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Resources for Writers

The Unreliable Narrator & The Art of Misdirection

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Article by Tracy Culleton ©.
Posted in Resources (, ).

The narrator in any story doesn’t have to tell the truth! There are a few different scenarios:

  • The narrator is deliberately lying.
  • The narrator genuinely believes s/he’s telling the truth, but both she, and we as the readers, are fooled.
  • The narrator genuinely believes she’s telling the truth, but it’s clear to we readers that she’s wrong. This can be very powerful – lots of scope for comedy or poignancy. It can take a lot of skill to successfully write this – saying one thing but making it very clear that the truth is different.

You, as the writer, have to be careful about the first two. One absolute rule is that you cannot cheat the reader. The clues must be there, so that after the reader finds out the truth, she can look back and acknowledge that the correct information was there. You can hide the information using misdirection – more below on that.

Read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie for possibly the most amazing example of unreliable narration. Another example is Nick in The Great GatsbyThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,” is another good example – the narrator is autistic, and a child, and so all his perceptions are filtered through those realities. We adults are aware of this and make allowances for this, and extrapolate the truth from that.

Another good example of an unreliable narrator can be found in the Harry Potter books.

Nothing is what it seems in the Harry Potter  – Rowling uses narrative misdirection to brilliant effect. We see the world through Harry’s eyes but he often gets it wrong. In every book there is a character who is not as they appear, whose identity is hidden.  YOU CANNOT TRUST WHAT YOU SEE.

In the first book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, it’s Snape with his black hair, long face, he is the epitomy of evil. During the game of Quidditch, Hermione and Ron see him muttering a curse to hex Harry Potter’s broom. It is only at the end when Professor Quirrel reveals that it was he(someone we thought we could trust) who was hexing the broom, that we realise that Snape was actually muttering a counter curse, and we see that Snape has Harry’s best interests at heart.

Misdirection: One good way of ‘hiding’ the information is to use the time-honoured method of misdirection (magicians and illusionists do this all the time). Good ways of misdirecting are to include the information in a long list of items, or in a paragraph of over-detailed description. For example, say I wanted to subtly introduce a letter-opener in the shape of a knife which would be used later to stab somebody. I might write:

The desk was cluttered, with a muddle of items chaotically piled on top of it: an old filofax, a black lacquer fountain-pen, a tarnished silver letter-opener in the shape of an overly ornate dagger, a stained-glass lamp with a chip out of it, and a toppling pile of yellowing and unopened envelopes.

I didn’t intend this – it just came to me as I started writing the example, part of the creative writing process I guess – but a lot of the mentioned detritus is quite dated and old-fashioned. That was all the better to hide the letter-opener, because it too is a rather dated and old-fashioned item, and would be more prominent (too prominent, in that case) in a list including MP3 players and mobile phones and PDAs.

I did mention that the letter-opener was in the shape of a dagger, which was giving more detail than I really wanted to give. But there are plenty of blunt letter-openers and it would have been cheating to let the reader assume that this was one of those. I included the detail of ‘tarnished’ and ‘overly ornate’ so that what sticks in the reader’s mind (I hope) is that information, and a sense of lack-of-taste, rather than a sense of danger.

Also, depending on how the story is going, I could maybe draw attention to one of the other items in that list. Perhaps the point-of-view character is looking for some information, and he wonders if that information might be in one of the unopened envelopes.

The reader’s attention is therefore immediately on the envelopes, and the rest of the list is filed in his mind just as window-dressing and scene-setting.


Tracy Culleton runs the www.fiction-writers-mentor.com, and works extensively for Inkwell Writers Workshops.

Born in Dublin in 1964, she has been writing all her life, but began her professional writing career in 2002 with the non-fiction book Simply Vegetarian’. Her fiction career began when she won the 2003 'Write A Bestseller' Competition jointly run by Poolbeg and RTE's Open House. This winning novel, Looking Good’, went on to spend three weeks in the top ten. Loving Lucy’ was published in 2004 and ‘More Than Friends’ in 2005. She is currently working on her fourth novel, Grace Under Pressure’.

Tracy has extensive experience in adult education, having worked with NALA as an adult literacy tutor. Tracy is an expert in EFL and has a special interest in the reasons for, and the cures for, writer's block. She has written a nonfiction book on the subject, available as a free e-Book on her website www.fiction-writers-mentor.com

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