Unreliable Narrators: The Pros and Cons
This past weekend, I saw the movie Birds of Prey, the DC comics’ Harley Quinn movie produced by star Margot Robbie. Much has been made in various movie industry news and hot takes of whether the movie is “bombing” or not.
Many of the poor reviews are from male reviewers, and compared to similar sales figures and budgets for other movies, Birds of Prey‘s results are being presented and interpreted differently. In other words, sexism might be playing a role. *cough*
Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. But one (male) member of our viewing group didn’t like the movie initially, calling it too ridiculously unrealistic. To be fair, some scenes are absurd, but they’re intentionally absurd.
As another (male) member of our group pointed out, Harley’s an unreliable narrator, and lighting and filming styles throughout were cues to when the movie was purposely more unrealistic due to her narrative choices (and Harley’s character is famously mentally unstable). With that new understanding, the original member came around to our perspective and now wants to see the movie again to pick up on what he’d missed. *grin*
Obviously, unreliable narrators can greatly affect our storytelling. So let’s dig deeper into the concept of unreliable narrators, what they can do for our story, how to create them, and the pros and cons of using them.
What Is an Unreliable Narrator?
There are many different approaches for telling—or narrating—a story, and the term unreliable narrator refers to when the narrator of a story lacks credibility for the audience. Our options for those different approaches are intertwined with our story’s point-of-view (POV).
What's an unreliable narrator and what can they do for our story? Click To TweetFor example, in a first-person POV, the protagonist/viewpoint character tells the story themselves. Just as we often try to present the best version of ourselves to others, our first-person narrator might present the story in a biased way, exaggerating the faults of others while minimizing their own flaws.
Or in a third-person POV, we have several choices for how to tell the story, from a classical style of omniscient (which wouldn’t have an unreliable narrator, as there’s no character telling the story to spin the story’s “facts”) to the more modern style of following a single (or multiple) main characters with their POV. Like with first person stories, the latter style can include unreliable narrators, especially if the story is mostly in deep POV. Or even a more personal style of omniscient could have an unreliable narrator, such as with a Lemony Snicket style of character outside the story who’s telling the tale to readers.
What Makes a Narrator Unreliable vs. Just Human?
As alluded to above, we’re all a bit unreliable in how we define our own life and experiences in our mind. That’s simply human nature.
Some of us are harder on ourselves that the facts warrant. Others outright lie or intentionally deceive. And most of us simply see events through our own lenses of biases and perspectives.
That subjective nature of perspective is a lot of what creates our characters’ POV. Each character’s POV is reflected in what they notice (or don’t notice) and what they think or feel about what they notice.
- Objectively, a house in our story’s setting might be old and a bit rundown, with peeling paint and a few weeds in the yard.
- Subjectively, our POV character might see only the aspects of what makes it feel like home to them, the charming rocking chair on the front porch or the flowers in a hanging planter.
Some stories even play with this effect, repeating the same story events from multiple characters’ POV, most famously in the movie Rashomon. But an unreliable narrator takes a character’s usual subjectivity a step further than simply sharing their basic POV.
What Can an Unreliable Narrator Do for Our Story?
Why might we want to include an unreliable narrator? Let’s take a look at what they might be able to do for our story (depending on our story’s specifics).
An unreliable narrator can potentially…:
- give us a layered, complex character to play with (Why are they unreliable? Have they experienced trauma? Are they trying to hide something?)
- compel readers to turn the page to assemble the story’s “puzzle” like a mystery or to learn the what and why of a narrator’s unreliability, such as what the character is trying to hide
- allow a story to exist in a gray area, where readers aren’t sure of what’s really happening in the story’s “reality,” which might strengthen a reader’s surprise and/or engagement with the story
- increase a story’s tension, especially as the narrator can choose not to tell readers certain important details of the story, often leading to a plot twist later on as the facts are revealed
- force readers into a more analytical mindset when reading our story, as they need to keep on their toes looking for clues
- encourage readers to read between the lines or notice subtext
- create a story with multiple layers of meaning, as the surface story can reveal one “truth” or moral message to readers and the hints or subtext or reveals of information can create a second message or “truth”
- allow authors to explore characters very different from themselves, such as from a values or mental stability perspective
- increase readers’ trust in the author, surprisingly enough, as the reader has less of a choice but to settle in and let the author weave their tale as they see fit for as long as the reader keeps turning pages
- make a statement about human nature by exposing humanity’s tendencies to trust or not trust others or forcing readers to examine their own biases
Types of Unreliable Narrators
The bullet points above that might apply to our story often depends on the type of unreliable narrator we develop:
- Do they willfully and/or knowingly deceive readers? If so, we might want to be more careful about giving readers a reason to connect with these liars or the story they tell, such as making them extra compelling.
