January Prompt: Week of 01/14

Theme: Unreliable Narrator

The unreliable narrator is one of my personal favourite tropes to read. In my experience, whether they leave out clues along the way or it’s all revealed in a final coup de théâtre, a story told by an unreliable narrator always has a most satisfying ending. As a writer, there are few other literary devices that will allow you more power over the reader.

There are several types of such narrators to choose from and experiment with from “the madman” and “the naïf” who, for different reasons are not aware that they are presenting a corrupted version of reality, to “the clown” and “the liar” who are consciously misrepresenting the truth, either in a playful or a scheming way.

Regardless of the kind of narrator you choose, here are some features that apply to all:

An unreliable narrator is, by definition, a first-person narrator.

You will have to plan what your story is truly about in advance. This way you have complete control over what you allow the reader to see and when/where your twist will come to light.

Keep in mind that not every unreliable narrator is necessarily a bad guy. Generally, when we think of unreliable narrators American Psycho or A Clockwork Orange come to mind. Although people who have something to hide are traditionally not nice people, think of Forrest Gump!

Control your lies. A lot of readers are very good at working out the type or narrator they are dealing with pretty early on, so your job is to create intrigue by keeping the story believable, or at least still interesting, despite the lies.

Watch your language. Make sure that if you choose a narrator within a specific age bracket or with a mental disability/ illness, you use a vocabulary that represents your choice.

Exercise: I chose a narrator that falls under “the naïf” stereotype.

Imagine you are a child (let’s say between 6 to 8 years old) whose father is an abusive alcoholic.

Describe an evening around the dinner table during which your father, drunk, is unhappy with the food.

What could be the reasons for his discontent? Is the food taking too long? Is it too cold? Do you agree? Could your mother have done better with tonight’s meal?

You are sent to your room under the pretence that you parents need to have a “discussion”. What do you imagine it to be like based on what you can see and hear from your room?

Do these “discussions” happen often in your house?

When, if and how you reveal to the reader that the father is an alcoholic is up to you. The perspective you choose to present the fact in should be that of a child who may not understand the notion of domestic abuse.

This prompt was brought to you by:


Alina Martin of @inbetweenthecovers

Romanian born, Italian raised Londoner, Alina is pursuing a Comparative Literature and French BA at UCL (University College London). She is a regular contributor to student publications, writing on a variety of topics from literature and culture to current affairs as well as short fiction and poetry. In addition to her academic work, she participates in charity initiatives and is currently part of a volunteer programme aimed at facilitating access to higher education for high schoolers from underrepresented socio-economic groups.

She enjoys making and listening to music, looking at art and then discussing it with friends (preferably over coffee and cake) country walks and a good debate.