The Role of an Unreliable Narrator

Thursday, June 13, 2024


I have a love-hate relationship with the unreliable narrator literary device. I love that a story told from the POV from an unreliable narrator can keep you turning pages, questioning reality, or maybe, gasping in surprise at the end of a book. (This was me recently, when my mouth dropped at the conclusion of Lisa Jewell’s suspense/thriller None of This is True, followed by me shaking a fist at my Kindle). 

An unreliable narrator is a protagonist who cannot be trusted to share events and recollections pertinent to the story accurately. Edgar Allan Poe used this device in the short story The Tell-Tale Heart, where a murderous narrator tries to defend his actions. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wanted to share the dangers of placating women and not believing their health issues in The Yellow Wallpaper, where the narrator has gone mad after being forced on prolonged bed rest for what was likely postpartum depression. 

I never realized it until I did a bit more research, but there can be at least three different types of unreliable narrators. According to this article on Reedsy, a Deliberately Unreliable narrator is completely aware of their deception. Amy Dunne from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl comes to mind with this one. One that is Evasively Unreliable is a character that unconsciously alters the truth. Josie from None of This is True, could fall into this category, along with Charlie from Riley Stager’s Survive the Night. The Naively Unreliable narrator is one that is honest but lacks a traditional, “greater” understanding (think five-year-old Jack in Rebecca Donoghue’s novel, Room.) 

I’ve been trying to figure out if I have an unreliable narrator in the manuscript I completed this past year as I put together comp titles for my query letter. The book is about a podcaster trying to solve the disappearance of her sister from a summer camp years earlier. The only descriptions of the missing sister, named Addie, are given through the lens of the protagonist, her younger sister Nikki, and through Addie’s diary entries that are shared throughout the book. Addie is hiding a dangerous secret, so many of these entries are purposefully ambiguous, until the very end of the book, where she finally decides to leave a record of the facts behind. (Of course, this diary has been missing for many years and only the readers are privy to the information until the conclusion). I can’t decide if this makes her a Naively Unreliable narrator or not. 

Other books with unreliable narrators include One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, and The Murder of Roger Akroyd by Agatha Christie. 

What do you think about using an unreliable narrator as a literary device? What books have you read where you thought it worked well? I’d love to hear your thoughts! 

Renee Roberson is an award-winning writer currently seeking representation for her suspense/thriller novel, “It’s a Miracle I’m Alive.” She also produces the weekly true crime podcast, “Missing in the Carolinas,” which receives more than 50,000 downloads per year. Learn more at and


Angela Mackintosh said...

Great post, Renee! After you told me how much you hated the ending of None of This is True, I purchased a copy on Kindle double points day yesterday and a copy of the audiobook. I'm compelled to read this terrible ending. Lol! I'm always intrigued by unreliable narrators and personally love them. I've read some of the ones you mentioned - Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, and Survive the Night. Some of my favorites are Palahniuk's Invisible Monsters and Fight Club, and Easton Ellis's American Psycho. Many argue that every first-person narrator is unreliable.

I'm intrigued by your description of the diary in The Podcaster and that may be something to add to your agent synopsis. I don't think Addie would be "naively" unreliable if she's intentionally making her diary entries ambiguous, unless she is being forced to because she knows someone is reading her diary. That kind of reminds me of Laura Palmer's diary in Twin Peaks.

I'm currently writing a novel where all of the characters are unreliable narrators of varying degrees because of the drugs they are on. I'm sure it will be super annoying. But it's so much fun to write!

Renee Roberson said...

Ang--Ha! I can't wait to hear what you think about the ending of None of This is True. The book is definitely a page turner, but I hate it when I still have some questions at the end of a book. I also read in my research that any first-person narration is questionable, and I'd never really thought about it that way! The concept of your novel is intriguing and I like it when all the narrators are unreliable for different reasons. Karen McManus wrote a YA murder mystery called One of Us is Lying where every single narrator has something to hide, and the stories all unfold as you read the book. I couldn't put that one down either and it's been adapted into a streaming series.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...


I loved ONE OF US IS LYING. But it is so hard to create a really solid unreliable narrator. I love Coyote/trickster characters and they are definitely unreliable.

One of the first novels I remember reading with an unreliable narrator was first person. Everyone was looking for a certain person and what do you know? The narrator was that person in disguise. It seemed like a cheat.

Can't wait to see your story and get to know your narrator!

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