An unreliable narrator is like the friend who tells you a story, but twists the details to serve her own purposes.

Unreliable narrators are typically used in first person (stories told with the pronoun ‘I’), but they can also be used effectively in third person stories. For example, a detective novel written in third person (using the pronouns he/she) might feature a detective who is solving the murder of a friend’s daughter. However, he may omit certain details from the investigation, and from the reader, for a variety of different reasons. Let’s say the man’s daughter had recently discovered the detective intentionally botched an investigation that sent an innocent man to jail. The detective had good reasons for doing what he did – but he now has to solve the girl’s murder while avoiding possibly relevant pieces of information in order to keep himself out of trouble.

There are many different paths a writer could take with this storyline.

  • The reader could be left in the dark about the unreliability of the narrator. The reader may discover the narrator’s secrets as the detective’s friend does. The mystery may finally be solved as we discover the secrets the detective was trying to hide from us and from his friend. This storyline would most likely provide a surprise ending.
  • Or, the reader could know up front that the detective isn’t completely reliable. The reader could know from the beginning of the book that the detective is conducting an investigation – while trying to keep himself beyond reproach. The reader will question his decisions and motives throughout the book. This approach would add a great deal of drama and uncertainty to the story.
  • Another angle could be allowing the reader to wonder if the narrator is unreliable because of the predicament he is in, but in reality the detective is telling the truth. In this instance, the detective might be under suspicion by the police, and the reader may believe the police over the narrator – only to discover he was telling the truth all along. The narrator is vindicated and the reader realizes he jumped to conclusions based on assumptions of guilt, rather than evidence.

Obviously, the choices are endless. The next time you read your favorite mystery writer, after determining the basic POV, look more closely. Does the POV character change from one scene to the next? Consider mysteries by Harlan Coben, Lee Child and James Lee Burke, who write with one POV character. Are there narrator’s always reliable? What about a Tony Hillerman or James Patterson book, both of whom write from multiple POV’s. Are all of the POV characters reliable? Could the book be strengthened by changing POV? Take your favorite book from your favorite author and rewrite the first chapter in a different POV. It’s a great opportunity to try out a POV that you wouldn’t normally write from.

Next week – writing advice from a master