I have been working on a post-apocalyptic novel for about a year. My female narrator/protagonist, named Eris, was isolated for almost all of her life until meeting a rogue group of survivors and having to assimilate into their world. It's the year 2212 and this world was devastated by decades of nuclear war, leaving a majority of the Earth polluted and radiated, which subsequently modified the human genome and gave many people strange and unexplainable abilities.

Eris had convinced herself that she was the last person on Earth until the group of survivors picked her up, and while she does the possess uncontrollable and "supernatural" ability to manipulate life force, she is not only hiding this from her new companions, she has convinced HERSELF that this power does not exist and blocked out its usage from her mind, and this blockage of memories inadvertently manifests in odd nightmares and premonitions (when she was a girl, she lashed out and accidentally killed her father, aunt, and older sister, and when this commotion was investigated by other survivors, she murdered them out of fear).

She not only is lying constantly to those around her, but even when she is alone she is unable to acknowledge the truth of her actions because they were extremely traumatizing and she harbors extreme guilt. She also misunderstands body language, does not realize the effects of her own actions and lies about them to herself resulting in inaccurate narration/retelling of the events, and frequently gets so caught up in her own emotions that she blocks out what is happening around her.

My question is: how can I convey her inner conflict and inability to trust herself in an effective way? I don't simply want her to tell lie after lie, but I want her to build a sort of inability to both tell the truth, identify whether what she is saying IS the truth. The suppression of her powers and guilt about using them is a big reason for her unreliability and motivation behind her lies and manipulation. She isn't necessarily a sympathetic character and I don't need/want her to be, and I don't want her to learn how to tell the truth or develop morals; my main goal for her is to be a destructive person and a bad source of information.


  • How do your favorite authors convey unreliable narrators? Writers learn how to do stuff by paying attention as we read. Nov 28, 2018 at 21:45
  • @KenMohnkern no authors I've ever read have really employed an unreliable narrator? A few people have recommended stuff by Cormack McCarthy, though.
    – user34214
    Nov 28, 2018 at 22:21
  • 3
    Unreliable Narrator is a storytelling device, not a catch-all "mental illness" that strains credibility with selective amnesia and antisocial behaviors.
    – wetcircuit
    Nov 28, 2018 at 23:50
  • @wetcircuit I know... She is severely traumatized and mentally ill (like me??) which leads to her unreliability as a narrator and a character.
    – user34214
    Nov 29, 2018 at 19:42
  • 1
    The Cask of Amontillado is a good example of an unreliable narrator. The Narrator insists that the target character of his ire started the whole thing and that the story he is telling is about a justified revenge plot. However, in dialog, the target character does not seem to have any animosity or recognized wrong doing with the narrator, which calls into question the narrator's assesment that this person is deserving of his fate. In fact, the opening has the narrator make personal appeals to the reader regarding his honesty with the reader, which comes off as a conversation with a stranger
    – hszmv
    Dec 3, 2018 at 18:34

3 Answers 3


Prove her wrong; have her contradict herself

You can initially illustrate that your narrator is unreliable by having her assert that she's the last person on Earth - and then show that it is not true.

Eris had convinced herself that she was the last person on Earth until the group of survivors picked her up

Put doubt or conflict into the narration itself

Depending on how thoroughly she has convinced herself that she does not have powers, you can have her argue with herself while narrating. "They laughed at my pleas for mercy, raising their guns to fire. And then I... NO. I didn't do anything. They just collapsed. But I started sweating, like I'd run up a flight of stairs. I must have been relieved. Yeah, I was relieved."

On the other hand, you might be throwing away what could be a good reveal later if your hints about her unreliability are too obvious.

  • Simple and to the point: Either have 'reality' (ie, concrete events of the novel) contradict the narration or have the narration doubt itself. Nov 29, 2018 at 13:33
How can I convey her inner conflict and inability to trust herself in an effective way?

You have to first make the reader be willing to trust her, then voice her inner questions, and only finally start showing a ever increasing amount of factual contradictions.

At first, pose her as the unique undisputed narrator. Pitch her loneliness, her distress, paint everything bleaker than it could possibly be, but offer no contradictory evidence. If you need to contradict her, give her point of view that she honestly made a mistake, but everyone would have made the same mistake based on what she could have known.

Hundreds pages later, voice her inner questions about days which she exposed earlier, show that she cannot recall what happened, or that she may be considering retelling some facts in a different manner. E.g. "She saw again the mangled bodies of her companions, dead after that horrible fall. She stood, silent, shaken by the sudden worry that crawled under her skin. Could a fall really bend a body in such a hominous manner? Could falling from any height tear bones and sinews apart?"

Finally, in the last third of your book, expose her lies. Make her aware that she tells and retells the story to suit her whims. E.g. "those bodies again, spread at the bottom of the pillar, eaten by the wolves. Wolves! As if she had seen one! It must have been the crows then, and the ravens. Or the rats. Or, perhaps, a maddening human, driven that insatiable hunger that still rumbled in her stomach. Still, even in her wildest dreams she could not force herself to even touch any bit of that succulent flesh."


One method would be to have her narrate things* in a straight-forward way but intersperse it with flashbacks (she probably has PTSD given what she's been through) and/or nightmares.

After she meets other people, their words and actions will contradict some of what your MC says. For example, they might be frightened of her for "no reason." Or she will correctly narrate things but explain them wrong. For example, she describes someone else's body language accurately but then interprets it in a way your reader will not.

Note: * For some reason I'm seeing this as a first person book, which it may or may not actually be. Or at least as 3rd person but strongly from her POV.

  • It's first person!
    – user34214
    Nov 29, 2018 at 19:38

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