Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.50: The Unreliable Narrator

All unreliable narrators aren’t unreliable in the same way. How do they differ and how does that change the way that we write them? Erin shares her unified theory (look at the graphic below!) of unreliable narrators. 


Take an event that you’re familiar with, and write about it as truthfully as possible. Then write about it from the point of view of someone who knows the basics, but not the whole truth, but who tries to tell the entire story anyway. For bonus points, tell the story a third time from the point of view of a lying liar with an agenda.

Thing of the Week: 

Lost Places by Sarah PInsker 

Liner Notes: 

Unreliable Narrator Graph

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Unreliable Narrators! Some know they are unreliable, others are fooling themselves. Reveal or revelation? If the character doesn’t know they are unreliable, signpost it to the reader. Hang a lantern on it. Let another character question it. What is the scope of the unreliability, just one specific secret, or a broader range? Building trust with the reader for a character with a secret. Have the character reveal one secret, while holding others. Or save the cat. Don’t overdo twist reveals! Consider intentional versus unintentional, and broad versus specific unreliability.

[Season 18, Episode 50]

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[Mary Robinette] This episode of Writing Excuses has been brought to you by our listeners, patrons, and friends. If you would like to learn how to support this podcast, visit

[Season 18, Episode 50]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, The Unreliable Narrator.

[DongWon] 15 minutes long.

[Erin] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And you can’t trust us.


[Mary Robinette] I’m someone.

[DongWon] I’m someone else.

[Erin] I’m a third person.

[Howard] I’m Howard.


[Erin] But are you?

[DongWon] The most unreliable answer.


[Erin] We are going to be talking today about the unreliable narrator. This is one of my favorite techniques. I… Well, I actually believe that all narrators are unreliable in their own way, because it’s always, whenever you’re telling a story, even in life, you’re telling it from your perspective. But when we talk about unreliable narrators, these are when you’re actually trying on purpose to have your narrator either believe or represent something different than the actual facts of what’s happening on the page. I have this whole construct/theory of unreliable narrators that I’m going to pitch you all…


[Erin] In sections. So, the first part I’m wondering about is do you think it matters? If the narrator knows that they are unreliable versus if they are fooling themselves and therefore fooling the reader?

[DongWon] I think it’s incredibly important because it changes the relationship to the audience. So if your audience is reading a book that has an unreliable narrator who does not realize that that’s what they’re doing, then they… We are going through that journey with them. They’re experiencing their slow realization that they are being unreliable or we are watching them descend further and further into a break from reality. Right? So there’s us walking with somebody. If the narrator is being deliberately unreliable and lying to us, then… There’s a different kind of experience where we are sort of… The audience is almost antagonistic to the narrator in a certain way. This doesn’t mean that the narrator can’t be sympathetic and fun and all of those things, and almost has to be to balance that out. But it requires a different care that you’re taking of the audience to make sure that when the reveal comes, that they have been lied to, but they don’t feel betrayed and angry at you, the author.

[Howard] I played How to Host a Murder once, and I was the killer. But the first 2 pages of my booklet were stuck together. I did not know I was the killer. I didn’t know. So I was the most convincing liar of anybody, because I was utterly innocent in my own mind…

[Choked giggling]

[Howard] Of this killing. We went to the end, yeah, I totally got away with it. It was like, “Okay, who was the murderer? Who has the…” “I don’t know.” Everybody looked at the… We passed around our books. Somebody said, “Howard!” They peeled it apart and were like, “You did it!”


[Howard] I was like, “Oh. I did?” Yeah. To me, that’s the big distinction. The unreliable narrator who knows they’re lying can be tripped up in their lie. Can be dishonest… They’re dishonest with an agenda. Whereas the unreliable narrator who just doesn’t know the truth is going to be utterly honest about what they know, and is, to my mind, more convincing.

[Mary Robinette] As we’re talking about this, I’m thinking about something that I did in Relentless Moon, which is that my main character has 2 secrets. One of them she is keeping secret for societal reasons. She has anorexia. The other she’s keeping secret for spoiler reasons. Which is… She’s keeping those both secret from the reader. But then she also has a secret that she is keeping from the other characters. So one of the things that I was… But that she’s sharing with the readers. So one of the things that I was playing with in that was having her lies be in the same patterns. So that when the reveal happened, that you recognized that you had been lied to in the same way that the other characters had been lied to about this different packet of information.

[Erin] Oo, that’s cool.

[DongWon] That is really cool.

