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What's the point of an unreliable narrator, if it's all fiction anyway?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Electric Bone Flute, Jul 1, 2021.

  1. Electric Bone Flute

    Electric Bone Flute Troubadour

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    This question is posed in a provocative way on purpose. The question could have been about anything, but this is a writing forum, so this is a writing question. This question is a bit of an experiment, however, so you have to play along:
    Before putting your first response to this thread, you must define what an unreliable narrator is.
     
  2. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Maester

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    Hard to define when the 'experts' themselves do not agree. Some say it is a narrator who purposely misleads/lies, others that it is one who simply gives their own take on events, right or wrong. By the latter definition, pretty much every story from a first person POV is going to have an unreliable narrator—and that is something I like about first person and one reason I use it a lot, as well as the intrusive narrator/story teller, who is also likely to be unreliable, when I go third. I feel admitting that no one (except god) knows the absolute truth about everything that is going on is more realistic.
     
  3. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Inkling

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    An unreliable narrator is what it says on the tin. The assumption of the reader is that the narrator is objectively telling the truth. "Frank walked into the Toys R Us and saw Geoferry the Giraffe robbing the place." What you see in your head is just that, and everything else that happens in that scene supports that, as it is the truth. But if the narrator is unreliable, this is not reality and you, the reader, need to figure it out. Perhaps Frank is having a psychotic episode and believes he is seeing Geoferry the Giraffe robbing the Toys R Us, so when the text says he tackles Geoffery, what is actually happening? Do details that not make sense in the as-stated context make more sense if we internally reframe them under the assumption that the narrative is partially false?

    The "why does it matter it's all fiction anyways" way of thinking pisses me off a lot because it wholesale writes off all fiction as a waste of time. The point of fiction is to examine things that have not happened but are possible and make you think about our reality. There's a reason why you have to read 1984 and Animal Farm in high school. The argument is a really lazy gotcha, "and yet you live in a society. How hypocritical!" type situation. So I'm not even going to touch that part of it.

    For the next bit I need to define two terms, since they're not that common in normal vernacular. Diegetic refers to something that exists WITHIN the world of the story. A scene at a bar in a movie has music playing on the jukebox, the music is coming from that, the characters can hear it, as well as the audience, it is diegetic. Extradiegetic is something that does not exist within the story itself but exists for the audience. This would be captioned for non-English dialogue, the cooldown bars in an MMO, a tweet telling you that, trust me guys, Dumbledore IS gay, okay?

    When the narrator is 3rd person, people tend to forget that it is still a character. 1st and 2nd person is always diegetic, and we intuitively know that. But we think of 3rd person narrators as some sort of "system dialogue" or extradiegetic thing that exists for the sake of the story, like the guys in the AV booth for a play. When we consume media, our brains ignore these things and immerses itself into the diegetic elements; no one ever says "man it really took me out of the game when I saw there was a pause menu!" because of this. But extradiegetic elements are still, inherently, part of the narrative. They are a tool for storytelling that the reader normally doesn't think about and they take for granted that it is ALWAYS true. People got really mad when WoW Classic first started because the quest menus didn't tell you where to go and you had to figure it out yourself by reading the quest text and using your brain, this "unreliable" extradiegtic element forced you to interact with the narrative in a different way and not everyone liked that.

    So when your narrator is unreliable, especially if they are a 3rd person narrator, you make your reader work harder, but this needs to be for a good reason and there should be enough clues in the text for them to figure this out. They did this with Joker, because he's ~CrAzY~ and imagined various scenes, because oh no the Joker is CRAZY look at him hallucinating! But if you re-watch it with that information in mind, then things aren't consistent and don't make sense anymore. That's not good. Fight Club did this much better; you can rewatch that movie and pick up on things, there were clues from the beginning that Tyler Durden wasn't "real" and only The Narrator could see him, but things were shot/edited in such a way that you have no reason to think that on your first viewing. This works because we assume that everything we see during a movie (except for "UI elements" like text telling you what location a scene is) is diegetic, it is real and literal and what all the characters can see.

    For an actual book example, Dune. The novel is "written" in universe by the Princess Irulan, who's married to Paul Maud'Dib, the prophet, so of course all the characters are going to be constantly thinking about how awesome he is, of course the story will only revolve around him. All the little pull-quotes at the start of each chapter are about Paul, and Paul is constantly thinking about how the whole human race is probably going to die unless he takes drastic action. He sets into motion a plan that leads to the death of billions, but it's all framed as a good, necessary thing, because he is the prophet, the saviour of humanity and the universe. One of the "themes" of the Dune series is charismatic leaders bad, and without the unreliable narrator of, you know, the guy's wife, then everything is just presented at face-value and it's a lot harder to communicate that theme (though it already is hard for some people to get that because Paul is such a bland loser that a lot of guys project onto him and get personally offended for his sake)(maybe that's intentional? :thinking:).
     
