The Unreliable Narrator

Most of the time, the reader can safely assume that the writer tells the truth.  That what appears on the page is an accurate version of events in a story.  This is not meant to suggest that characters do not tell lies to each other, or that the events themselves are plausible, merely that what is written on the page did in fact happen in the story. 

There are, however, exceptions to this rule.  The author can deliberately lie to the reader by relating events on the page, only to reveal that those events never actually happened in the story.  The narrator of the story becomes unreliable.

As an example, consider the movie, A Beautiful Mind, in which the principle character suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and has constant delusional episodes.  His delusions are presented to the viewer as if they are really happening.  It is not until much later in the movie that we discover that much of what we have witnessed on the screen never happened.  We are required to search our memories and decipher what was real and what was false.  What actually happened during those delusional moments is left to our imaginations.  The narrator of the story, in this case the director, has lied to us and is therefore unreliable.

This technique of storytelling dates back over a thousand years and is used for many different effects.  In A Beautiful Mind it is used to both explain the nature of paranoid schizophrenia and to make the central character more sympathetic than he would be without that understanding. In other works it is used to set up a surprise ending, or to make the reader/viewer think about something in a new or different way.

I make use of the unreliable narrator technique in my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men, as a means to:

  • Describe a major event
  • Build a mystery around that event
  • Lay out the social order
  • Explain the military structure
  • Establish the limits on the powers of normal wizards
  • Show how the protagonist, Damon Roth, exceeds those limits. 

In an earlier post, I wrote about how my late wife, Ellen inspired me to change three places where characters describe a major event and make those tales into flashbacks told from their point of view. 

Making this change was problematic  because the tale the characters were telling was not entirely true.  Their minds had been altered and parts of what they related were fictions placed in their consciousness.   They were unreliable witnesses to the event, which is not quite the same thing as being an unreliable narrator.   They believed what they said was true, and clues that their recollections were false were given to the reader even as they spoke.

Once I wrote those scenes as flashbacks, and turned their delusions into events that would appear to be true to the reader, I became the unreliable narrator.  I started lying to the reader by describing events that did not happen the way I wrote them on the page.

This opened up possibilities and gave me great advantages as a storyteller. The flashbacks became exciting, action filled scenes, each one building on the last.  In each telling I added details–private thoughts, worries, desires, and observations–that the character wouldn’t include when telling their version of events to others, but which gave important information and insights to the reader.  The downside was the reader was forced to think about what was real and what was imaginary.  To sort through the clues and decipher what really happened, and what were parts of a magically induced delusion.  These were problems I could live with.

Since then, I have thought much about the unreliable narrator technique.  Were I to use it too much, then the story would become unreadable.  If nothing can be believed then the essential suspension of disbelief  is forfeited and the reader loses interest. 

Therefore I decided upon a simple rule: I will only use the unreliable narrator in flashback scenes, and those scenes will only be told from one point of view.   In non-flashback scenes, what the reader sees on the page will be true and reliable.

For example, I have an extended flashback where Artemis Arrowsmith relates the events that led to the death of her lover Marcus.   This scene will be told solely from her point of view, albeit in third person fashion.  Her actions, thoughts, feelings, and memories will be told to the reader directly.  For other characters the reader will only be told what Artemis sees them do or hears them say or has related to her by another character.  Artemis might misremember certain details, or lie, or misinterpret events because of her own biases or preconceptions.  Thus she becomes an unreliable narrator of her own tale. 

But what she and others say and do both before her flashback starts and after it ends will be accurate and factual descriptions to the best of my abilities.  The reader can rely upon the scenes set in the present as containing only the truth.

The unreliable narrator is a powerful technique that allows authors to explore ideas, emotions, and experiences in ways that would be impossible otherwise.   In some cases, such as mine, it provides easy routes for including details that would otherwise be awkward or impossible to introduce.  It is an approach that puts unique demands upon the writer’s skill, and challenges the reader to think about what they read in new ways.  It is not the right choice for most works of fiction, but it is an option that should never be dismissed lightly.