[Erin] I was thinking about the word reveal. So what I think is really interesting is that secrets are meant to be revealed. So part of the difference between these 2 unreliable narrators is what the story is building towards.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] So, in… If you’re hiding a piece of information, your narrator is on purpose, at some point, there is a general sense that that will be revealed in a specific moment, or, like, it will come to light. Whereas if the person is fooling themselves… I think of it more of a revelation. A slow revelation, but the reader that something is happening that they shouldn’t trust. But it doesn’t have to happen… There’s not necessarily a moment. There can be. But it doesn’t have to go, like, one, like, “And then…”

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] “You’ll never guess what really happened!” But more, as you’re getting more and more details about the world, you’re like, “There seems to be something that’s askew.” That kind of brings me to one craft technique that I learned about in creating unreliable narrators, which is that if they don’t know that they’re being unreliable, you have to give some sort of signpost to the reader that they are. Usually by bringing in something that the audience can make a very clear judgment about, and be like, “Well, that isn’t the way I would interpret it, and they’re interpreting it very differently, so something is off.” In Wolfy Things, there’s a moment where he sees his mother crying and he’s like, “She still trying to, like, salt the food.”

[DongWon] Right.

[Erin] You know, with her tears. Just because like… Like, that’s so off, she’s obviously upset about, like, the appearance of this wolf and what’s going on there, but he misinterprets it so wrong, like so badly…

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] That you’re thinking, “Okay. There’s like something… He’s not seeing the world the way that other people see the world.”

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] How do you make sure in that moment that the reader isn’t just like, “Oh, you, the author, missed something,” or like, “That doesn’t make sense to me, this book is bad.” Right, like? Because I think when I see that done poorly, that is the result. The result can be like… Oh, I’m just not connecting with this. I don’t understand this character. They’re acting ideologically in some way. But when it’s done really well, for me, that’s like the most exciting thing. Right? Like, I loved that moment of realizing, like, “Oh, man, this mom at a way different experience than what this kid can see.” It makes sense, because he’s a kid. Right? Like… So…

[Howard] I hang a lantern on it. It creates conflict. Another character in the scene… I use it a lot with worldbuilding. I especially use it with worldbuilding when I realize, “Man. I built this earlier, and I have characters talk about it, and I don’t like it. I don’t think it works that way. I need them to have been wrong.” So another character comes in and says, “Hey, guys. I think you’re talking about this all wrong. Let’s have an argument.” There’s comedy and there’s argument and the reader now sees, “Oh. Oh. Yeah, I had some questions about that too. But now that a character is asking questions about it, I’m fine.” They don’t actually need to resolve it. They just need to question what was happening. Now the reader no longer blames you, the writer, because there like, “Oh, yes. My concern has now been raised in the text. I’m fine, I’m on board with whatever continues.”

[DongWon] Yeah. Parallax can be really useful if you’re in a longer text. Right? So if you’re in a novel, your multi POV, you can have sort of 2 characters looking at the same thing from slightly different angles and you can sort of see the difference between them. In a really tight constrained text…

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] With a single voice, like, how do you make that clear?

[Erin] I think one way is by bringing in…

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Erin] An outside influence. One of the reasons… One of the roles that the Conjureman plays in Snake Season is to present a point of view in the narrative that is not the point of view of the character.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] To see her interact with something that I could give you, like, here are the actual facts of what’s happening in this interaction and here’s the way she’s seeing this interaction. Sort of show how those 2 things are diverging from each other as a way for you to be like, “okay. Something is a little different here.” Then, at the very end, there’s the husband’s point of view and what he says in dialogue is another way of saying, like, this is where he’s just describing exactly what he’s seeing and what he understands. That’s also a way to show an even greater contrast. As the contrast between the character’s perspective and these other characters that the interact with becomes greater and greater, it gives a sense that there’s more and more unreliability. I think the other thing that’s really important is to give your character an absolutely genuine belief and reason for believing what they do. I think if you’re like, “Oh, I’m just going to have them misunderstand this as a technique,” it doesn’t feel true to the character. Like, Nikki really believes that that’s what’s going on with his mom. He’s really wrong. But what his belief is seems like it’s really genuine, it’s coming from a place of heart. I think if when people are sympathetic to your characters, then they care about them, and they want to understand why there seeing the world way that they are. That really brings them into the “Oh, this is what the character is about” mode versus “this is what the author is doing” mode. You basically keep them tightly in the head of the narrator, so they don’t have time to think about what else is going on.