Think of Atonement, where the character Briony gives her sister a happy ending in the story she tells to try to make up for her contribution to her sister’s true outcome, or The Usual Suspects, where the storyteller is a con artist lying to other characters and the audience.
- Are they evasive about the truth? If so, we can dig deeper into why they’re evasive, such as if they don’t want to admit hard truths to themselves or if it’s more of a subconscious manipulation.
Think of Shutter Island‘s Teddy, who fabricates a story out of denial, or Star Wars‘ Obi Wan Kenobi and his “from a certain point of view” answer to Luke Skywalker about the truth of his father and Darth Vader.
- Are they simply uninformed or misinformed? If so, we can choose to give readers a fuller picture of the truth than the character has, with lots of subtext and showing of events, so readers can reach their own conclusions.
Think of Forrest Gump, who doesn’t understand enough of the world around him to give an accurate telling of events, or of Dr. Crowe from The Sixth Sense or Deckard from Blade Runner, who just don’t know what the truth is.
How Can We Create an Unreliable Narrator?
As with many things writing, there’s more than one way to accomplish the goal of creating an unreliable narrator. As mentioned above, there’s a spectrum of unreliability.
So the first step in creating an unreliable character is deciding on the type of unreliable narrator they are. What makes them unreliable? Or in what way are they unreliable?
From there, some of the approaches we can try include:
- not giving readers all the information, potentially with a reveal later
- adding subtext of how our character might not be trustworthy or knowledgeable (external), such as the narrator falsely seeming dumb while being very clever or other characterization contradictions
- hinting at reasons/motivations for why our character might not be entirely truthful (internal), such as the narrator displaying mental trauma or gaps in knowledge
- creating story events around the character’s POV that are implausible or unrealistic, such as the fantastical events of Life of Pi
- showing events somewhat objectively and then creating a mismatch with how the character relates to events, allowing readers to see how the events don’t add up to what the character thinks they do
- having other characters or situations point out inconsistencies in the narrator’s perspective
Whatever approach we choose, we need to bake the character’s unreliability into the story from the beginning. We can’t just change our mind halfway through our draft and expect everything to hang together. *smile*
Case Study: Birds of Prey
For example, I’ll share a few (non-spoilery) details from the Harley Quinn character. The Birds of Prey movie is obviously her POV, complete with her voiceover and onscreen animations. But also just as obviously, she’s struggling with how to tell the story, as she frequently interrupts herself and breaks chronology.
What are the risks of using an unreliable narrator? Click To TweetHowever, the clues that she’s an unreliable narrator go beyond the easy reveals of her mental instability. In an early scene, she witnesses an explosion at a chemical plant. When she’s on the scene, the explosion is very “pretty”—neon-colored lighting and fireworks—but when she’s not on the scene, the plant is just engulfed in a normal, large fire.
Similar mismatch-style hints continue throughout the movie, as bright neon colors and lighting decorate most of the movie’s fantastical elements and scenes. That lets the audience know when they’re deep into Harley’s view of events and should just enjoy the spectacle of her mind without questioning the realism too much. *grin*
What Are the Pros and Cons of Using an Unreliable Narrator?
The pros are that we can take advantage of at least some of those aspects mentioned in the section above on what an unreliable narrator can do for our story. The more we understand how to use an unreliable narrator, the more we can play with clues, subtext, or deeper meanings, etc.
However, we also have to watch out for certain problems that can crop up with the use of unreliable narrators.
Issues to watch out for include:
- As mentioned above, a character who lies to readers might come across as extremely unlikable, so we’d have to decide whether to make the lying less obvious (and go for a late plot twist or leave the truth in a gray area) or to make the character more compelling.
