Top Ten Unreliable Narrators That We Love

Sep 21, 201822 comments

There was a time when I was not particularly interested in reading first person narratives and drop the books like it was infected if I find an ‘I’ in an active voice sentence in the first paragraph. That was a long time ago when I was about 8-10 years old. But then, I started trusting the first person narrators and even liking a few a lot – until I came across an unreliable narrator. 

An unreliable narrator shatters the reader’s trust by contradicting themselves or misrepresenting the facts or even outright lying. Well, they can be doing that out of naivete or guilt. That is for the readers to find and that is exactly why I started looking out for such characters. 

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I can not recall the first time I read a book with an unreliable narrator but as I grew I no doubt I started loving them. I have read more books with an unreliable narrator in the past three years than all the years before then combined. So here I am presenting with my top ten narrators that all of us have come to love, in no particular order.

My Top Ten Unreliable Narrators

10) Humbert Humbert, Lolita

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Humbert Humbert is the first character that pops up on any reader’s mind when anyone says unreliable narrator and correctly so. Humbert Humbert fancies under age girls and he falls for the 12 year old Lolita. He even marries and kills her mother (I don’t think that is a spoiler) just to be with his step daughter.

As if that is not enough to dislike him, he is an unreliable narrator as well. He not only tries to justify his actions, but also tries to convince the reader of the same through flattery. He constantly contradicts himself and makes outrageous promises both to his ward and the reader.

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9) Rachel, The Girl on the Train

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Rachel’s life is filled with lies, mistrust, depression and alcohol induced blackouts. Sh would live in her past, her dreams or at her drunk state, but her real life. When she suspects a foul play nobody wants to believer, unsurprisingly. 

Her obsession with her unknown people and her ex alike add up to her ‘craziness’. What makes Rachel a great unreliable narrator is the fact that she means well, at least most of the times.

8) Pat Peoples, The Silver Linings Playbook

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Pat Peoples has just been let out of psych ward and has lots of repressed memories as well. He is emotionally immature and has no concept of negativity. 

He does not remember why he is divorced and is hoping that ex will take him back if he proves himself to be good. He is proof that crazy attracts crazy. And to things make worse, Pat is the worst because he spoils the ending of many classic books. He is definitely one of those unreliable narrators.


7) Jack, Room

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Five year old Jack has never been out of a shed, where his father had him and his mother trapped even before he was born. But now he is out of his confinement and experiences world for the first time.

With the limited experiences that he has had, he narrates everything as he sees, which may or not be true. It opens the chance for the readers to interpret the events. With the naivete of a young boy’s eyes, Jack thus becomes a classic unreliable narrator. 

6) Unnamed narrator, Fight Club

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I know I cannot proceed with the list of unreliable narrators without adding Jack from Fight Club. If reading Chuck’s books were difficult his unnamed characters make the reading more difficult and keep it exciting. 

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After all that Tyler Durden put our narrator through, the narrartor is not able to prove it was Tyler who caused the Mayhem. He spends a quarter of the book trying to do just that and proving him more and more unreliable as time passes, even to us – until the final reveal.

5) Charlie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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Charlie, a freshman in high school, narrates the story in the form of letters to his ‘friend’ and he is taken in by seniors under their wings. He is over emotional yet detached from life as such.

While the story is narrated by him, he blacks out often and has lots of repressed memories making him a perfect choice for unreliable narrator. 

4) Nick and Amy Dunne, Gone Girl

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I love Gone girl but the two manipulative leads Nick and Amy Dunne made me wonder if everyone around me was lying.

We start by hating Nick and his secrets (and misrepresentations and lies) and want to protect the innocent little Amy, only to find that she is more unreliable and everything we heard from her was a lie as well. If you can read only one book of this list, Gone Girl would be my pick. 


3) Libby Day, Dark places

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Another one from Gillian Flynn (if you can’t tell, she is one of my favorite authors) on the list. Her other books the Grown up and Sharp Objects have unreliable narrators too!

Twenty five years ago, 7 years old Libby Day testifies against her 15 years old brother Ben, for the massacre of their family – their mother and two younger sisters. Ben is convicted for life, partially on Libby’s testimony and partially on the evidences.

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Libby is mentally stunted and doesn’t want to remember anything from the day of murders. And just not that, she is selfish, lives on trust fund and would do anything to get money without working – even trying to revisit her past. Well, that is my favorite kinda narrator – totally unreliable. 

