The narrator of your story is the audience's window into the world. If they're an unreliable narrator, that window can be a little hazy. When you're watching a film or TV show, you should always question the narrator's reliability. See, when people set off to write a screenplay, they sometimes choose to have an untrustworthy narrator at the helm. That kind of person offers new ways in and out of the story.
Today, we're going to diagram unreliable narrators. We'll learn about why writers tackle them and look at some definitions and examples of unreliable narrators in literature, film, and television. You'll learn how to write an unreliable narrator as well, so you can test them out in your own projects. We'll cover point of view and go through reliability in storytelling.
Due to many of these characters being used for plot twists, some spoilers for major movies to follow.
Sound good? Let's get started.
'The Usual Suspects'Credit: MGM
What Is an Unreliable Narrator? And How to Write One in Your Screenplay
When it comes to film, television, and literature, many people choose voiceover to help steep the audience in their world. That feels like a big choice and plot device to get things started. But the real choice comes from the kind of narrator you use to tell that story, especially if it's an untrustworthy narrator.
Unreliable Narrator Definition
An unreliable narrator is a character who tells us a story without credibility. In literature, film, and TV, we are given this person's point of view, which can either be juxtaposed with the truth or later revealed to be untrustworthy as things come into focus.
'Forrest Gump'Credit: Paramount Pictures
What Is a Reliable Narrator?
The definition of a reliable narrator is a character who tells us a story impartially and with credibility. These narrators stick to the facts, and while they may have some flair, they present the events as they happen. An example of a reliable narrator would be someone like Red from The Shawshank Redemption.
Other reliable narrator examples include Ishmael from Moby Dick and Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird.
Who Was the First Unreliable Narrator?
It's hard to be fully sure who the first unreliable narrator was, since humans have been telling stories since the dawn of time. But the term was invented by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction, which he wrote in 1961. Even before then, we've seen these characters thrive in literature, film, and television.
The Unreliable Narrator in Fiction
Novel writers and authors have been playing around with unreliable narrator characters for ages. From people like Huckleberry Finn to Holden Caulfield, we've seen entire worlds of stories delivered through their eyes.
One of the first examples of this ever happening was the soldier in Plautus' comedy Miles Gloriosus. All of these characters can actually be broken into five different kinds of untrustworthy narrators.
'Joker'Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
The Five Kinds of Unreliable Narrators
Almost all unreliable narrators are first-person narrators because we need to hear them directly to understand what makes them untrustworthy. But there have been arguments made for the existence of unreliable second and third-person narrators. We see them mostly in film and television and sometimes also in literature.
Unreliable narrators have been broken into five archetypes.
- The Pícaro: Characters by exaggeration and bragging. (Example: Don Quixote.)
- The Madman: Characters experiencing mental illness. (Example: Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.)
- The Clown: Characters who don’t take narrations seriously and elaborate for the reader’s amusement. (Example: Tristram Shandy.)
- The Naïf: Characters whose perception is limited through their point of view. (Example: Forrest Gump.)
- The Liar: Characters who deliberately misrepresent events and themselves. (Example: Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects.)
'American Psycho'Credit: New Line Cinema
Why Is Nick Carraway an Unreliable Narrator?
When it comes time to discuss this kind of character, The Great Gatsby always comes up. The character of Nick Carraway is a really interesting one. In considering both the book and the movie adaptations, people wonder whether or not Nick would be considered an unreliable narrator.
Nick is the narrator, but he is not omniscient, so he never has all the information about the situations he finds himself in. And when he tells us the story, he makes inferences and judgments that come with hindsight and not total clarity.
The reason Nick Carraway is an unreliable narrator is that he is a flawed human who is telling us a story out of order and even seems to obscure the truth to protect the friends he has in the story. He's never directly lying to us, but he also says, “I am one of the few honest people I have ever known.” Which seems like someone overcompensating for some of the finessing he has done over the story.
'The Great Gatsby'Credit: Warner Bros.
Unreliable Narrator Examples in Film and Television
If you came here looking for examples of unreliable narrators in film and TV, you came to the right place. There are so many beloved characters over time who fit the mold.
Think about the man from Fight Club, whose personality is split in two, and therefore, we don't always have the information on Project Mayhem and other plans, even if he actually does.
Another character I think works perfectly is Leonard Shelby from Memento. He has been hit in the head and therefore has a disorder where he's lost his short-term memory. As Leonard struggles to put together what's happening in his own life, he jumps to many conclusions that the audience can tell are false, thanks to the memory we have from watching the movie.
Finally, there is an entire subgenre of unreliable female narrators. They became popular in mystery books like The Woman in the Window, The Girl on the Train, and Gone Girl, and thus expanded in film adaptations. We've seen similar ideas in The Babadook and Before I Go to Sleep.
'Fight Club'Credit: 20th Century Fox
Why Do Writers Use Unreliable Narrators?
Now that you understand the definition of an unreliable narrator and you know the five types, let's talk about why writers even try to tackle these characters.
From many of the examples we've given, I think you can infer that the use of these characters greatly helps when you're trying to build a twist into the screenplay. Another reason is that an unreliable narrator forces the reader or development executive to engage with the story on a deeper level. You have to form opinions on who to trust and why.
'Memento'Credit: 20th Century Studios
What Effect Does an Unreliable Narrator Have on the Reader?
There's also a fun flavor to these characters. You can push the limits of the story and really dance with people's emotions. If you don't know what to believe, you're going to have to jump to conclusions and suss out the details. That can be unique and take people on a journey different from what they usually get in entertainment. The reader must engage and must infer their own plot points or reasoning behind people's agendas. That forces them to pick sides and see parts of themselves in this story.
'Gone Girl'Credit: 20th Century Fox
How to Write an Unreliable Narrator
When it comes to creating your own characters, writing an unreliable narrator can be a ton of fun, but it's still hard work.
My suggestion would be to pick one of the five unreliable narrator archetypes we've studied and then build from there. You also want to write a timeline of "actual events" of the story. We may not see them, but aside from the unreliability, we need to know what actually happens in the story.
When you're working on the voice of the character, think about how much truth belongs inside it. Sometimes, these characters need to give us some tangential truths so we trust and understand them. But we're also delving into the POV of their mind. Try to see the story through their eyes.
Your other characters are going to come in handy. They will need to be the eyes and ears of the audience. Let them be a sounding board so pertinent information can come to us, without it feeling expository.
At the end of the day, you need to carefully craft this narrator, knowing their intention in fudging the truth and bending the world to this will.
'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'Credit: Criterion
Summing Up "What is an Unreliable Narrator? And How to Write One"
Studying the untrustworthy narrator of a screenplay is one of the most interesting and fun writing exercises you can do. These are characters who can help you manipulate the audience and feel completely in control of your story. They also work so well with plot twists and other unique storytelling techniques like voiceover. If you have comments or concerns, please let us know.
Hopefully, this post has you well on your way to creating your own unreliable narrators.
We can't wait to see how you trick us with your characters.
Now go get writing.