Unreliable Narrator

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

"You just show that your first-person narrator was actually in an insane asylum and then OH MY GOD, did it actually happen? Who can say? Here, I can say. It didn't happen because your narrator was just no good. Listen. Never lend an unreliable narrator money."

In most narratives, there's an element of trust that the person telling you the story is telling the truth, at least as far as they know it. This trope occurs when that convention is discarded. The Unreliable Narrator‍'‍s facts contradict each other. If you ask them to go back a bit and retell it, the events come out a little differently. It can be like dealing with a used-car salesman—there's a real story in there somewhere, but you're left to piece it together through all the lies, half-truths, and mistruths.

Reasons for the unreliability vary. Sometimes the narrator is a guilty party and is trying to mislead the audience as well as the other characters. If the narrator is insane, it's Through the Eyes of Madness. If the narrator has honestly misunderstood what's going on due to naivety or inexperience, it's Innocent Inaccurate.

As an author, this is a difficult trick to pull off. It is a lot easier to tell a straight story than it is to deliberately mislead the audience, never mind that it violates the traditional assumption that Viewers are Morons.

One common technique is to use a Framing Device, so that the narrator is presented as a character in the frame story, to emphasize that he is not actually the author. One variation of this, which also gives a reason for the narrator to be lying, is to use the narrator's Interrogation as the Framing Device. Another, even trickier method, is the Literary Agent Hypothesis, where the narrator is supposedly relating things that happened in Real Life. Multiple unreliable narrators results in Rashomon Style. If it's a visual medium and the picture contradicts the narration, it's an Unreliable Voiceover. This can also be used as a trick in commercials, to evade claims of false advertising by having an unreliable character do the talking.

Unreliable Expositor is a variant with less than credible Exposition from specific characters, as opposed to narrators of the whole story. Contrast Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane where the evidence is reliable but insufficient, and Infallible Narrator, when the narration is far more accurate than the character giving it ought to be capable of.

This can also be a source of humour for the work, too.

Note that this is specifically for narrators within the work. When it's the author that's lying, that's Lying Creator. When the author simply can't make up his mind, that's Flip-Flop of God. Can usually be assumed to be the case at least part of the time when history is Written by the Winners.

WARNING! There are unmarked Spoilers ahead. Beware. As this is often a particularly subversive Reveal, REALLY BIG spoilers ahead, especially in the Literature section.

Examples of Unreliable Narrators are listed on these subpages: