An unreliable narrator cannot be trusted to tell the whole truth. They deceive the audience and/or other characters by giving a false impression, which is often revealed in a dramatic twist at the end. They may be genuinely unaware of the truth (due to mental health issues, or memory loss) or they can be knowingly manipulative. Storytellers commonly use an unreliable narrator: to perform a surprise reveal, to distract the audience, to present a story through a character’s specific point of view (emphasising their limited understanding of the world), or to tell the story through the experience of a group of characters (like Rashômon), where each one has a different recollection of the same event.
The term ‘unreliable narrator’ comes from Wayne Booth’s 1961 The Rhetoric of Fiction. William Riggan and others since have attempted to categorise the different types: ‘The Pícaro’ (the show-off who exaggerates); ‘The Madman’ (who is either deluded or in denial); ‘The Clown’ (who distorts the truth to expose convention and to play with expectation); ‘The Naïf’ (with a limited understanding of the world); and ‘The Liar’ (who is consciously manipulating the truth).
In Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and unreliable narrator uses the metaphor of animals in a boat to disguise the all-too-painful truth. In Forbidden Planet the antagonist believes he is helping to make thing better, only to discover that his sub-conscious is having a disastrous effect on events. A common device used by storytellers is to make the hero look like they have been beaten, they have given up the fight, been brainwashed, or put under spell, when they are actually biding their time, waiting to strike a devastating blow against the monster. The hero as monster is another common use of the unreliable narrator. In Secret Window a writer is victimised by a mysterious and frightening character, who it is later revealed to be the writer’s own alter ego. In The Fight Club a central character hero worships the charismatic inventor of the fight club, but it turns out this person is his alter ego. In American Psycho the audience knows that Patrick Bateman is a psychotic killer, even if the other characters don’t.
Why is an unreliable narrator interesting?
They are intrinsically about deception — especially self-deception: denial and delusion. This aspect of individual identity is intriguing, because it gives the audience something to think about. In Memento the main character suffers from memory loss — the audience has to work out what has happened in his life, in parallel to his own self-awareness: he is a detective attempting to solve the mystery of his own past. While characters in some stories will never get to know the truth because of their limited understanding of the world. Forrest in Forrest Gump will always be a naïf character, because that’s the essence of who he is.
The storyteller’s use of the unreliable narrator comes and goes with fashion. It can be an intriguing novelty, and at other times it feels like an overused plot device. Badly handled it comes across as a cheat, which will annoy an audience. Part of the entertainment of experiencing a story is working out what’s happening; the rewarding satisfaction of successfully guessing an outcome. But when there are no real clues, with a sudden twist at the end, it can feel like a superficial and manipulative technique. In A Beautiful Mind a genius mathematician is not concerned about a genuine conspiracy: he has mental health issues. The world of his paranoia tricks the audience, but it never feels much more than just a cheap trick. In Shutter Island the audience is led to believe that the protagonist is leading an investigation into a mental asylum, when in fact this is not the case at all — the unreliable nature of the protagonist is more successful, because it is relevant to the storyline and its subject matter. In Mr Robot the main character, another unreliable narrator, is so unreliable that the audience no longer knows what is and what is not real. This can quickly become exasperating. Eventually the audience becomes a participant in his imaginary world of schizophrenic delusions — that his father is with him. The character’s invention of his father echoes the device of a ‘play within a play’: a fictional character living in the mind of a fictional character.
Sometimes the use of an unreliable narrator can be both subtle and sophisticated. In Lolita the central character is a predatory paedophile who continually excuses and justifies his criminal behaviour. Nabokov’s mastery lies in the way he balances the reader’s perception of Humbert Humbert as a misguided, but likeable, gentleman (a tragic figure, and a victim) with the fact that he is a monster — all the while Humbert Humbert is busy manipulating and ruining Lolita’s life he remains convinced that he is an incurable romantic, doing the right thing.