2) Grace Marks, Alias Grace

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Alias Grace is one of my best reads of the year and its Netflix adaptation is a huge hit as well. The true crime story based on the 16 years imprisonment of Grace Marks for double homicide of his employer and fellow worker.

While her co-conspirator was hung in public, Grace was sent off the mental asylum for years. In the fictionalized version a psychiatrist tries to see through the web of deception and manipulation spun around and by her to set free. With the number of versions of the event and her own mental status, Grace is definitely one of the top contenders for the best unreliable narrators.

1) Piscine ‘Pi’ Patel, Life of Pi

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Pi crosses the mighty ocean alone in a raft except for the company of a man eating mammal, Richard Parker, a tiger. The narrative of the exhaustive 7 month journey makes one wonder how much is true and how much was just a cope up mechanism.

To make matters worse (or better) Pi leaves it to the reader to decide which version one wants to believe in at the end making us doubt everything we just read. No wonder he is on my list of narrators who are unreliable. 

Do you like unreliable narrations? Who are your favorite unreliable narrators? Do I have them on my list? Let us chat.

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22 Comments

  1. Shruti

    Unreliable narrators are amazing to read when written well! Gone Girl is perhaps my favorite from this list. It’s been ages since I read the book, but I still vividly remember how much I liked it back then.

    Reply
    • Gayathri

      It is my favorite-st too! I loved the movie as well.

      Reply
  2. Karla Strand

    I think when unreliable narrators are written that way intentionally by the author, it can be fantastic. I like this element of surprise, when it’s done well, like Fight Club or Life of Pi, which I loved. I can appreciate narration like this when used as a literary tool.

    Reply
    • Gayathri

      Well put. When tastefully done, unreliable narrators are awesome!

      Reply
  3. Evelina @ AvalinahsBooks

    Oh man, the one from Fight Club was amazing! Like, I’m so gullible, I never saw that coming. It was a great book, although a little bit too brutal for me to enjoy fully. But the ideas were amazing.

    As for Life of Pi, man. It really is almost a “pick your adventure”. I couldn’t accept the horrible “possibly-reality”, so I just went with the actual tiger story. But the book was definitely powerful because of this. Breaks your heart.

    Reply
    • Gayathri

      I also didn’t think of it at all.. The movie is great as well. But I didn’t enjoy ‘Life of Pi’ as much. I felt it was very dragging in many places. And I agree with your sentiments on the ending.

      Reply
  4. Finitha Jose

    I am not a fan of unreliable narrators. The only one I have read in this list is ‘Life of Pi’ and I hated it.

    Reply
    • Gayathri

      It is not my favorite either. I felt it was long winded and dragging.

      Reply
  5. Nicole Pyles

    Ah the Girl on the Train is a definite good one. I liked that book!

    Reply
    • Gayathri

      I liked the book too, though I didn’t like her.

      Reply
  6. Laura

    I loved both Rachel from Girl on the Train and Charlie from Perks of Being A Wallflower as narrators! They were both just so well written! I’m always amazed by authors who manage to pull of unreliable narrators…there’s no way I could do it, and not give it away too early.

    Reply
    • Gayathri

      I love it when I start as a trusting reader and to be surprised by the unreliability of the narrator, shocked by the turns of the events.

      Reply
  7. Jenn @ Bound to Writing

    Charlie is a wonderful unreliable narrator! I also like, that with him we learn through him what happened and that isn’t an outside source relaying the information. I don’t think it would have had the same effect.

    Reply
    • Gayathri

      Yes, without Charlie’s narration it would be another normal teenage drama.

      Reply
  8. Whispering Stories

    Great post. Unfortunately I can’t really comment as I haven’t read any of the books mentioned.

    Reply
    • Gayathri

      Thanks for dropping by.

      Reply
  9. DJ Sakata

    I tend to grow frustrated and annoyed with this trope

    Reply
    • Gayathri

      I can see how that can happen.

      Reply
  10. AYUSHI NAIR

    Great post

    Reply
    • Gayathri

      Thanks.!

      Reply
  11. Jennifer Gaarder

    Unreliable narrators take away from the story, so true.

    Reply
    • Gayathri

      I totally agree!

      Reply

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Gayathri loves reading, recommending books and talking about bookish things in real life. Her blog is just an extension of that habit. When she is not reading books or creating online content, she freelances as a beta reader. She lives currently in Dubai.Head over to meet me

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