Every now and then I look to do a post musing on the mechanics or subtleties of writing fiction, and today is one of those days. And as you can tell from the title of this post, I want to talk about unreliable narrators, those strange voices in the books we read (and occasionally in the films and TV shows we watch) whom we can’t always trust.

According to that awesome source of usually-factual info that is Wikipedia, an unreliable narrator is a narrator, usually in some medium of fiction or another, whose veracity has been called into question. Usually this happens very early in the story, where the narrator may make a plainly false or delusional claim, or it may happen elsewhere in the story, perhaps near the end where a twist in the story turns everything we thought we knew upside down or slowly through hints that are given to us in the narration. Stories with unreliable narrators can feature a single narrator, or multiple narrators giving their own versions of events, or even a supporting or side character who tells a story in such a way that we question whether or not they’]re being entirely truthful about what happened.

A great example of an unreliable narrator is Patrick Bateman from the novel American Psycho. As a man suffering from psychoses and the occasional hallucinations, Batman makes a great unreliable narrator. Other examples include Nell from Wuthering Heights, most of the characters from the Japanese movie Rashomon, and Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother (according to show creator Craig Thomas, anyway). Oh, and any story that has children narrating it could possibly have unreliable narrators, because kids sometimes remember things incorrectly.

(If you want to think about it though, every one is an unreliable narrator, because no matter how they see events, they are biased, they may mis-remember details, and they may cover things up in order to make themselves look good or to hide their own guilt. But let’s not get too philosophical about this. Otherwise we’ll be here all evening)

One of the characters in my thesis project, Akira Kagawa, is an unreliable narrator. Because of his mental problems and his infatuation with protagonist Rose, he sees things through a very certain light, so when he tells a story it is often through that lens, which probably won’t reflect reality too well. As I’ve never written a story from the point of view of an unreliable narrator, so exploring the device through Akira should be interesting. (Or have I used unreliable narrators before? Technically, any time I tell a story from the protagonist’s first-person point of view, it could be construed as unreliable, but i’m not sure if it counts. Oh darn it! Now I’m an unreliable narrator of my own writing career!)

But why are unreliable narrators used so much? And why do they appeal to readers and writers alike? It’s a very difficult question, and I’m not sure I have an answer. Perhaps for writers, it’s the chance to tell a warped version of events. When we tell a story, especially through the lens of an omniscient or almost-omniscient third-person narrator, it’s almost expected that the story being told is what actually happens, one-hundred-and-ten percent factual. Even when the story is limited to the viewpoint of a single character, that third-person narrator’s portrayal of events is assumed to be accurate. Heck, even when we read a novel told in the first-person, we tend to see the depiction of what happens as true. Especially if we like the character.

An unreliable narrator allows the writer to break from that, to tell a story that might not be accurate, and that the reader and maybe even the writer will have to guess how true the story is or how much we can trust the narrator to tell the truth. In fact, maybe that’s what the reader gets from these sort of storytellers: they have to figure out how trustworthy the storyteller is, or where the line between truth and the storyteller’s own delusions or beliefs is laid down. It’s like solving a mystery or a puzzle, in a way, and the only way to really solve it is to read on until you finish the story. And even then, you might not be able to tell how reliable the narrator is (which is why there are e-forums to discuss these issues).

In any case, I’m going to enjoy exploring Akira’s own unreliable stories and seeing how much we can or should believe him. It’ll make for an interesting discussion point when talking about my thesis with my adviser during the next semester.

What do you think of unreliable narrators?

Have you ever used them in your own writing? How did it go?

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Comments
  1. Chris Green says:

    writing would be dull indeed without unreliable narrators. I use the device in many of my short stories. I feel that it is one of the more useful tools at a writer’s disposal. See http://ccgreen2000.wordpress.com/collectedstories/ for examples. Regards. Chris

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