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  4. Stevie

    Stevie Minstrel

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    Okay, I'll have a go at this. It's easier, I think, to first define what a reliable narrator. My understanding is that up until about the early 20th century, virtually all fiction was written in omniscient 3rd POV (though I coul dbe wrong here). The narrator in this POV must be reliable, in that everything they tell the reader must be true and accurate. Otherwise the reader is going to be mighty peeved when the narrator changes the story on them. Think how it would be if the narrator suddenly said, "Actually, I lied about these three bears. They ate the thieving little bitch all up."

    So, the omniscient 3rd narrator sits outside story, looking in at everything, telling the reader about it but taking no part.

    If the POV is anything other than omniscient 3rd, the narrator must be unreliable. They can't be anything else. They can't know everything that's going on all the time (since they can't 'see'everything that is going on or may misrepresent events they do see. That's the point of the unrelaible narrator in fiction. It's means of breaking free from omniscient 3rd POV, thus creating a different style of prose.

    For what it's worth, I think the term 'unreliable narrator' is a bit archaic and very misleading. It's the first thing I'll change when they finally come to their senses and start put me in charge of stuff.
     
  5. ButlerianHeretic

    ButlerianHeretic Minstrel

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    Fight Club is my go-to example as well because of how satisfying it still is even after you know the twist. I seriously need to re-read Dune, it has been way too long.

    I'm tempted to say you need an unreliable narrator to pull off a good twist. I'm not sure that is absolutely true, but it seems likely. If so then at least half of the success of the twist probably comes down to how successfully the unreliable narrator was executed.

    I'm wondering though if there is always a twist when an unreliable narrator is used - at least implicitly, if not explicitly. By an implicit twist I mean like Dune where we are rooting for the hero but his actions result in the death of billions.
     
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2021
  6. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    Funny you should ask...

    8 Tips to Writing Unreliable Narrators

    One of my go-to philosophies on writing is that perspective is everything. Even the antagonist sees themselves as the hero of their story.
     
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  7. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Inkling

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    For me an unreliable narrator is where the reader can't be certain that the viewpoint or thoughts being expressed (by the narrator or by the character whose view/thoughts we are sharing) are entirely correct and/or truthful.

    As an author, for me an unreliable narrator is a reflection of what the average person is like - few of us are entirely truthful the whole time, nor are we always correct in our views and thoughts about something or someone.

    When I'm writing I don't deliberately set out to use an unreliable narrator. With that written, I find that if my characters are to have any form of arc/development then all that they know or think can't be revealed to the reader, it has to come out as appropriate to the scene just as would happen in real life.That, by my definition, makes them unreliable narrators. Writing complex plots drives this still further, as I find that I can't suspend my readers belief without writing the characters like this.
     
  8. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Humbert Humbert in Lolita is a great example of an unreliable narrator. So is Merricat in Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I don't think either of them would consider themselves as unreliable.
     
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  9. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I'm wondering why we are required to provide a definition first. As was pointed out, there are many different definitions, so you could only expect a variety of definitions, which leads to a myriad of actual answers about the point of it. I'm tempted to ask what is the point of asking what is the point. As distinct, say, from asking what are the uses of an unreliable narrator, or the challenges, or the varieties.
     
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  10. LCatala

    LCatala Minstrel

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    A unreliable narrator is one of the tools of narrative tension, a form of tension that doesn't rely on conflict, but on which piece of information you present to the reader and in which order.

    Since "tension" is essentially a situation that feels unstable and that it must soon resolve to a less precarious state, an unreliable narrator will provide quite a lot of tension by introducing apparent contradictions and/or by forcing the reader to revise their entire perspective on past scenes, and once the unreliableness is understood to the reader, on making them question future scenes as well.

    If you push the concept further and have multiple unreliable narrators, you have the "Rashomon", multiple characters each recounting a different version of the same event, with a story told in contradicting flashbacks, leaving the audience to wonder what really happened and who's lying about what.

    For an even more twisted version of the same concept, I highly recommend the movie Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1962), where the entire narrative relies on characters who start by lying by omission about past events to each other, before strategically revealing more and more of the truth to each other (and to the audience at the same time).
     
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  11. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    I think a better question might be, "Why wouldn't one include unreliable narrators?" Perspective is everything and the world appears differently to everyone, even fictional characters. The people who live in our heads filter the world through the same lenses of experience that real people do, creating their own versions of how and why things happen. No narrator sees the story in the same way as any other, or at least that's how my team presents things. I think everyone is an unreliable narrator.
     
