Six impossible things

Unreliable narrators

In one sense, all narrators are unreliable. Whether first-person, tight-third, or omniscient, every narrator (like every human being) has his, her, or its own worldview and personal biases that affect the way they tell the story. Even if all of them were totally objective, the author, also being human, likewise has a worldview that can’t help affecting what they write and how they write it.

In fiction, however, the usual assumption is that the person who is telling the story is reliable; what they say is the truth, and what they tell the reader is the way the story “really happened.” Hence the term “unreliable narrator,” which means that the reader cannot trust everything the narrator says or implies.

This is both a terrific writing tool and a terrifying one. An unreliable narrator, by definition, doesn’t have to tell the reader everything, or present what he/she does say objectively. This gives the writer enormous scope as to how and when key details about characters, events, and backstory are revealed, and allows for great plot twists – but if the writer doesn’t handle this narrator well, the reader may end up confused, totally misunderstand what’s actually going on in the story, or feel that it’s the author who has been lying or cheating in their storytelling.

Unreliable narrators are most commonly first-person narrators, but any viewpoint type can be unreliable if the writer wants; it just gets harder to pull off as you move toward the godlike omniscient narrator. One way to do it is to give the omniscient narrator an obvious personality and agenda, the way Steve Brust does in the Paarfi novels. Once can also provide information in some other form, like interludes or fictional newspaper articles, that is inconsistent with what the omniscient narrator is saying, or make it obvious that the narrator is avoiding giving certain key information that an omniscient narrator would, of course, know.

Unreliable narrators come in two main varieties:

Deliberately unreliable narrators may be outrageous braggarts or showoffs more interested in telling a good story than in the truth; or they may be hiding something for sinister reasons or to protect themselves or someone else. They may be twisting the truth to make themselves look better (like the four narrators in Rashomon), outright liars, or deliberately and obviously breaking the fourth wall and playing with the conventions of literature. Whatever their reasons, they know what they’re doing and they have reasons for doing it. These characters know what really happened; they just don’t want to give the reader the whole story straight.

Sometimes, the deliberately unreliable narrators admit up front that everything they’re saying is a lie. Sometimes, the narrator’s secrets and lies are uncovered in mid-book, or at the climax, suddenly casting the entire story in a different light, as in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (which is also an example of a book many readers considered as the author “cheating”). Sometimes, the reader gets enough information to realize that they’re not being shown or told everything, but they’re left to decide for themselves whether the characters are good or bad, justified in their actions or not.

Inadvertently unreliable narrators are doing their best to provide an accurate account of events, but for some reason they can’t (and don’t realize this themselves). This includes narrators who are mentally ill – schizophrenic, psychopathic, or suffering from severe PTSD, for instance – or who are deluded by someone else, but also those who don’t have enough information about the circumstances to provide an accurate version of events, like those who are naive, innocent, immature, or simply making totally wrong assumptions about what is happening and why out of personal bias or insufficient information. An example of the last would be a narrator who reports “I saw him punch her chest three times!” because they’ve never seen or heard of cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

An inadvertently unreliable narrator can be fun or frustrating. They’re fun when the reader feels clever because they know more than the character does…but this can quickly get frustrating if the character seems stupid or if the reader has figured out the solution to the problem or mystery by Chapter Three, and has to watch the protagonist struggle along Not Getting It for another twenty chapters. This narrator is particularly useful for making the reader think about what is really going on in this town, family, situation, etc.

A big part of successfully writing an unreliable narrator is cluing the reader in that they can’t believe everything this narrator says. The braggart or the break-the-fourth-wall narrator may simply announce it – “I am the biggest liar you have ever met!” “This story would be quite boring if I just told it the way it happened, so I’m adding a few things to keep it interesting.” The narrator who is hiding something may also tell the reader or another character “I never talk about my sister. At all. So don’t bother asking.”

Authors working with narrators who won’t admit they’re unreliable, or who don’t realize it themselves, have to highlight their unreliability in other ways. Mostly, this involves having the reader or another character catch them lying or misinterpreting what’s going on. If it’s the reader, the “catch” can be based on information that the author expects most readers to know even though it’s not in the story (such as how cardiopulmonary resuscitation is done). In a multiple-viewpoint story, the reader can catch the unreliable narrator making too many mistakes when describing something the reader has already “seen” through some other POV’s eyes. If it’s a single-viewpoint story, the narrator often slips from time to time – they suddenly know the best way to escape through the back streets of a city they’ve supposedly never seen before, or someone recognizes them and calls them George instead of Harvey, or the reader observes them telling one story to Character A and a different one to Character B (Jane Austen’s Lady Susan is this sort).