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. But I think the… Just to draw a line under the thing that you said, which is, in that sign posting that Howard was talking about, that you present the reader with something that is clearly recognizable to the reader as a… Like, his mother is looking out the window and giggling. It’s like, okay, she’s not afraid of this wolf. Then, having that obvious misinterpretation then sets them up before you get to all of the other misinterpretations, sets the reader up to know… To look for that.

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] One of the other pieces along those lines which is, I think, something that you’re also doing with Nikki is what I call the doth protest too much. That they spend a lot of energy trying to justify their belief. That they think about it and talk about it…

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Way more than it would… Otherwise, it would be like, oh, mom’s upset again, and you move on. But it’s like, moms upset because of this, or, actually, it’s because of this. Like, that they doth protest too much.

[Erin] Exactly. All right. I love this. We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, I have another question to pose for you in my grand unified unreliable narrator theory.

[DongWon] Or will we?


[Erin] This week, I have a short story collection for you. It is Lost Places by Sarah Pinsker. Sarah Pinsker is an amazing short story writer. You gotta love that there are 2 Hugo and nebula winning short stories in this collection. 2 Truths and a Lie and Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather. But there’s just… It’s story after story after story. One of the things I find really interesting is that she does… She thinks about the world in such a fascinating way. I feel like there are the stories that she’s really well known for, but some of the quieter pieces that are in here… Like I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise are just really beautiful love letters I think to the form and just expertly crafted short story experiences. So, that’s Lost Places by Sarah Pinsker.

[Erin] We’re back. We weren’t lying about it.


[Erin] So, for the 2nd question that I have for you all about the unreliable narrator is the scope of the unreliability. So, the way I think about this is that you can have someone, like you were talking about your character having a secret. So that’s like a very specific thing.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] The way that say, the rest of the world, everything is accurate, but this one thing is something that they’re hiding. Then, I think about somebody like Marie in Snake Season whose entire worldview is a little off. Like…

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] It’s not like she’s hiding something specific, she’s just misinterpreting everything around her.

[DongWon] The slow build to realizing how wide the scope is of her unreliability…

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] Is so much the deliciousness of that story.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] There… I’ve used this. I’ve used this? I’ve referenced this before. The lore master for the Elder Scrolls online… One of his first challenges was the fact that the Elder Scrolls games were terribly inconsistent in the way the history of that universe played out. Their solution was unreliable narrators. Anytime we describe something, we want to describe it in the narrative from the point of view of a character. Because a character can be wrong. But if we describe it without quotes around it, then people are going to take it as gospel truth. What was funny to me, and what I just now realized with regard to scope, is that in that article, the lore master never use the term unreliable narrator. It was exactly what he was talking about, but he never used that term. On the one hand, I thought, “You can’t possibly not know the literary technique you’re using,” and just today I realized, “Oh, wait. You’re writing game software. You don’t want to put the word unreliable in the text…”


[Howard] “In front of the gamers…”

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Howard] Because you will communicate a whole new level of unreliability to them.

[DongWon] Well, this kind of goes to one of the earlier points that Erin was making, which is any time you have a character proclaiming their worldview, there’s something always unreliable about that. Because we… Our subjectivity inherently influences how we see the world. This is going to be a minor spoiler for N. K. Jemison’s The 5th Season…

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] But there’s a moment in the book where you realize that the narration is 2nd person, that you are being told the story by somebody. That, for me, was such a moment of like, “Oh, no. Everything is now unreliable.” Right?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] That subjectivity has been influencing the story this whole time…  For me, that was just like a thrilling moment because it just inherent… By shifting me into a character’s perspective, suddenly the scope of the unreliability was infinite.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] It was this entire story, this entire world…

[Mary Robinette] That was such a gut punch. I was actually thinking about the broadness that you’re talking about with Ghosts, because Ghosts has 2 things going on. One is that she has been made unreliable narrator by someone removing her memories. But she also… Like, when she… When she takes… When they take Princess to the…

[DongWon] Memories

[Mary Robinette] To the memory…

[DongWon] [garbled]

[Mary Robinette] The 2nd time, none of her plan is in that narration. Even though it’s kind of clear to the audience, but your… It’s… She’s justifying why she’s making these choices. It’s such a broad, like, there’s so much broadness there, I think.