- Some readers simply don’t like or enjoy unreliable narrators. They might prefer less gray area in their stories, or they might prefer stories with characters they deeply connect to and thus don’t like feeling cheated by narrators who deceive or mislead them.
- Relatedly, readers of all preferences might struggle to relate to an unreliable narrator. Their thought processes might be very different, they might act in hard-to-empathize-with ways, or they might hold themselves back so much that readers never connect to them.
- Readers are especially likely to feel cheated if we don’t give them any clues or hints. Even if we don’t want readers to know our character is unreliable, we can still create the sense of assembling a puzzle for readers. A well-done puzzle will often make readers want to reread our story right away so they can see how all the pieces fit together.
- Readers might miss our hints or subtext and be confused or frustrated with our story. This is especially difficult as what each reader picks up on can be very different.
In fiction writing, we often talk about how to make a character more likable or sympathetic. As readers, we often want to connect to the protagonist of a story.
The existence of unreliable narrators undermines both of those usual assumptions. Not surprisingly, it can be difficult to pull off an unreliable narrator well. But as with all things writing, any writing “rule” can be broken if we know the rules well and thus know best how to break them. *smile*
Have you come across stories with unreliable narrators? What type of unreliable narrator were they? Do you enjoy stories with unreliable narrators — why or why not? Have you ever written a story with an unreliable narrator, and if so, how did it work for you? Do you have other insights into unreliable narrators to add?Pin It
I like The False Prince series, by… Jennifer Nielsen? I really like the unreliable narrator in book 1 (though I guessed the truth, anyway), but I didn’t like it in books 2 & 3. (Liked the character, not the unreliable narration.) Because of the mismatch, I spent some time thinking about why. I finally decided it was because in book 1, we don’t really KNOW the character (we’re missing some vital information, for a good reason), so the reveal comes as “ta da!” By the last two books, we know his big secrets, and hiding his little secrets and his plans & strategies from us just feels like a trick. There’s no good reason he COULDN’T tell us, unlike book 1. I would have rather been in on the secret as a reader, even as he hid things from the other characters. Then I could have cheered him on, and the tension would have been higher while I waited for the surprises to hit the fan.
Oh, that’s a fantastic example! I just read that book about a month ago (the first one), so I know just what you’re talking about.
I really enjoyed the first book and the unreliable narrator mostly worked for me there. I haven’t read the other books in the series yet, but they seemed like they were structured with a similar “conceit” (which is partially why they haven’t been high on my TBR pile). As you said, the following books don’t have the reason to keep secrets, so it feels like a cheat for them to do so. Thanks so much for sharing!
Thanks Jami, fantastic post.
I have written a slightly unreliable narrator who explains as he goes, that he and his friend invent codes to use between them, when with other people or not wanting to be overhead / hacked. By the end of the story the reader is able to make complete sense of the slightly confusing early scenes. I agree that readers need to like the character to support him/her in doing this.
Oh, I love unreliable narrators! They’re so fun to write and read about. One book that sticks out to me is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Both Amy and Nick are unreliable narrators, but I won’t spoil the plot, lol. It’s good that you made the distinction between unreliable narrators and narrators who are just humanly biased. I did not like either Nick or Amy, but I disliked them for their actions, not for their unreliable narration. About characters being a turn-off to the reader because of their lies, I think it also depends on the character’s motives for lying or hiding. If they are simply ignorant and unaware of what is really happening (like the 5-year-old boy in Room by Emma Donoghue, or Forrest Gump), then it’s not too hard for me to like them regardless. If they were lying because they’re too afraid to face the horrors of their reality (e.g. a character keeps denying that their sibling is dead, by making up stories and trying to convince the reader that their sibling is still alive), then I will probably sympathize with them, too. However, if the character portrayed themselves as a “good, decent, honorable” person, only to admit later on that they did something nasty, e.g. they are having an extramarital affair, then I will probably hate them. If they were honest from the beginning about what they did, I may still hate them, but maybe with a lesser intensity. (I also just really detest infidelity.)
Bookmarking this post. I’ve read books with unreliable narrators and loved them. It’s a method worth exploring in my own writing. Thanks!