It’s an encouraging thought.
There are more unreliable narrators in literature than we could discuss in a single article. That’s great news for you because your options as the all powerful creator of dastardly characters (or “writer” if you’re into being humble) just blew wide open.
Here are the best of the infinite to get you started.
The best surprise endings hinge on one thing—the unreliable narrator. Unreliable narrators come in rainbow varieties. And they’re the secret weapon behind those memorable plot twists that wow readers and get published.
Whether he’s a skilled liar or just naive, the unreliable narrator doesn’t tell the full story. This is the perfect plot twist recipe. Why? Because the key information your unreliable narrator holds back is the same key information you’ll unleash on your reader in the big reveal.
Here you’ll get seven character types to add to your arsenal. And at the end you’ll get tips for creating that subtly deceiving narrator for the twist your reader never saw coming. Mix and match to make it your own. Or feel free to steal what works and make up the rest.
Ready for the lineup? Here we go!
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Seven Unreliable Narrators to Twist Your Plot
#1: The Self-Preservationist
The self-preservationist is a deliberate liar. He might lie to save his life. He might lie to escape a sticky situation. Either way, his side of the story is suspect. Which means, of course, the whole story is suspect.
- Known Self-Preservationist: Verbal Kint, The Usual Suspects. Verbal Kint, the soft-spoken small time criminal, is the only survivor of a boat explosion. During the after-disaster police interrogation, Verbal tells the convoluted story of how he and four fellow criminals ended up on that boat, the victims of legendary crime boss and criminal mastermind Keyser Söze. The story is purely Verbal’s say so which makes it all too easy for it to be a great big lie. The twist? It is. After the police interrogator releases Verbal from custody, he finds an unlikely number of details from Verbal’s story in photos and documents hanging throughout the interrogation room where Verbal spun his tale. Yes, this means his story was a lie. But that’s not the biggest reveal in this mind-blowing tale. I’ll leave that final detail for your viewing pleasure. You’re welcome.
- What Makes Verbal the Self-Preservationist? The self-preservationist lies to save himself. If Verbal told the truth about how he ended up in the boat explosion, he’d never leave that interrogation room.
- Why It Works: In the final scene we’re left wondering if anything Verbal said was true. We realize we know as little about what really happened as the police interrogator does. You’ll want to watch the movie again with the reveal in mind, but it won’t feel like the same movie. It’s one of the most masterfully pulled off and memorable plot twists.
#2: The Sympathy-Seeker
The sympathy-seeker plays on our emotions. His lies are all about gaining sympathy. He wants us to see him as the good person in his tale. Or, at least, not all bad. That’s a great reason to lie. And a greater reason for you to suspect his tale.
- Known Sympathy-Seeker: Humbert Humbert, Lolita. Humbert is a middle-aged man obsessed with 12-year-old Lolita. He narrates his story of abduction, coercion, and rape while awaiting trial. He takes us through his remorse, his genuine affection for Lolita, and speculates on the childhood experiences that may have caused his pedophilia. Although his admission of guilt makes it easier to believe the rest of his tale—after all why lie about anything if he’s so willing to share his ugliest secret?—Humbert wants forgiveness. And that is a reason to lie. We never hear Lolita’s side of the story. So who really knows what’s true?
- What Makes Humbert the Sympathy-Seeker? Humbert did a brief stint in a mental hospital. That and his attraction to prepubescent girls could qualify him as The Psycho type. The difference is in his motivation for telling his story. Humbert is The Sympathy-Seeker because his desire for sympathy drives his tale.
- Why it works: The surprise ending is subtle in Lolita. There is no big reveal on par with The Usual Suspects. Because Lolita is a literary tale rather than a commercial blockbuster, the burden of understanding lies with the reader. As a reader, then, you’ll only note how shaky Humbert’s tale really is if you spot that Humbert is an unreliable narrator. That subtlety works in Lolita because Nabokov wants to keep the reader thinking about the story long after she’s closed the book. But what if you’re going for a show stopping blockbuster plot twist? Draw attention to the lies in the tale for a big reveal instead.
#3: The Insomniac
The insomniac doesn’t lie on purpose. The gaps in his tale result from psychic exhaustion. But intentions don’t matter when it comes to the big reveal because it’s those gaps that leave room for the twist.
- Known Insomniac: “Jack” the unnamed narrator, Fight Club. Jack is an emotionally constipated insomniac. He joins support groups for diseases he doesn’t have to get the emotional release he needs to fall sleep. Everything changes when he meets Tyler Durden, a spontaneous moonlighter who is everything our narrator wants to be. Tyler drags Jack into recreational fighting, terrorist activity, and a relationship with an emotionally damaged woman who ultimately helps Jack achieve transcendence. Fight Club is a wild ride from start to finish. And even the most jaded audience members didn’t see this plot twist coming—that Jack and Tyler are really the same man.