[DongWon] Yeah. She shifts from accidental to deliberate…

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] Unreliable narrator in a way that is very fun, and it is such a heel turn in the best ways.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] So…

[Erin] It’s funny, too, that I think of… Thinking about her looking at Princess’s memories, I think it was interesting, there’s a little bit of a… Her questioning of Princess as to whether or not Princess is actually a reliable narrator of her own relationship with her father and what was happening before. So that, I think, is also one of the reasons I love playing with memory is that like memory is one of the least reliable narrators.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] That we have, and yet it is the way that we experience the world and kind of go through things.

[DongWon] Yeah. The fact that Princess was a reliable narrator was the unforgivable crime. Right? The realization that someone was… Dared to tell the truth was unbearable.

[Mary Robinette] Dared to tell the truth and also all of the things that princess may not have understood about her…

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Own situation.

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] It’s like… There are so many layers of unreliability in that story. And revelation.

[Erin] I have a question, speaking of sort of reveals, about characters with secrets. Which is something I do less of. I tend to do like unreliable on a broad scale. How do you make sure that a character holding a secret doesn’t feel like they can no longer be trusted in any way versus just in this one way?

[Mary Robinette] So, one of the things for me… One of my pet peeves is holding the secret to long from the reader. So, with the… One of the ways that I build trust with my readers is that I will raise a question then answer a question, raise a question, answer a question, then raise a question and not answer the question. So, with this one, because I knew that she had two secrets, I went ahead and gave the answer to the first one within… The anorexia, within the first couple of chapters. I feed it to you a little bit slowly, and then I give the answer so that the… So at that point, you’re like, “Oh, now I can trust the character because they have let me in on this one secret.” But then all of the other secrets that she’s holding, the other secrets, you’re like, “Well, she must be being forthcoming with me now, because she was honest about this other thing.”

[Erin] That’s awesome.

[Howard] I would do the… You’re familiar with the term save the cat. Early in a story, you have a character save the, and now we know, “Oh, this is a good person.” All right. That trick works after you have revealed that someone was keeping a secret. You have them do the save the cat, and we’re like, “Oh. This person is actually okay. They’ve done a good thing.” Now, you may be mistrusting whether that cat was actually worth saving. Maybe it was a feral, rabid cat, and they’re saving it in order to kill us all. I don’t know. But you get the point here. You’re trying to… You adjust that likability slider strongly. Crank that all the way up so that we’re willing to trust them again.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] Yeah. I may be jumping a little bit too far ahead, and also maybe too much of this is a personal taste thing, but I always want to caution writers about over-relying on the twist type reveal.

[Mary Robinette] Yes.

[DongWon] Right? So, two movies that are incredibly popular, so this may undermine my point, but The Sixth Sense and Old Boy, the Park Chan-wook movie, both rely on last-minute reveals. They completely recontextualize all the action that has happened up until that point. I, as an audience member, in both of those cases, even though there’s other aspects of those movies that I could really admire and really like, felt almost betrayed by the narrator. Right? The narrator in this case wasn’t a character, but it was the authorial voice of those movies. So I got mad at M. Night Shyamalan, the person, which was unfair. I don’t hold a grudge against the man. He’s fine. He makes good movies. But, like, there was an aspect of that that…

[Mary Robinette] Thou doth protest too much.


[DongWon] I’m trying to be nice.

[Howard] It’s okay to be mad at him for the Avatar movies.

[DongWon] Sure. But… I mean… There’s a way in which that twist can really undermine your audience’s relationship to the text. Now, that can be done very, very well. Sometimes that twist will have that backward ripple effect. One example I think of is Neon Genesis Evangelion, which I re-watched recently. There’s a late reveal of Asuka’s character that makes you recontextualize why she is the way she is in a way that I think is beautifully done and makes a character that I find very annoying suddenly, for me, one of the most sympathetic characters in the show. So, anyways, I’m not getting into the spoilers of that. But there are ways to do it really, really well, and there are ways that… I think sometimes if you don’t have enough time after to really settle back into the story, it can just leave you with the feeling of being uncomfortable and unsettled in a way that is unpleasant to me narratively.

[Mary Robinette] So, I have this personal theory that one of the reasons that that particular thing happens to early career writers is that they are themselves unreliable, in that they didn’t know the answer to something. So they were just like, well, now it’s a big secret that I’ll reveal later. Then they keep going until he hit a point where they have to reveal it, and they are justifying themselves… To it, justifying that choice to themselves all along as, well, I’m doing it this way because I’m going to build tension and will have this big twist. Really, it’s that they just don’t know the answer and don’t want to write those scenes.

[DongWon] Yep.

