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Unreliable Narrator - Point of View

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I was listening to a podcast last night about unreliable narrators and it brought up an interesting question. Is an unreliable narrator innately first person POV?
 I'll try to give an example.

Let's say Doug completely believes he's a superhero (leaving out the question of his mental health for the moment). He sees himself striding through town in a cape and sexy sunglasses. In reality, Doug is a chubby, pasty sort who lives in his mother's basement.

As Doug moves through the story and, at some point, comes face to face with reality versus his own imaginings, would it be possible to write him in close 3rd or would he be 1st person no matter what?
#1 - August 08, 2013, 08:05 AM

If it's an unreliable narrator, I feel like it needs to be first person--narrated by the person who is unreliable, in denial, hiding something, whatever.  Ex. Doug in Okay for Now, or the main character (I forget his name) of Remains of the Day.

If it's in close third, how are we getting the misinformation?  From the narrator (who is not the character)?  Then it's more like fantasy sequences (presented as reality until you learn better?) or the character being delusional?  Example: Thurber's Walter Mitty?

Is it like this?  Doug flew to the roof's peak.  He stood there catching his breath.  It was tough work being a super hero.
And then later:  Doug threw down the ladder.  His parents were right--climbing on the roof was dangerous, and super hero games were for babies and kooks.

I think that's possible, but I wouldn't call it an "unreliable narrator" so much.  Just the story of a character that indulges in fantasy.

But maybe some people would call it that?
#2 - August 08, 2013, 08:59 AM


I think of the narrator of a story as being like the the old guy telling the story (THE NARRATOR) in the play OUR TOWN. He's dressed in an old suit, standing on the sidelines, telling the story. He is reliable because he stays the same old guy throughout the play and doesn't come out dressed like or acting like an old woman or a monkey or a little boy or all of the sudden using slapstick humor. He tells the story with the same voice, speech patterns, and mannerisms from beginning to end.

So whatever voice or narrator you choose to tell your story, from whatever point of view, it must be consistent to be reliable.

Check out my blog post about POV and tell me if it is helpful:
#3 - August 08, 2013, 09:02 AM
« Last Edit: August 08, 2013, 09:04 AM by Dionna »

I wouldn't say that an unreliable narrator couldn't be done in third person... but it would be much trickier to execute well and believably. Maybe a game to play with yourself when you want a real challenge. First person is the easiest for a reader to swallow, since they already know that they are dealing with a particular perspective on events.
#4 - August 08, 2013, 09:31 AM

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I have a novel that's in three POVs, all third person, and one of them is unreliable. I really didn't think of it this way, but my agent did. This character withholds things, which gradually becomes apparent as you go along, and because it's very close third, close enough that you get each one's voice even in third, I think it does count as unreliable narration. 
#5 - August 08, 2013, 09:51 AM
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I think an unreliable narrator is traditionally first person, although obviously this doesn't mean the whole book is narrated by the unreliable narrator. Anything told in diaries, letters could be the same, or in multiple povs, as mentioned.  But the way that phrase is used normally is for 1st person, as far as I know. Like, you know, Gone Girl.
#6 - August 08, 2013, 02:16 PM
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To echo what other people have said - it's doable, but I think it's VERY hard. You would have to write in a way that makes it very clear to the reader, from the start, that this is close third person, and then never stray from that. One issue with close third is that the "closeness" can waver if the author isn't very careful - sometimes you're staying firmly in the MC's head, and other times it strays closer to an impartial third person narrator.

I would seek out other books that are written in unreliable third and study what you like/dislike about their execution. (Sadly, this will mean some spoilers for you, since unreliable narrators tend to be surprises!) Ghost stories will be a goldmine for this sort of stuff. I'd look for lists of unreliable narrator books on goodreads or similar sites, too.
#7 - August 08, 2013, 02:30 PM

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I have "Liar" in my to-read-pile -- I beleive that's another example of an unreliable narrator.

#8 - August 08, 2013, 03:56 PM
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I've been thinking about this because in some way, every narrator is unreliable ... they bring their little biases, misinterpret information, and that's what makes the story. With some books like LIAR you try to figure out whether to trust the narrator, but most of the time, we do trust the narrator and their worldview. I read a book a while back in 2 POVs (boy, girl) and it was kind of like He said, She said. Same story, different interpretation. Amelia Bedelia is my favorite unreliable character -- she takes things so literally -- to comic effect.

#9 - August 08, 2013, 08:15 PM
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I’ve been confused about this one for a few days, mainly because there are so many ways to be an unreliable narrator—some of which seem like character perspective rather than unreliability to me. The comments clarified a lot of issues, and I agree that it’s more difficult to do outside the bounds of a first-person narrative. But you’re talking about close third, which is very similar to first.

I did look the topic up in my favorite reference book, Janet Burroway’s “Writing Fiction.” She says that unreliable narration is most closely associated with first person, but it’s possible to indicate unreliability in any point of view (page 298, 6th edition). She doesn't say it’s an easy task.

