Tuesday, July 7, 2009

True or False?

Last Thursday, Michelle posted about establishing trust between writer and reader. I'd like to explore that a little more and talk about trustworthiness of narrators and trustworthiness of authors. This is also known as reliability.

Reliable/unreliable narrators: When a story is told from a first-person point of view, the reader has to discover how truthfully the character is relating the story. Some narrators lie to the reader. Some narrators think they are telling the truth, but they are wrong. Some narrators think they are telling the truth, and they are right. And narrators who are also characters in stories don't always know all of the truth, either. Sometimes they discover it as the story is told, along with the reader.

Narrators who deliberately lie are unreliable narrators. The books of Nabokov are famously populated by unreliable narrators, and a lot of the great Russian authors of the previous generation employed unreliable narrators as well. An unreliable narrator lets you keep secrets from the reader, generally for a major plot twist or 'reveal' at the end of the story. Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost is the same story told four times in a row by four different first-person narrators, each of whom is unreliable in some way. Some people think this is just gussied-up plot manipulation and is cheating the reader. However, if the reader knows the narrator is unreliable, I would say it just adds a layer of mystery to the story.

Narrators who think they are telling the truth but are wrong are also unreliable narrators. Sometimes, it's just that the narrator is missing information or has made wrong assumptions about other characters in the story. Think of the multiple narrators in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. None of them quite know what the real situation is; between the six of them, the reader gets the whole story, but individually, the narrators are unreliable. This sort of unreliable narrator lets you incorporate dramatic irony into your story, where the reader knows things that the characters don't.

All first-person narrators will be unreliable to some extent, simply by being characters lacking omniscience. And as a rule, when narrators begin to editorialize, their reliability decreases. Salinger's Holden Caulfield is unreliable in that he doesn't understand the adult world toward which life is inexorably moving him, yet he gives a running commentary on it throughout the book.

Unreliable narrators are perfectly legitimate tools of a writer. They have a long and illustrious history, and can be very cool. What's not cool, however, is an unreliable author.

Unreliable authors: When a writer, as writer outside the story and not as character inside the story, withholds necessary information from a reader, he's unreliable and not to be trusted. For example, I've read mysteries where a new character is introduced in the final act and named as the murderer (this is just like a detective knowing clues that aren't shown to the reader). It cheats the reader and means that the writer isn't good enough to have constructed a mystery story properly.

Unreliable authors are usually not good story tellers, and try to compensate for this by cheating the reader. They throw all sorts of bizarre plot twists, characters and locations at the reader without actually resolving the central conflict of the story. Or, they resolve the central conflict in a way that makes the characters act out-of-character, or is simply unbelievable within the world the writer has established. Other unreliable author tricks include the deus ex machina, where the complications of the plot are resolved by forces outside the story.

In summary, it's okay to lie to your readers via a first-person narrator as long as the reader finds out in good time that the narrator is unreliable, but it's not okay to cheat your readers by manipulating the plot or hiding details or introducing new characters at the last minute or otherwise breaking the basic rules of storytelling.


  1. Great post, Scott. I'm trying to decide if I'm an unreliable author. Crap, that makes me nervous.

    What if I have a scene where my main character is thinking about something that happened earlier, but he doesn't think of all those details the reader wants to know - because, well, they're mundane details to HIM. It's third person limited, by the way. But I reveal these details later through dialogue and other thoughts. They're just revealed at the right time for the story to move forward. Is that being an unreliable author? I mean, I think it would be kind of stupid to have my character think of all the "necessary" information right up front. Where's the fun and tension and mystery in that? And it feels forced because that information isn't a natural part of what the character is thinking.

    I'm not even sure I know who the narrator is in my story. I have three different POVs, and that's all we see the story from.

    This is a great follow up to my Trust post. Thanks!

  2. Michelle: It's hard to say without reading your story, but you know the rule. Give the reader what they need when they need it. If you're deliberately keeping things from the reader that they'd normally find out about just so you get some sort of big dramatic reveal later, or because it's the only way you can think of to maintain dramatic tension in the story, then you're cheating. It sounds like you're not doing either of those things in your story, but instead are avoiding an info-dump. Relax, Glam. Seriously.

  3. Super post, Scott. This is a peeve of mine--an author who has a POV character withhold vital information used in a later reveal. It makes me feel cheated, like a slight-of-hand game.
    As far as I'm concerned if you are in a character's head there will be some thoughts about big issues.
    It is one reason to think carefully about who the POV characters are going to be in a story, because you can't wipe their memories clean when it's convenient. This doesn't mean a big info dump of everything they know. They can skirt around subjects that cause fear or pain, but the reader will know something is there.
    I agree that an unreliable narrator is something else entirely and can add to the mystery.

  4. Great post! Can this apply to third person deep POV, too?

    Lynnette Labelle

  5. Scott,

    I'm glad to see your not-writing has its limits, and they have yet to reach the Lab. This was a great post.

    In FATE'S GUARDIAN, I use multiple points of view told from limited third person narrators. I have a calculated red herring to lead the reader away from the twist I reveal at the end, but there is also enough evidence that it is a red herring and I hope it will not be disappointing when the reader reflects back on the story.