[Erin] I don’t think…

[Howard] You’ve read the first 3 years of Schlock Mercenary.


[Mary Robinette] I’m not pointing fingers.

[Howard] Oh, man.

[Mary Robinette] Doth protest too much.

[Erin] I will say that I think a lot of it’s also trusting yourself.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Erin] As a writer. That without a gimmick, people will still want to read your stories.

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Erin] One of the things that I struggled with a lot in trying to write Wolfy Things is that… I tried to make some a of the, like, the relationship between him and the wolf, like, a lot more like a lot less clear. In the original version. Like, where it was a big twist at the end. I would give it to people and they’re like, “That’s fine. But, like, I really didn’t need to be surprised by that.” In some ways, not being s… Like, being able to have your own revelation as a reader earlier and then see that you understood the truth of things and it’s still going to go horribly wrong was actually more fun then the feeling of like, “You got me,” that happened that the end of the story.

[DongWon] This is a thing I’ve learned as a GM is that it has been way more fun just to tell my players stuff, just to be like, “Here’s what’s going on.” Then they’re like, “Oh, no. That’s bad.” Then they have to figure out what to do with that information. Then you can have more twists and reveals, but it’s grounded in them knowing what’s going on versus me trying to, like, surprise them with a big gotcha moment. I think that can be disorienting and unsatisfying for me as a storyteller and for them as the audience.

[Howard] We’re recording in Utah. One of my favorite hikes here in Utah is to a place that we call First Falls up above Sundance. From the starting point of the hike, you can look up the hill into the cirque, up the mountain into the cirque you know that that’s the ending, you know that that’s your destination. As you walk, the scenery is beautiful. The plants, the bees, the bugs, the whatever else. There is this experience on the hike that is just wonderful. But the whole time you’re hiking, the waterfall is now no longer visible. Then you come around the corner to it, and it’s bigger and it’s loud and it’s wonderful. The whole voyage has been rewarding. It was not that last turn that made it worthwhile.

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Howard] That last turn…

[DongWon] It’s a payoff, but [garbled]

[Howard] It is a payoff, but it was not the whole reason…

[DongWon] Right.

[Howard] You took the trip.

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] I think, for me, the key is what emotion do you want the reader to have. Is it… Is that emotion, “Oh, that author is clever,” or is the emotion, “Oh, the crippling dread…”?

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Like, what emotion are you trying to have the reader…

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Erin] All right. Now, we have already been slightly unreliable about our 15 minutes long…


[Erin] So, I am going to bring this together into my grand unified theory for 2 seconds, and then we will go to the homework. Which is to kind of think about how these 2 things intersect. I’ll… We’ll put a lovely graphic in the show notes so you can check it out. But thinking about what you want to do, I often think about how these 2 things come together. How intentional the narrator is in their unreliability or the author is in their unreliability, and how broad it is. So you’ve got your M. Night Shyamalan twist. That’s when you’re being broad. The entire nature of what you thought about this thing is wrong, and I’m going to tell you at the end intentionally. You’ve got something that’s a secret. That’s intentional and specific. I’m not going to tell you about this one aspect of me, but everything else is the way you think it is. There’s what I call the memory hole, which is unintentional and specific. That’s the I’ve repressed the memory of this time I killed that guy. You know?


[Howard] The pages of my How to Host a Murder book are stuck together.

[Erin] Exactly. But everything else you did was actually accurate to the character, it was just those stuck pages. Then, lastly, the false belief, which is my favorite…

[DongWon] Right.

[Erin] Which is when you’re basically wrong about everything around you.

[DongWon] I have to say when Erin first showed me this chart, I then spent the next 10 minutes in a fugue state just categorizing everything I’ve ever read…


[DongWon] Into these categories. It is one of the most useful infographics I’ve seen about this topic.

[Mary Robinette] Yep.

[DongWon] Erin, you’re very good at this.

[Erin] Thank you. With that, we will go to the homework.

[Howard] All right. Take an event that you are familiar with. Which probably means it has to be something that personally happened to you, and write about it as truthfully as possible. Then, write about it from the point of view of someone who knows the basics, but not the whole truth. Sort of the memory hole. For bonus points, tell the story a third time from the point of view of a lying liar with an agenda.

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.

[Howard] We love hearing about your successes. Have you sold a short story or finished your first novel? Tell us about it. Tell us about how you’ve applied the stuff that we’ve been talking about. Use the hashtag WXsuccess on social media or drop us a line at [email protected].