Create Tension & Suspense In Your Novel – How To Use An Unreliable Narrator

unreliable narrator

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Looking to create tension and suspense in your writing? I came across a great way to use an unreliable narrator to set the stage for tension with your readers. If you haven’t heard of unreliable narrators before, you’ll be shocked to see how many examples you’re familiar with there really are. We’ll also look into the 9 different types of unreliable narrators you can use, with examples taken from literature and film. Before we start, let’s look at the definition of an  unreliable narrator.

An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised.

The best part about using an unreliable narrator is that it can prevent predictability in your writing. However, be careful how you write your unreliable narrator. Write it poorly, and narrator will be seen as manipulative, misleading, confusing and pretentious. Write them well, and you have a powerful, interesting and fascinating narrator.

You can see the use of unreliable narrators in film, literature and theater. When writing a novel, making your narrator unreliable will make your reader question their underlying reason for telling this story. Do this well and you’ll have your reader devouring each page for the twist or underlying motivation. If you’re looking at using one, Writers Write listed 9 different types that you can use, with concrete examples to look further into how they are used in literature and film.

9 Types of Unreliable Narrators

  1. The child. The narrator may be a different age or have completely different life experiences from the other people in the story. They tell their versions of a grown-up story through their limited understanding and experience. Examples: Jack from Room, Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn from The Adventures of Huckleberry Fynn.


  2. The outsider. The narrator may be prejudiced by race, class, politics, culture or gender. If somebody is brought up in a certain way, their version of events will be skewed according to that culture. Examples: Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Nelly fromWuthering Heights, Mrs de Winter from Rebecca, Invisible Man from Invisible Man.

    wuthering heights

  3. The crazy. The narrator may be going through a difficult adolescence, on drugs, or have an eating disorder: Lia from  Wintergirls, Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower,  Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye


  4. The crazier. The narrator may suffer from hallucinations or dementia, or flashbacks caused by post-traumatic stress. Examples: Pat Peoples from The Silver Linings Playbook, Pi Patel in Life of Pi, Chief Bromden from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Raoul Duke from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Narrator from Candy


  5. The craziest. The narrator may have a mental illness or personality disorder: Examples: The anonymous narrator in The Fight Club, the unknown schoolgirl in The Moth Diaries, Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal,  Humbert Humbert fromLolita, Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, Barney Panofsky  from Barney’s Version, Portnoy from Portnoy’s Complaint, Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island, Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin


  6. The innocent. The narrator may have a lower than normal intelligence, or an inability to deal with reality, or a learning disability. Examples: Forrest from Forrest Gump , Edward Bloom in Big Fish,  Christopher Boone from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,  Bartholomew Neil in The Good Luck of Right Now


  7. The criminal. The narrator may be lying to save himself, trying to be persuade you that what he has done is not wrong, or attempting to blame one of the other characters out of revenge. Examples: Nick and Amy fromGone Girl, John Dowell in The Good Soldier, Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects, Nina and Isobel in Talking to the Dead, Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire, Dorothy L Sayers’s The Documents in the Case.


  8. The ghost. The narrator may be otherworldly. Examples: Dr Malcolm Crowe in The Sixth Sense, Jakabok Botch from Mister B. Gone, Screwtape from The Screwtape Letters, the ghost inThe Turn Of The Screw, Lucifer in I, Lucifer


  9. The wilful liar. The narrator is just messing with the reader. This is the least successful type of unreliable narrator and is often the equivalent of someone waking up and declaring it was all a dream. Examples: Pandora in Big Brother, Briony Tallis inAtonement


Are there any narrators that we may have missed? Leave your comments below!

Image source: Wuthering heights, huckleberry finn, catcher in the rye, a beautiful mind, silver linings playbook, forrest gump, atonement, gone girl, sixth sense,



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