I love a good unreliable narrator. I know, I’m weird that way. My classmates way back in high school made that perfectly clear.
The first time I realized that a narrator didn’t have to tell the truth – even about their own story – the world just opened up. We were reading Tim O’Brian’s The Things They Carried. It had just come out and my teacher was unusually excited about it. When we got to the first “inaccuracy” most of my classmates just assumed the author didn’t do enough research. Our teacher pushed us to think of other reasons Mr. O’Brian might have had to put that in.
The thing was, we were studying the Vietnam War in our history class. We “knew” the facts. That bit was just not accurate. Weirdo that I was, I re-read that section, and the corresponding paragraph in our history book, over and over and over again until it happened. The history book gave me a bird’s eye view of the war. I could see it all. The Things They Carried brought me down into the jungles of Vietnam and I could see only what was right in front of me. I got laughed at in class when I brought it up, until Teacher smiled and agreed with me.
It wasn’t until we finished the book that Teacher brought up the term “unreliable narrator” but by then I was seeing them all over the place. Narrators, especially if they are also characters in the story, have a limited view of the world. They don’t know it all, so sometimes, what they know is inaccurate. It wasn’t long after that I realized the real world was filled with unreliable narrators. None of us can see it all. We all have our perspective, our experience and our biases.
An unreliable narrator isn’t, most of the time, trying to lie to you. Anymore than the two sides in a court case are trying to lie to the judge. It’s that they have limited knowledge, made assumptions, and come to conclusions. Everyone has their own interpretation of the events, and no-one knows all of it. None of us are the author.
That’s where literature and real life diverge. In real life, everyone is an unreliable narrator. In fiction, you have to look out for it. For one thing not all narrators are characters in the story. For another, many authors don’t use them. I suspect this has to do with the confusion most of my classmates. I’ve seen the same confusion in the students I work with. The very idea that someone, especially a narrator, could be wrong causes eyes to glaze over. If a majority of readers can’t wrap their head around the idea that your narrator is unreliable, make them reliable.
It makes sense. Give the readers what they want. It’s just good business.
However, a reliable narrator is one more step away from the real world. For all that fiction is about other worlds, it’s also about this one. For a story to have a real impact on the reader, it needs to convince them to think about the real world, too. A fantasy adventure with dragons and magic still provides commentary on the ordinary world of corporations and technology. The hero needs to make decisions not just for herself, but for her friends and the rest of the world. Stories are filled with symbols and metaphors. We, the authors, don’t have full control over that. For one reader the dragon might represent their overbearing boss while another sees it as the current political establishment and another as the gang that’s taking over the neighborhood. The evil wizard might be a family member, a person of authority or a stranger.
It is from literature, fiction in particular, that we learn to slay the dragon and outwit the evil wizard. So if there are no unreliable narrators in our reading, how are we going to recognize them in the real world? Remember, all of us out here in the real world are unreliable narrators. We have limited knowledge. We have biases. We have a particular point of view. We have limited experience with seeing how an unreliable narrator works.
Is it any wonder, then, that so many people are unable to wrap their heads around the idea that a leader might actually lie to them? I said most unreliable narrators weren’t trying to lie. Some are. Some know things they don’t want you to know. In literature, these are the kind that are easier to spot. They say things that are in direct conflict with the actions of the other characters. Or they tell you things that are provably false within the narrative. They contradict themselves. In fiction this is easy to spot. It’s right there in the black and white.
It’s not so easy to spot in real life. When you have two prominent figures accusing each other of lying to get an advantage, and you don’t have access to the facts of the situation, how do you know which of them are lying? Either or both of them could be. One says it’s the cutest puppy in the world and the other says it’s the ugliest one. What you don’t know is that they were looking at a kitten. We see this most often in politics. Lawmakers are great at spinning the meaning of a bill. They highlight the parts they think you’ll like and minimize or just not mention the parts that will make you gag. Unless they don’t like the bill (maybe because that guy over there wrote it), then it’s just the opposite.
Unreliable narrators are everywhere, from the front of the classroom to the anchor on the local news. What I learned from finding them in literature is that they can be found out. Compare their statements to those of others to the reactions of people all around you. Never accept a single source of information. That one I got from science classes – repeatability is the gold standard. We need more unreliable narrators in fiction, particularly in fiction for young readers. In fiction, their lies and misrepresentations don’t have the consequences they do in the real world. In fiction you have time to go back and check.