Six Steps for Writing an Unreliable Narrator

Six steps to teach you how to write an unreliable narrator in fiction.


Kathryn Miller Haines

8/10/20233 min read

Unreliable narrators can have a nose that grows, just like Pinocchio
Unreliable narrators can have a nose that grows, just like Pinocchio

Six Steps for Writing an Unreliable Narrator

Writing an unreliable narrator is notoriously tricky. It’s hard to create a character that readers can relate to and empathize with and at the same time have that character lie to readers. So how can you break the pact between reader and character so that the reader doesn’t want to hurl the book across the room during your big reveal?


First, immerse yourself in the character. You are, presumably, not a prodigious liar yourself, so this requires really understanding what motivates your character, what they fear, and how both fuel the decisions they make.


Second, choose your POV carefully. First-person is the most popular POV for creating an unreliable narrator (the intimacy of first person makes it easy to earn audience interest and empathy). Multiple narrators can also be an effective way to misdirect your reader (keep in mind that one of the narrators should seem like the more trustworthy of the two). This doesn’t necessarily mean you need two first-person narrators; one could be a narrator and the other a source with a contrary narrative (such as Amy’s diary in Gone Girl).


Third, decide if your character is deliberately deceptive or inadvertently deceptive (bear in mind that just because someone chooses to deliberately deceive doesn’t necessarily mean their intentions are nefarious). What are the reasons why someone might decide to lie or omit information?

  • Self-preservation. Your protagonist wants to protect themselves (or someone else) and chooses to lie to make that happen (think We Need to Talk About Kevin);

  • Sympathy. Your protagonist wants you to see them as the good person in their story or, at least, not all bad (think Lolita);

  • Entertainment. Your protagonist knows that their fantastic stories seem unlikely, but sometimes you have to embellish to tell a good yarn (think Life of Pi);

  • Repressed Memory. Your protagonist lies to themselves (and, as a result, the reader) because their experiences are so traumatic they’d rather forget them than face the painful truth (think Woman in the Window).

  • Why might someone inadvertently lie?

  • They don’t know any better. Your narrator isn’t necessarily dumb, just innocent or naïve. This makes it impossible to trust their version of events because they miss key elements of every situation (think Huckleberry Finn, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time);

  • They’re Impaired. Your narrator is a substance abuser (Girl on a Train), the victim of memory loss (Before I Go to Sleep), or has psychological issues that prevent them from telling the truth from reality (think The Last House on Needless Street).


Once you’ve decided if your character is lying by choice or happenstance, the fourth thing to ponder is how you might play with audience assumptions and biases.

What are some of the assumptions we make when we meet someone?

  • That they’re alive (not true in The Sixth Sense);

  • That they’re human (not in We Are Completely Beside Themselves);

  • Gender. (If the gender of a character isn’t implicitly stated, we often assume they match our gender or that of the author.);

  • That they’re inherently good, moral people because of the industry they work in (teachers, health care professionals, police, etc.)

What are some biases readers may have?

  • Women are morally superior to men

  • People are less intelligent if they didn’t go to college;

  • People with criminal backgrounds are unredeemable/untrustworthy;

  • Elderly people are innocent and naive.

There are, of course, many, many more biases and assumptions that you can exploit. By playing with them, not only can you misdirect the audience, but you can also make readers feel complicit in the deception.


The fifth step is to muddy your character’s motivations. If your character has competing desires and motivations, not only will the audience be continually uncertain about their mindset, but you’ll also create a multi-dimensional character. Is the character protecting themselves or someone else? Is the character trying to earn your empathy or shift blame? Does your character love someone or hate them?


Finally, you need to write a damn good book by:

  • Creating a character who is empathetic enough that readers will still relate to them even if they don’t trust them;

  • Designing a plot that is so compelling that readers will want to keep reading even if they figure out your deception too soon;

  • Crafting prose that is so clever or beautiful that even if you’re turned off by the main character or too savvy not to know you’re being lied to, you want to continue reading if only to see how many other turns of phrase are worth lingering on.

Writing an unreliable narrator is difficult even for seasoned veterans. But if you follow these six tips you'll breathe life and believability into your character.