts, how could we not know they committed the crime all along? Christie handles the challenge with panache, but not by having her narrator lie to the reader — indeed, read through the work, and you’ll see that the narrator never lies. Instead, Christie plays a masterful game of creating an unreliable narrator who omits key details.

Curious to learn more about literature? Check out our in-depth companion features: What Is a Mystery? What Is a Psychological Thriller? What Is Speculative Fiction? and What Is a Bildungsroman?

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