But I like the potential for this story (I know it's just an example, but already I like Doug and his foibles). In this case, you’re narrowly defining the unreliability of Doug’s narrative.  I’m assuming he’s unreliable along this one dimension—his inability to see his skills clearly—and he’s reliable in most other ways. In my opinion, it sets up some nice dramatic irony because we know more than he does. One of my favorite moments as a reader is when the character crashes forward while I think, No, don’t do that! Bad, bad idea!
#10 - August 09, 2013, 08:37 AM

i don't think it HAS to be. but it is obviously
MOST effective in the first person. because it
is immediate and you are in the narrator's head,
and if the author is any good, you are swayed and lulled
into believing everything the narrator says. that's
the pull of first person narration.

then when you realize that what you believed
might not have been true all this time, the one
two punch feels more effective. the betrayal or
discomfort or confusion is more effective.

yes, LIAR.

#11 - August 09, 2013, 09:27 AM
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I was just re-reading The Giver and thought of this thread.  I'm still not sure I'd call it an "unreliable narrator" but it's something very close.  The story is told in a close third-person POV on the main character and his beliefs and ideas are things that the audience would disagree with, so that makes him "unreliable." 

For example, the narration tells of a memory Jonas has of a childhood incident involving his best friend.  To Jonas, the incident is cute.  To everyone in the community, the incident is cute.  They all laugh at the cute memory.  But to the reader, the incident is kind of horrifying and not cute at all.  So . . . unreliable or flat-out wrong protagonist, if you will, who will soon learn better.
#12 - August 13, 2013, 05:55 AM

Is an unreliable narrator innately first person POV?

I would reframe the question as, "can there be unreliable narratives," because by definition a narrator is the one telling the story and therefor the narrator is always a first person voice (even if s/he has a marginal presence in the story, like Lemon Snicket, or the intrusive narrators in A Tale Dark & Grimm or Tale of Despereaux).

Given that, sure. There are third person narratives so limited to the POV of a fanciful or delusional character that the reader isn't sure what to believe. How about Where the Wild Things Are? Did Max really go to the island of monsters, or was it all in his imagination? Did Alice really go down the rabbit hole? Did Charlotte and Wilbur really become fast friends or is the whole story a fancy of a bored nine year old girl?
#13 - August 13, 2013, 06:45 AM

I would recommend McPherson's Testing the Current,a brilliant novel narrated in third person by an eight-year-old boy whose limited understanding of what he sees is often painfully obvious to the reader.

Here is a passage following the death of the narrator's grandmother:

"He thought of the soft skin stretched over her cheekbones, and he imagined her eyes behind their closed lids, fixing and straining toward the surface, her face expressionless, her body still, waiting for what he did not know. He thought of the whole vast population of the dead, of all those bodies lying amidst the roots of the trees in the cemetery by the river, composed, quiet, facing the earth above them and the earth the sky, separated from one another by the limitless, embracing soil and from the crushing weight of the world itself by their solitary wooden cases lined with silk. How lonely it all seemed, what flimsy protection. He wondered if his grandmother’s good smell was warming the winter earth, and if she knew when the sun was shining, when the snow was falling, and when the grass would grow again."
#14 - August 13, 2013, 07:20 AM
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 It is a contradiction in terms to say a book is narrated in the third person.
#15 - August 13, 2013, 09:14 AM

I'd agree--I think that's the issue with this discussion--the definition of "narration."

If a book is in third person and has a "narrator," to me that says Lemony Snicket or Mixed-Up Files, where the narrator is still actually narrating in first person, but is not actually a character in the story much, so it comes across as third, if that makes sense.  The person speaking mentioning themselves as "I" is pretty rare.

Otherwise, a book written in close 3rd person POV about a kid like Jonas (The Giver) is not "narration" to me.

HOWEVER, my dictionary says that "narration" is basically a detailed account of events, in which case even writing "Fred walked down the street and stopped at Sheila's house" is narration--even if the narrator is not a character and the book is entirely in 3rd.  It would be the part given to the "narrator" if the piece were read aloud.
#16 - August 13, 2013, 09:29 AM

All stories can be called narratives but a "narrator" is the one telling the story.
#17 - August 13, 2013, 10:16 AM

I believe my point and example hold regardless of Kurtis's excellent (if off-topic) observation. 

I might have more precisely identified the technique as third-person limited narration, with Testing the Current being a great example of how that limitation creates unreliability.
#18 - August 14, 2013, 07:52 AM
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I'm sure it's a great book, and didn't mean to imply it isn't. But if we could just stop using the word "narrator" as interchangeable with "point of view character," the conversation will go a lot better. I don't think it's off topic in a thread called "unreliable narrator - point of view" to clarify the terms.
#19 - August 15, 2013, 07:01 AM

Just saw a tweet from A.S. King that pertains to this topic & I find interesting:

"In first person POV, if your character truly believes he is a spaceship, then he must be a spaceship. Even if others find it unbelievable."

