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What’s So Great About Unreliable Narrators?

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The Sixth Sense - Unreliable Narrator - Novel Conclusions - literary blog - writing tips

The Sixth Sense via Wikipedia

Every narrator has a perspective.  Even with novels written in third person omniscient point of view (where you as the reader know everything that’s going on, even things the main characters don’t know), there is a perspective there; the author has chosen which story to tell.  In first person and limited third person, we get to know the main character through his or her perspective – the way they views things, people, and events, the way they act.  Having a unique perspective gives the main character life.  Sometimes, this unique perspective extends so far that the main character is an unreliable narrator – they aren’t seeing what’s really happening (or, in some cases, they are omitting key information).

Why would you write a story with an unreliable narrator?  Well, let’s examine this a bit.  M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense gives us a clear example of an unreliable narrator.  (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD) In this movie, we follow troubled child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis’s character) as he helps a young patient, Cole, who claims he can see dead people.  Crowe is especially determined to help Cole because he failed to help a patient with similar delusions in the past.

As we get wrapped up in the story, we as an audience are completely taken by surprise – at least, I was – to find out that Crowe has been dead for the large majority of the movie and that Cole is the only one who can see him.  Crowe was an unreliable narrator because he was showing us not just a one-sided version of events but an intensely one-sided version of events.  The ending takes us by surprise because the main narrator was only showing us a very, very limited view of events.

What’s so great about unreliable narrators?

  • They allow for twists in the story that make sense (rather than twists that just feel like contrived plot devices).  When well-written, it creates that wow factor that can be so hard to come by.
  • We as writers get to fill the story with “Easter eggs.”  Think of all the incredibly cool things you can find re-watching The Sixth Sense.
  • It’s fun to get into the mind of a truly idiosyncratic character.
  • We as writers are solidly in control of the framing of the story, even more so than with a regular Joe type narrator.

A key point here is that the writing needs to be solid in order for this to work.  If the writing is tacky or shoddy, an unreliable narrator might just make the reader want to put the book down.  Of course, the writing needs to be solid for any story to work properly, but you already knew that, didn’t you?

Have you read or seen anything you enjoyed with an unreliable narrator?  What did you like about it?

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About Christi

Writing in SoCal.

23 responses

  1. YES yes yes. I love this kind of writing. I’ve been a fanatic for plot twists ever since I was a kid, and this is one of the types I love the most.

  2. Me too, love twists and red-herrings…write them into my stories too. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Excellent post! And THE SIXTH SENSE is the perfect choice. Took me totally by surprise. Have you read INEXCUSABLE by Chris Lynch? A squirm inducing unreliable narrator. I also think of the classic “The Tell-tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe.

    • I haven’t read Inexcusable; I’ll have to look into that one. I remember reading Tell Tale Heart years and years ago; I always loved the rhythm of Poe’s writing.

  4. I think ‘Gone Girl’ starts a bit with an unreliable narrator, though I don’t want to say more to avoid giving anything away. It can be a useful tool, but one that probably requires a bit of skill to pull off.

    • I’ve heard that about Gone Girl. I need to break down and read it before I accidentally stumble across something that spoils the plot.

  5. I second “The Tell-tale Heart” and would like to add the books Chime (by Frannie Billingsley) and Despair (by Vladimir Nabokov), and the film “Momento.”

    I love unreliable narrators. Like you said, you get the best surprises, when it’s well done. Also, how many people in real life are reliable narrators? Everyone just tells “their” story, and most of us (other than G-d) have a limited perception of reality.

    I might just try this!

    • It’s absolutely true that everyone is their own unreliable narrator — that what’s perspective really is. And I thought about including Momento in the post, but I wanted to keep it relatively short — that movie is crazy to keep up with but well done.

  6. Oh gosh! I was shocked to find out Crowe was dead for most of the movie. I absolutely did not see that coming at all. Such a fantastic tale. 🙂

  7. An excellent example of an unreliable narrator is Noah’s Wife, by T.K. Thorne. The story is written from the main character (Na’amah)’s perspective, and she has Aspberger’s Disease, a form of autism. This is a fast-paced adventure with plenty of surprises along the way. What a great read, I highly recommend it!

  8. Thank you so much. I went to the site, but didn’t see it. ? Teresa

  9. This is a great post. I think I recall in a writing class that the instructor said unreliable narrators don’t belong in YA fiction. I totally disagree. Anyway… The best example of the unreliable narrator that I know of is in film: the Russell Crowe character in A Beautiful Mind. We see the world from his POV and somewhere in the middle of the story, we realize this character is seriously mentally ill. The world as he sees it doesn’t exist: not the people in it, not the crazy plots he sees all around him, etc. It is a devastating, but also empowering film. I say it’s empowering because he learns to compensate for his delusions. The twist totally got me! After reading your post, I also made a note to myself: Why not try using an unreliable narrator in my next story? Fun!

  10. I enjoy unreliable narrators too, the last was with Gone Girl!

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