- What makes Jack the Insomniac? Jack’s insomnia creates lost time or hours Jack can’t account for. What was he doing in those hours? The answer is obvious in the big reveal: he was Tyler Durden. Fight Club author, Chuck Palahniuk, pulled this off brilliantly. How? He distracted us before we ever thought to ask the question. The end result is the killer Fight Club plot twist. Every time Jack thought he was zoning out on the couch at night, Tyler was really using their shared body to get into trouble.
- Why it works: Sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on the psyche. It’s not a far leap from insomnia to psychotic break. Insomnia and its side effects affect perception. That vulnerable psyche creates an excellent plot twist device because anything could have happened. That makes it easy for you, the author, to explain what really happened in the big reveal. Presto plot twist.
#4: The Hallucinator
Like The Insomniac, The Hallucinator’s vulnerable psyche renders his version of events unreliable. But be careful with The Hallucinator. Used without care, this type borders on that “it was all a dream” taboo—a major no-no in fiction. But if you foreshadow hallucinatory tendencies in your story, The Hallucinator can help you pull off a powerful plot twist.
- Known Hallucinator: Sarah, The Descent. Sarah’s spelunking trip goes wrong when the cave entrance collapses behind her and five companions. If that weren’t scary enough, the women uncover a band of flesh-eating cave people who threaten their survival. After Sarah seemingly escapes the cave, we learn that her escape sequence was a hallucination. Turns out she’s really still in the cave, oblivious to oncoming disaster.
- What Makes Sarah the Hallucinator? This one is pretty obvious. Sarah hallucinates her happy ending. The plot twist—that she never escaped the cave and is about to be devoured by flesh-eating cave people—is a direct result of her hallucinations.
- Why It Works: Some critics argue that this plot doesn’t work. But we can’t blame Sarah for that. The story still packs a wallop surprise. It’s tough to fault someone who hit her head and saw heaven. The Hallucinator still works for plot twists because you can’t believe what she says. Don’t let the naysayers deter you. Any of the unreliable narrators, if used poorly, can come off as a cheap ploy. Try including hints that your character has experienced hallucinations before. This will keep the it-was-all-a-dream reveal from feeling like an deus ex machina let down.
#5: The Embellisher
Like The Sympathy-Seeker and The Self-Preservationist, The Embellisher lies on purpose. Unlike other narrators, though, everyone likes The Embellisher. That’s because The Embellisher’s lies are good natured. Like grandpa’s stories of Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed, we love The Embellisher and his fantastical tales.
But while we may listen intently and love his tales, we can’t believe a word he says.
- Known Embellisher: Pi, Life of Pi. After a shipwreck at sixteen years old, Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel is trapped on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a tiger he calls Richard Parker. Middle-aged Pi relates his survival story with an embellishment of fantastical details, including his growing relationship with the tiger, Richard Parker. Pi told the same tale to the ship company owners after his rescue. The owners don’t believe his version of events, though, and further prompting forces Pi to relate the truth. That he witnessed his mother’s murder. That he was alone on that lifeboat in the ocean, not knowing if he would survive. That Richard Parker, the tiger, was really Pi’s shadow self—feral, savage, and afraid.
- What Makes Pi the Embellisher? Pi tells a variety of tall tales before the shipwreck story. But that isn’t enough. He’s The Embellisher because the plot twist in Life of Pi hinges on these embellishments.
- Why It Works: Many of the embellished elements parallel the story’s more realistic events, like his mother’s murder. It’s natural for an imaginative man to deal with trauma the way he deals with life—with his vivid imagination. In this way the psychological elements, and the resulting plot twist, feel true to the character. In other words, the twist works because Pi tells imaginative tales the moment we meet him. It’s not a surprise when we learn that the main plot is also invented. This foreshadowing prevents the twist from feeling gimmicky.
#6: The Memory-Repressor
The Memory-Repressor lies to himself more than he lies to us. But it’s never on purpose. His experiences are so traumatic he’d rather forget them. He’s a sympathetic character. So when his memories finally surface for the surprise ending, we just feel for him.
- Known Memory Repressor: Charlie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Charlie, a new high school freshman, suffers from emotional and psychological issues. His journal entries relate memories of his favorite aunt on the day she died. But it’s clear that something isn’t quite right with these memories and Charlie’s associated feelings. In the end, we learn that Charlie’s aunt molested him. Because of his affection for her, Charlie repressed these memories.
- What Makes Charlie the Memory-Repressor? We explore Charlie’s memories alongside him. We know only what he knows. But when the repressed memories surface, our view of the story changes alongside Charlie’s. What we thought was the story wasn’t. Even without Charlie’s struggle with depression and loss, the nature of the repressed memories alone makes the reveal at the end feel genuine and true to character.
- Why It Works: Charlie remembers his aunt during stressful sexual encounters. The association between the two foreshadows the revelation at the end. The Perks of Being a Wallflower author, Stephen Chbosky, also demonstrates Charlie’s psychological turmoil throughout the story. Things like depression and loss hint that something isn’t quite right. As readers, we’re waiting for something to be revealed. And this sets us up to accept the revelation. The results are believable because anyone would want to repress such a traumatic memory.