    In James Patterson's ROSES ARE RED he ends the story by reveling the antagonist(s) three different times. First it's one guy, they got him...but he wasn't really the one. Then it's another guy, who leaps off a roof into a pool (he doesn't watch Mythbusters) and poisons himself as they catch him, but not before revealing that it isn't him either, and then he finally reveals the Real Mastermind, someone who you would NEVER suspect because there is no reason to. At. All. I felt very cheated at the end of that book. Sure it's James Patterson brain candy, you don't read it for accuracy, but this was over the top, even for him.

    Michelle: If you tie your revelations into the story effectively, it gives reliability. If the revelations are peppered in out of convenience for your reveal but don't have a foundation in the character's world, then you may be on thin ice.

  6. Nicely written post, Scott! I've yet to tackle an unreliable narrator. It seems really fun, but I tend to drift toward omniscience--just line in real life! As for the unreliable author, that's something that I think about a lot. I tend to focus on characters, and I can get lazy about making sure my other facts are correct: what does a cremation casket look like? how decomposed does a dead body get after just 3 months, what is the color of the Andaman Sea. I'm trying to be better about it, but it's the part of writing that feels like work to me.

    Michelle, Having read your book, I felt like you did a solid job of being a reliable author. I thought I mentioned that to you, but I'm sorry if I didn't. You were very good at making me feel like all of the information was presented at the right time.

  7. One thing I love about first person POV is the unreliable-ness of the narrator. Have you read Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief? That has, in my opinion, the best unreliable narrator I've ever seen...it's brilliant!

  8. Smarty,

    I was unreliable at one point, but now I'm the epitome of tomes.

    The concept of an "unreliable author" reminds me of "railroading" in D&D, which basically means that the storyteller (i.e., the "DM") of the group forces the players to go where he wants them to go and do what he wants them to do.

    Perhaps my favorite example is this one (or something like it):

    DM: You see a girl being attacked by a wolf.

    Player: My character doesn't care. He leaves.

    DM: 100,000 zombies pop out of the ground and block your path.

    Player: I turn back toward the girl.

    DM: The zombies go back underground.

    Was any of that relevant? I hope so. Don't hate me!

  9. Unreliable authors - end things way to quickly because they realized the book is too long. I read a series by an author who did this with every book. Very frustrating.

    Unreliable authors - provide unsatisfying endings. At the end of one book, a major character did something totally off the wall and the author didn't provide an explanation for this major decision in the character's life. Oh, and in the last chapter totally switched perspectives to a new, mainly secondary character! WHAT!!!

    Tolkien - the great battle for the ring, nobody truly knowing what will happen . . .oh wait, he slips in a sentence or two that pretty much tells the reader that the ring will be destroyed and the world will keep on turning. I noticed this for the very first time in my most recent read of the LOTR trilogy. So, does that make Tolkien an unreliable narrator since he pretty much gives the end away? Yes, I know, there had to be a happy ending, but the impact is always greater if part way through a reader isn't given a clear sentence that tells them everything is going to work out fine. Kind of anticlimatic!

    Great post, and definitely food for thought as I work through the last revision stage. Thanks.


  10. Justus, and here I thought DM was me.

  11. Replies in clever reverse order:

    Scott: You asked, "So, does that make Tolkien an unreliable narrator since he pretty much gives the end away?" My answer is no, he's not an unreliable narrator. He's done something you might not like, and you might feel cheated of the ending's possible surprise, but he hasn't tricked you.

    I'm re-reading Homer's The Iliad right now (almost done!), and Homer tells you right off that Troy will fall, that Hector will be killed by Achilles and that Achilles will die at Troy. None of that lessens the drama; in fact, it might heighten it, because we're aware that every moment of Achilles' life could be his last, and the same goes with Hector.

    Justus: Plot manipulation! That's cheating!

    beth: I don't know that book. Tell me what's good about the unreliable narrator.

    Davin: Yeah, you have to get your facts right, too. But you already know that, being omniscient and all.

    Rick: I hate endings like the Patterson. Playing "who is the real villain" is fun, but the real villain has to be present in the story all along, I think. Red herrings are fine, too, as long as the facts supporting the real solutions are also in the story as we read along. Misdirection is a good tool when well used.

    Lynette: I have no idea what your question means! Really, I don't.

    Tricia: Yes, sleight of hand is what unreliable writers are trying to pull on us. Usually it means they don't have a strong story.

  12. So true! I love writing in first person and as the author, I know what's going on with the other characters even with the narrating character doesn't. They are unreliable, until I clue them in to what's really going on. I actually like characters that are a bit unreliable as they make me think about their story and situation and what I would do if I were them--or if there is another side to a situation I'm not aware of.

    Great post!

  13. Fantastic post. I can't stand it when a writer conceals crucial info. Because they make the decision for me--the reader. The writer decides for me that I don't need to know certain things.

    I really like this post. I'll sit back and read the other comments now. :)

  14. A great post. In my comment for Michelle's post I should have clarified about the narrator telling all the facts. I should have said if you want the reader to like and trust the narrator they need to not withhold info from the reader. (Of course, it all goes back to the writer.)


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