  12. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    For me, reliability of a narrator is about how much one can trust that what is presented to us as a reader can be taken at face value for the purposes of interpreting the story.

    Most stories are filtered through the eyes of characters and there can be character interpretations of events, but if they're a reliable narrator, it's a given that what they say is accurate for the purposes of the story, even though it may not always be so. A reliable narrator will interpret things, accurately or inaccurate, but will not misrepresent things.

    For example, let's say you have two characters in a lounge, listening to a singer up on stage. One character--let's call them Bob--may find the singer's voice and movements attractive. A second character--let's call them Frank--may find the singer's voice grating and their movements awkward. This is the world filtered through the POV's eyes. But they're both reliable narrators, because what they present is truthful, and it doesn't misrepresent the moment. Because Bob and Frank could have a conversation, where Bob could say how much he enjoyed the singing and Frank could say how much it grated, but those things wouldn't contradict reality.

    With an unreliable narrator--let's call them Conner--they may describe their moment in the lounge as the singer noticed them during the song and came down to speak to them after. And as they spoke, even though the sparks were flying between, the singer caressed Conner's cheek, spoke a few soft words about how they could never be together, and then walked away all sensual like. their movements practically begging him to follow.

    BUT, in reality, through the reliable eyes of Bob and Frank watching things unfold, they'd both describe the moment as the singer noticed Conner creepily ogling them during the song, so they stormed down off the stage to confront Conner about it. Conner acted like a bore, so the singer slapped Conner, told him off, and then stormed out of the lounge, while flipping him the bird all the way out the door.

    It's a bit heavy handed, but hopefully it gets my point across.

    As for what the point of it is, it's a tool, used to achieve different effects and for different reasons. It's a tool like prologues, adverbs, POVs and tense selections are tools. You used them because there's something specific you want to achieve, and it's the right tool for the job.
     
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  13. Mad Swede

    Mad Swede Inkling

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    Wait up a moment. As the reader, I assume that Bob and Frank are reliable, and hence that their interpretation is correct. But how can I be sure that they're reliable? How do I know they're not gaslighting Conner and indirectly me the reader?

    It's this implicit assumption we as readers make about reliability which gives unreliable narrators their impact. It's also why some attempts to use unreliable narrators don't work, because the author can't suspend the readers belief in the way needed for them to question the narration and so accept the subsequent plot and character development.
     
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  14. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Generally, we don't know right from the start, but as the story progresses there should be enough clues for the reader to pick up on to make this a possibility. And when the story is finished, determining that the narrator is unreliable will recontextualize the story and create a greater understanding of some sort like a good twist ending or like when you realize what a story is thematically about. There will be a sense of puzzle pieces falling into place.

    Now, sometimes thing like this could be unintentional and/or the author doesn't want it to be obvious, which can in some cases allow a story to present itself as different things to different people. But when done intentionally and done well, it can be a great way to make a point. At the very least get people thinking.

    I don't think any author can guarantee a suspension of disbelief from 100% of the readership. We're all different people with different life experiences and like all art, a story will speak to different people in different ways, and sometimes it doesn't speak to some people at all. Also there's no guarantee that the reader will see the story as the author intends, even when it's done well.

    I mean take for example the movie the Shining. There's an eternal debate and countless interpretations as to what that story is about, and I doubt anyone will ever know for sure. The only one that can say for sure has passed on. Since we're on unreliable narrators, one theory I just came across, which fascinatingly proposes, with supporting evidence from the film, that the mother, Wendy, in the story is an unreliable narrator and is having a mental break of some sort that makes her see the father Jack as the one who's off kilter. They make a convincing case in my eyes.

    If anyone is interested here's the link to the video

     
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  15. ButlerianHeretic

    ButlerianHeretic Minstrel

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    As a corrolary of Murphy's law says "If you try to please everyone, somebody isn't going to like it!"
     
  16. ladyander

    ladyander Dreamer

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    An unreliable narrator is simple, a narrator who tells the story through a lens that contradicts or misleads the reader from the actual events in the story. This can be done purposely because the character wants to deceive the reader or they do so because their understanding of the events is impaired for some reason.

    To say that all character narrators are unreliable kind of misses the point. It is a narration choice. One sets out writing a story with an unreliable narrator because they want to tell that specific story. It says something about the character themselves. It can bring in a lot of intrigue in a story.

    It takes a bit of writing finesses and nuance to write a good unreliable narrator that matters. Because that's the key from trying to say something like, every first-person narrator is unreliable. Sure, it's what they see happening and how they interpret it. However, an unreliable narrator is more than just that. They mislead the reader with their account. And at some point, the reader will start to questioning them And then the veil is pulled back so to speak, and the truth is revealed.