  1. I confess I’m quite old-fashioned in this regard. I don’t mind characters lying to each other, but lying to the reader feels like cheating. There are cases where it’s useful – to extend your inadvertant-narrator examples, a child living in a household where something dodgy is going on (whether that’s mainstream-fiction abuse, or SF-styled daddy is cloning children until he gets them right) – but it seems to me like a stylistic tool that’s best kept in the box unless it’s really needed.

    But this ties into sympathetic characters; I prefer that the protagonist be someone I can hope succeeds. If it’s revealed that the protagonist has been lying to me, or the narrator’s been lying about the protagonist, then any emotional involvement was built on a false premise, and I tend to experience a severe backlash.

  2. I’m another who generally doesn’t care for unreliable narrators; all too often it feels like the author trying to play cleverness one-upmanship games, and I’ve got better things to do with my time. Though, as with most things, there are exceptions; I can think of one or two cases where the author did a particularly brilliant job, and the results blew me away.

    I’m not sure I’d consider the insufficient-information narrator as unreliable, though. If they’re sufficiently well-drawn, and they’re providing decent descriptions of what they’re witnessing, it should be clear to the reader what’s actually going on and that it’s being filtered through that particular lens. An unsophisticated character hearing about an investment scheme for the first time might wonder how or why anyone would buy part of a boat; add in that they’re a long, long way from any port, and the reader likely won’t be surprised when all is not kosher with the self-styled investment broker, even if the narrator didn’t see it comeing.

    • Coming. Lord, I wish we could edit comments here. *goes for more caffeine*

    • “Insufficient information narrator” reminds me of a P.G. Wodehouse story, told from the perspective of a dog. He’s forever commenting on how shy his owner is: never wants to talk to anyone, crawls through windows in the dead of night, visits people when they’re not at home, etc. It was pretty obvious the owner was a thief, and I enjoyed seeing the dog mis-interpret everything the man did.

  3. I know some people consider a well-written unreliable narrator beautifully artistic, but I just feel more betrayed. I stop trusting the author as well as the character.

    But I also abandon authors who write from the point of view of undisguised antiheroes, so perhaps I’m just the wrong audience.

    • An unreliable narrator isn’t to everyone’s taste. That said, “unreliable” doesn’t have to mean a narrator who is betraying the reader. That’s a specific subset of the “deliberately unreliable” category. The Baron Munchausen character who makes obviously exaggerated claims to impossible deeds can be loads of fun for both reader and writer. The trick is in letting the reader know early on that they’re going to have to think for themselves.

  4. Have you all read The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner? I absolutely loved that book, and its narrator, even though I dislike unreliable narrators.
    If not, don’t read the rest of what I say here, just go and read the book and don’t peek at the end!

    I really mean it, don’t spoil this treat for yourself!

    I don’t like unreliable narrators in general, but Gen is not exactly unreliable, in the sense that he never lies to you; but because of the lovely surprise at the end I think he does belong in this category. It’s more as if he’s an actor who is so deeply “in character” that it colors everything he does and says, so you never realise there might be more layers than the visible character. When that penny dropped, I immediately reread the book, to see how the altered viewpoint changed the story (and marvel about how honest he was throughout, while creating a very different viewpoint!) – it was like getting two books for the price of one.
    It’s such a pity that one cannot repeat that first readthrough and revelation!

  5. I’ll quote a bit from the intro to The Complete Yes Minister (the Diaries of a Cabinet Minister) based on the BBC TV series. The authors claim that the diaries are not always consistent with fact but may contain:
    (a) what happened
    (b) what he belieed happened
    (c) what he would like to have happened
    (d) what he wanted others to believe happened
    (e) what he wanted others to believe that he believed happened
    What makes the book fun is that there were two other main witnesses to most of the events.

  6. Hope it’s not a spoiler to say, but `Chimera,’ by Rob Thurman, is a beautiful case of a narrator who is unreliable because his preconceptions blind him to the truth. It allows for a terrific plot twist at the end without me ever feeling like I was lied to. I just felt bad for the character, getting so completely blindsided, and then proud of him for the way he handled the revelation. (It’s an adult science fiction novel, incidentally. There’s a good bit of swearing (the hero is in the mafia) so reader discretion and all that, but it’s a really wonderful book.)

  7. It’s not a betrayal if the narrator sincerely believes everything they say, and if the author does it so well you can’t be mad. I’m thinking of Shirley Jackson…

  8. Still Alice is another good example of an unreliable narrator. The first-person character learns at the beginning of the story that she had early-onset Alzheimer’s and the story sticks with her as she slowly disintegrates. It wouldn’t work as a writing strategy but for this book it was great.

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