#7: The Psycho
The Psycho doesn’t have to be clinically psychotic, but it helps. Want to go subtle with the Psycho? Get loose with the definition. Maybe your character’s form of psychosis is a simple anxiety disorder, for example. But anxiety can cause her to lose consciousness at a critical moment. Maybe she has PTSD, which distracts her from a critical piece of plot information. Whatever psychological flaw you give her, make sure she misses something that you can reveal in the twist.
- Known Psycho: Patrick Bateman, American Psycho. Patrick commits murder after grisly murder between office hours as a Manhattan investment banker. What spurs him to murder? A little envy and a lot of psychotic rage. After a whirlwind bloodbath spree, where Bateman slaughters prostitutes, lovers, homeless men, pets, and police vehicles, he attempts to confess his crimes only to learn that maybe he hasn’t committed any at all.
- What Makes Patrick Bateman The Psycho? In Bateman’s case, The Psycho title is straightforward. And the foreshadowing? What? Murder isn’t enough? Then you’ll be pleased the foreshadowing doesn’t stop there. Bateman sees things normal people would know weren’t real. Like when the ATM machine readout says “feed me a stray cat,” for example, we start to question the events of the story as Bateman sees them. Did the events really happen or were they just the product of a disturbed mind? What separates Bateman from The Hallucinator is his extensive psychological disturbance. The psychosis that feeds the twist isn’t just about his hallucinations. With Patrick Bateman at the helm, a twisted plot is expected. And yet, the possibility that he imagined these murders still comes as a surprise.
- Why it Works: It’s no surprise that Bateman is crazy. Whether he committed the crimes or fantasized about them, murder sprees are not the musings of a healthy man (unless, of course, he’s a writer). His unstable mind makes the twist easy to believe. This story, for all its faults, succeeds because you’re not quite sure which is true at the end.
#8 (Bonus!): The Fool
The fool isn’t dumb, but he is naive. His childlike perceptions help him see through the social constraints that color most people’s perceptions. He is unblemished by experience or society’s expectations. He is painfully honest, charming in his authenticity, and doesn’t lie just to save face or protect other people’s feelings. He’s an innocent just starting out on his journey, and he lacks the social wisdom of the more experienced.
But his too-honest-and-innocent outlook makes it impossible to trust his version of events because he misses key elements of every situation.
- Known Fool: Huck, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck is an orphan in antebellum Missouri. His abusive alcoholic father kidnaps Huck from his foster family, not for love but to claim Huck’s found fortune. Huck’s father imprisons him in a secluded cabin before trying to stab him to death. But Huck escapes with Jim, a runaway slave. Huck and Jim’s adventures down the Mississippi River give Huck author, Mark Twain, the opportunity to highlight the social problems of Huck’s time, particularly slavery.
- What Makes Huck The Fool? Huck is disarmingly naive when it comes to social expectations and norms. He often misses the point and doesn’t understand jokes. Mostly this just creates funny situations where the reader gets the joke and Huck doesn’t. But his naivety also makes him an unreliable narrator. Because he doesn’t always fully understand situations, we can’t always trust that his view of things would match ours. Still it’s his naivety and inherently good perspective that makes Huck immune to the rationalizations of slavery. And he makes us think twice about things we take for granted as well.
- Why it Works: Like Nabakov’s Lolita above, Mark Twain’s unreliable narrator creates less of a grand finale plot twist than a subtle dramatic irony. When Huck takes horrible poetry seriously. When he questions the apologetic moralizing that attempted to rationalize slavery. When he sacrifices himself for a slave when no one else would. Or when he decides that a heaven in which he can’t cuss or smoke is no kind of heaven for him. Huck’s actions and perspective highlight the truly manipulative side of social training. It works because it makes readers think twice about what’s really going on in the story. And maybe what’s happening isn’t what you think. Again, literature with a capital “L” focuses less on blockbuster plot twists. But you can still use The Fool to pull off the blockbuster plot twist all the same. How you use your unreliable narrator is up to you.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to take these characters and create your own surprise ending. After all, that’s what being a godlike creator of infinite worlds (read: writer) is all about.
- Choose an unreliable narrator from this list. It’s okay to choose one at random. (Quick! Think of a number between one and eight. What number did you think of? Scroll up and find that number in the list above. There’s your character. Easy, right?)
- Jot down ten ways that character can hold back key information in your next plot. The stupider the ideas, the better. This is just brainstorming after all. Choose your favorite three ideas from the list and stick them into your draft. Anywhere. First drafts are supposed to look like this, I promise.
- Jot down ten ways you could demonstrate or foreshadow that your unreliable narrator is unreliable. Use that list to foreshadow your narrator’s unreliability. Then use these ideas to hide key information. Foreshadow your heart out. And once you have your Frankenstein novel, with ugly bits sticking out here and there, smooth it out with a revision. This writing stuff is easy (says a possibly unreliable narrator. Dun-dun-duuuuuuuun!).
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