The narrative voice is a key aspect of any work of fiction. But what is narrative voice? And what does it mean to have an unreliable narrator? In this post, we explain the basics of reliable and unreliable narrative voices.
What Is Narrative Voice?
The term “narrative voice” refers to the perspective from which a story is told (i.e., the character or person telling a story). This can affect how the reader relates to the narrator, other characters, and the story as a whole.
Various things influence how narrative voice works, including:
Whether the voice is limited (i.e., the story is told from a specific point of view, so the reader only knows what the narrator knows) or omniscient (i.e., where the narrator knows everything in the world of the story).
Whether it is reliable (i.e., a story in which the narrator presents a straightforward, credible account of events) or unreliable (i.e., a story in which we might not entirely trust what the narrator is telling us).
It is the last of these that interests us most here. As such, we will now look at unreliable narrative voices in more detail, including how they work and when you might want to use one in your own writing.
Unreliable Narrative Voices
We call a narrative voice “unreliable” if it seems untrustworthy because the narrator is dishonest, misinformed, or even deluded. This is most common with limited, first-person narrators (e.g., when the story is told from one character’s point of view and reflects their limited understanding or biases).
The narrator’s unreliability might be obvious from the start (e.g., if they make obviously untrue statements early on). Alternatively, it could slowly become apparent as the story progresses (e.g., if the narrator introduces subtle inconsistencies). Or it could be revealed dramatically in a plot twist.
Find this useful?
Subscribe to our newsletter and get writing tips from our editors straight to your inbox.
One of the most famous examples of an unreliable narrator in fiction is Holden Caulfield, the protagonist and narrator of J.D. Salinger’s novel Catcher in the Rye. Throughout the novel, he accuses many people of being “phony.” But as the story goes on, the reader finds out that he is not always trustworthy. He even admits he is a liar, prone to exaggeration, and frequently confused about details of his story. His “unreliability” as a narrator is therefore a key element of his character and the themes of the novel.
Other famous unreliable narrators include:
Humbert Humbert from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, in which the narrator tries to appear sympathetic rather than abusive.
Adrian Healey from The Liar by Stephen Fry, in which the narrator eventually reveals that many of the events described are entirely untrue.
Amy and Nick from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, who set out different versions of the same events throughout the story.
When to Use an Unreliable Narrator
You can use an unreliable narrator for various ends, including to:
Create tension and make the reader question what they are being told.
Give the reader insight into how the narrator views the world.
Influence who the reader sympathizes with in the story.
Set up a mystery or plot twist based on the narrator’s unreliability.
However you use it, though, unreliable narrative voices are a powerful tool in the writer’s kit. And if you’d like help with or feedback on any aspect of your writing, our expert editors are available 24/7.