7 Tips to Using an Unreliable Narrator

Harley Quinn

The Harley Quinn series is what prompted this topic.  I stumbled onto people complaining about how some villains were being shown in the series.  They thought they were too goofy or made to be stupid.  Other people eventually arrived to point out that this series is probably from Harley’s perspective.  She’s not sane, which makes her a rather unreliable narrator.  So, that’s how I started thinking about this topic.  Now, let’s see if we can get a few tips on how to do this.

  1. You can’t make it 100% obvious that the narrator is being bias or unreliable.  People can figure it out from clues, but there needs to be some level of faith in being told some real facts.  If the audience knows that they are being lied to entirely then they can lose both interest and investment in the story.
  2. An unreliable narrator doesn’t always have to be confident.  Their shaky perspective can stem from uncertainty instead of a desire to manipulate.  This works best in first person where they can have thoughts and lines admitting that they are not sure about an event.  They might admit to overreacting or not wanting to get more information in a situation.  This doesn’t make them a full liar, but it shows they aren’t coming from a neutral position at all times.
  3. Don’t get upset if the audience claims you have an unreliable narrator when you don’t have one.  This happens at times.  If multiple characters have solid reasons for what they are doing then some readers might side with someone other than the central POV character.
  4. Unreliability doesn’t only come from what they are telling the audience.  Much of this position can stem from what they aren’t mentioning.  They will be describing a situation and making themselves out to be either the good guy or at least an innocent party.  Doing this requires that they leave out any negative/bad/evil actions that they have taken.  For example, a hero might talk about firing back at the bad guys, but they leave out that they shot first.  Yeah, they’re the hero, but now you see that they have provoked an incident and tried to play the victim.
  5. I know I said that you can use an unreliable narrator in various POV styles.  Yet, it is easiest in first-person POV because you are restricted to only one perspective.  There is less of a chance of the narrator being blatantly outed by the opinions and thoughts of another.  So, first-person is your best bet if you want to make things both easier and more solid.
  6. Consider the personality of the POV character because an unreliable one should have some level of charm.  These people are trying to get the audience to believe them, which means they are putting themselves in the best light.  At least they would be if they’re being unreliable on purpose.  So, make them likeable, polite, or anything else that would garner trust.
  7. While not a necessity, you can make the other characters be hints that the narrator is unreliable.  If the hero is nearly perfect while everyone else is heavily flawed without a clear reason then the audience might start to suspect there is something going on.  The supporting cast should still be helpful and effective, but maybe they also create a bunch of problems.  The narrator might be the only one to come up with plans or save the group in a pinch.  This stems from a possible narcissism, which causes the narrator to paint others in a negative light to make themselves look better.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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14 Responses to 7 Tips to Using an Unreliable Narrator

  1. Well done and useful, Charles. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  2. L. Marie says:

    Great tips! I see why the Harley Quinn show caused you think about the subject. 😊I remember the first story I read with an unreliable narrator (and actually discussed as such in school) was Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” I remember being fascinated by that.😊


  3. SB@marie8578 says:

    Reblogged this on My Labyrinth and commented:
    Interesting tips on First person unreliable narrator.


  4. Your point #3 is an interesting one. We can write the words and publish the books, but the readers always bring something we don’t expect.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. V.M.Sang says:

    A helpful post, Charles. I have thoughts about using an unreliable narrator on occasion, but chickened out.
    I actually have a stalled novel at the moment and am trying to think of something to get it going again. I considered changing the PoV character, but you’ve made me think of an unreliable narrator, now. Many thanks.


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