In the third person limited, you can definitely play the same games and would play by the same rules. And it has definitely been done. The distinction for me is that often the unreliable narrator has a reason for telling the story, i.e., the narrative is often laid out as a defense or explanation for the events that occur. Lolita is a good example of that, and Catcher in the Rye -- both are purportedly by men in asylums giving their side of the story about events that led to them being labeled insane. It's more explicit that they can't be trusted.

In short, unreliable narrators might be delusional, but they also might be flat-out lying. And they might be both.

We don't have that in a third person limited; there is no explanation for why this narrative exists. Readers accept that the events played out are real to the POV character, regardless of whether or not they are real to anybody else. King's tweet above captures that brilliantly.
#20 - August 15, 2013, 07:50 AM
« Last Edit: August 15, 2013, 07:52 AM by Kurtis »


I guess I have no idea what the term "unreliable narrator" means.

I thought it referred to the problem of a story being told in a certain way (the POV) that make the reader say, "AHA! That's not right! Mitch wouldn't say, 'LOL!'" 

I also thought an unreliable narration occurred when the writer switches the rules of engagement for the reader--suddenly changes styles or ways of speaking, includes information the narrator of the story would not know, or mentions something that is not consistent with the time or place of the story....some problem with the telling itself.

But many of the comments here make me think the term applies to something entirely different...that it refers to the person telling the story as one who cannot be trusted.

So, my question is: what on earth is an unreliable narrator? :shrug:
#21 - August 15, 2013, 09:26 AM

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I've always understood it to mean that the narrator is unreliable -- ie, he/she lies or bends the truth.  The reader discovers that the story may not be entirely accurate but rather is being manipulated by the narrator for some other purpose (which isn't always revealed).  I'm not a fan of unreliable POVs, tbh, but I've tried to read a few to give them a chance.  The only one I've found truly engaging is LIAR...the others I've read (I won't list them, though) simply irritate me.  ;)
#22 - August 15, 2013, 09:35 AM
Unspun: A Collection of Tattered Fairy Tales:

Yes, like those mysteries told in the first person, but then the narrator (first person POV character) ends up being the killer - those are always what I think of.

Oh - I loved Liar, and that's a great example.
#23 - August 15, 2013, 02:40 PM

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Oh, but your comment makes me think of another that I liked -- THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD.  That's probably the most famous.
#24 - August 15, 2013, 03:01 PM
Unspun: A Collection of Tattered Fairy Tales:

Agatha Christie did the same trick two other times, but I won't name the books. :-)
#25 - August 15, 2013, 03:12 PM

I'm not a fan of unreliable POVs, tbh, but I've tried to read a few to give them a chance.  The only one I've found truly engaging is LIAR...the others I've read (I won't list them, though) simply irritate me.  ;)

Interesting to hear you say this, Andracill. Lately I've been thinking much the same thing. I haven't read LIAR, but a few other unreliable narrator books have been very popular and I haven't been able to get into them at all. I think I can often tell the narrator is holding something back, and I get annoyed at not being able to fully understand and engage with her/his world. Clearly, we're in the minority, though!

BTW, just thought of another example of an unreliable third-person POV story--Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. One of my favorites! But in that case, it's omniscient third.
#26 - August 15, 2013, 04:57 PM

That's an awesome example of an unreliable 3rd person Anne.

Another personal favorite is Nabokov's "An Affair of Honor," one of my favorite short stories.

I guess with writers like Nabokov I am not irritated because the story is really about his artful storytelling and the games are part of the pleasure. It would be more maddening if I was reading for story or had different expectations.
#27 - August 15, 2013, 05:00 PM

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LOL, Kurtis.  I wrote a paper on Christie, and I've read all her books (so I know the ones you're talking about -- but I won't spoil it either).  And I should admit that I've always enjoyed the way Christie handled it, though those books weren't among my favorites of hers.
#28 - August 15, 2013, 10:13 PM
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I think that's a really interesting distinction, Kurtis:

I guess with writers like Nabokov I am not irritated because the story is really about his artful storytelling and the games are part of the pleasure. It would be more maddening if I was reading for story or had different expectations.

And maybe for me that's the difference with children's books. Not that they aren't artful, but that I am more frequently reading for story and escapism.

I've never read Nabokov's "An Affair of Honor," but I'm off to scrounge up a copy!
#29 - August 16, 2013, 06:35 AM

I find my tolerance for an unreliable narrator (and unreliable narratives in general) depends very much on the way in which the character is unreliable. Characters who deliberately lie for nefarious purposes, and those who are deeply biased, are far less likely to engage my interest than a sympathetic character who’s patently naïve.

For example, The White Darkness, which won the 2008 Printz Award, features a very unreliable fourteen-year-old narrator who is unable to understand the dangers that are evident to the worried reader. It’s a strange story, and if it’s on your list of unmentionables, Andracill, I can understand why. However, I found the tension created by using an unreliable narrator very compelling. My concern for the main character, and my desire to see her make the switch from unreliable to reliable, kept me turning the pages long after my allotted reading time was up.
#30 - August 16, 2013, 08:52 AM


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