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?
- The Sixth Sense Ending (video)
- Omission, Insanity, and Half-Truths: Unreliable Narrators in Literature
- First Person or Third Person?