Definition: An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised.
The term was coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction.
The term unreliable narrator came to my attention recently when I was reading reviews of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. I turns out that the novel has three first-person unreliable narrators. Rachel (the girl on the train) imagines the lives of people she is watching from the train window every day. She is an alcoholic who suffers blackouts. She fills the blanks with what other people tell her, in particular, her ex-husband, Tom. Megan is a woman she has been watching. Rachel has invented a perfect life for her. Megan has a terrible past that she hides from the world, her husband, and even at times from herself. Anna is married to Tom and pretends their life is wonderful if Rachel would just stay out of their lives. Tom, who is not a narrator, lies to everyone.
Megan disappears and Rachel involves herself in the investigation to find out what happened to the perfect woman she has created in her mind. The plot is complex and we are led down many wrong paths through the unreliable narrators.
The next novel I read, The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney (British), also had two first-person narrators. (I happen to prefer first-person POV.) I read somewhere that any first-person point of view in a novel is likely an unreliable narrator. Keeping this in mind, I looked at the story in a slightly different way. Ray, the main character, is a half-Gypsy private investigator looking for woman who has been missing for eight years. JJ is a teenager living with family in the Gypsy site from which the woman disappeared. Ray is looking into a way of life he doesn’t truly understand and hearing different versions of the story of when and how the woman disappeared. JJ is only getting bits and pieces, excluded from conversations because he is a child. He uses his wild imagination to fill in the blanks. So, both Ray and JJ are unreliable narrators.
Next I read In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen. This novel is written in third person (sometimes second person) with multiple narrators. It is a complex story of intertwining lives. Each character has a different perspective on the same events. So I found that even though this story isn’t told in first person, it is told by unreliable narrators. Maybe every story has them in order to keep the plot interesting.
All three of the above mentioned novels are intriguing reads.
I believe my first novel, The Janus Code by J.C. Ferguson, has an unreliable narrator. It is written with a one third-person POV. I haven’t given much thought to the reliability of Ernie Pratt (first person, one narrator) in Mangrove Madness, my second novel. But maybe I will keep it in mind as I work on the sequel.