    It's like a characterization mystery, and one you can examine if you so chose.
     
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  17. FifthView

    FifthView Vala

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    My answer to the question, "What is an unreliable narrator?" would be to ask in turn whether you've ever met a 100% reliable—and always reliable—narrator in your life.

    Reliable narration is the fiction.
     
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  18. FifthView

    FifthView Vala

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    I do think we ought to be careful when taking this concept too far. Yes, I do believe everyone who ever told a story is unreliable to some extent. But in novels, be careful to distinguish the narrator from characters. The characters are all going to be "unreliable" to the extent that they are
    • Dishonest
    • Distracted
    • Obsessive
    • Self-centered
    • Perceiving—others, events, and places—in a "box."
    But not all characters are narrators.

    Typically, the only time a character is the narrator of the whole story is in first person narration. Otherwise, the narrator is someone else.

    (There are blurry cases. For instance a third person omniscient narrator might also be a character in the story and refer to themselves in the third person when telling the story—or both, refer to themselves in first person and third person but without revealing they are the character in the tale until nearly the end of the tale, heh! Also, there can be a first person narration that blurs with second person narration: "You walk on tiptoes over the moldy carpet down the dark hallway, and I'm right beside you.")

    So...It's important to think of the POV character in limited third person as a character but not a narrator of the tale when considering whether to use unreliable narration. In fact, it's exactly this sort of narration that most requires a reliable narrator. The reason the character can seem like the narrator is because the closeness of the telling, or the intimacy of the telling, puts us in that character's head. But in order for us to believe we are in that character's head, we have to trust the actual narrator. We feel that the character's POV experience is authentic. That character may be unreliable for one reason or another, but the narrator is quite reliable.

    Addendum:

    However, worth noting is the fact that any character can become a narrator of a smaller tale within the larger tale. For instance, a side character, a one-off character, or even a main character can tell stories, through dialogue or monologue, within the tale. And yes, they can be unreliable "narrators" of those stories they tell to one another or to themselves.
     
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2021
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  19. Chasejxyz

    Chasejxyz Inkling

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    I like to think of the narrator as a "camera," and, as they say, the story happens in the editing. Which means you, the editor, are choosing which bits of film to show, what parts to cut out,if you're going to go ask other people for their opinion in this documentary... Think of any reality TV show, that is the perfect example of an unreliable narrator. We're not seeing the full lives of the people it's about, we're only seeing select scenes, and those scenes can be arranged in such a way to make you think something because it's more drama-ful than what actually happened. Also there's the ADR'd in lines of characters saying "Wow it sucked that my mother is fighting me for custody of my kid, she is being so unfair," which is diegetic narration...but the fact that THAT line was chosen being delivered in THAT way in THAT moment during the story hits different than if the character says it in the scene, or if another character says it, or an end card that says "oh btw they died after we stopped filming."

    You, the writer, are choosing what scenes are in the story, the order they've presented it, what details are focused on and what are glossed over. The narrator is a part of the story as an extradiegetic "being" or concept. When it's not deep POV or first/second person people tend to forget that the narrator is something that exists as part of the media and can have its own motivations and biases. It's very easy to think that the narrator is literally you since you are the author. But it's good (and healthy!) to take a step back and think of it as its own character. But also readers are dumb sometimes and think the narrator is literally the author, which is where the "1984 is a bad book because the main character does bad things and the narrative doesn't tell you its bad so therefore the author is bad" discourse comes from. We don't need a character to turn to the camera and say "HANNIBAL LECTER KILLING AND EATING PEOPLE IS BAD AND HE IS A BAD GUY" because it assumes the viewer has at least 2 braincells. But if there's a possibility you can be misread/misunderstood, someone will. Just make sure that more people are getting what you're going for than not.
     
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  20. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    So the classic unreliable narrator is when the narrator is misleading the reader.... when the reader is sort of a subject being spoken to. I think that last part is where the confusion comes from. Normally the reader exists on the same level as the author, where neither of us are supposed to be in the story. With your typical Deep POV character, we have narrative from the character's POV, but it's not really directed at anyone except himself. The character might miss something. The author might carefully leave something out. But the character isn't trying to mislead you. The unreliable narrator is a character who's aware of the reader, and then manipulates you.

    Of course, words get watered down. For instance, a chapter from the POV of a child, who doesn't really understand the context of what's happening, will still be referred to as an unreliable narrator. The narration says the so-and-so character was charming and sweet, but the reader is getting chills. I'm not one to argue semantics. Call it whatever makes sense in context. But that watering down is what leads to questions like the OP, and statements like how every character is unreliable, so that the term has no meaning. That's really missing the point.
     
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