Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 30: Unreliable Narrators

This episode totally would have updated earlier if I’d only known sooner that it was ready to go. Jordo says he emailed me early this evening, but if he HAD then you’d have been listening to this by 8:00pm Sunday.

So… how much of that do you believe? Is the Narrator lying to you, or is he just wrong?  Maybe he is lying to himself, and thinks he’s being honest with you.

Most importantly, though, how does any of this apply to your writing? Well, that’s what the podcast is for…

Writing Prompt: Have an event occur, and then provide five different character perspectives on the event… none of which are completely accurate.

Note: this episode updated a little late because I wanted an object lesson in the write-up, not because I was relaxing on the couch until 11:15pm.  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.


35 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 30: Unreliable Narrators”

  1. Whoops! I updated Episode 30 before doing Episode 29.

    My fault. Man, I’m EXTRA unreliable. Episode 29 happens next week. Anti-heroes. Then Episode 31, TRAGEDY!

  2. Good point about inappropriately withholding information. That made me think of a related point, that as a general rule you’re only allowed one big mystery. Anything more than one major unexplained phenomenon and your readers are going to be confused instead of intrigued. I think it’s important to remember that with an unreliable narrator, that even though your narrator isn’t telling the story exactly the way it happened, the unreliable account still needs to have enough truth to it that the reader CAN see how it happened, without becoming confused.

  3. Ah, yes – one of the greatest gifts a reader can give – the suspension of disbelief. Here was me hoping it was a given outside of reader/critique groups and editors – darn.

    Now my eyes have been opened to the prospect that perhaps the narrator is being dis-ingenuous, so we should be vigilant and sceptical – *sigh* – my bubble was so cosy.

    Nice podcast by the way… ;-)

  4. I’ve encountered at least three (could be more could be less) types of Unreliable Narrator/POV Character:

    1) The Lying Character: He/She who knows what is going on, but chooses to lie (by omitting or skewing the information he gives the reader) either because their hiding something or toying with the audience.

    2) The Unknowing Character: The character doesn’t know everything due to his perspective been limited in some way. Third Person Close and First Person narratives tend to have this as a key feature. The character(s) can extrapolate from the information at hand but they are still limited by what information they have at any given moment.

    3) The Opinionated Character: Here the problem is one of attitude. The character view is obscured by their prejudices, past history or current expectations. She sees what she wants/expects to see which may only be part of reality and not the whole story. Key details may be ignored or skewed due to the personal failings/interpretation/quirks of the character.

    As always, a great podcast. Keep them coming.

  5. Thanks for the podcast, Writing Excuses.
    Unreliable narrators and viewpoint characters can definitely make for a deep, rich storyline, though I definitely agree that it’s annoying when information is held back from the reader just for the sake of a surprise. (At least when this information has no other reason to be withheld)
    For a classical example of the unreliable narrator, I think Edgar Allan Poe did a good job with it in many of his short stories, using them to add a deeper level of horror at a more psychological level. This includes instances of where the reader can’t be too sure about just how sane the narrator is.

  6. the unreliable narrator who withholds vital information reminded me of Sherlock Holmes. He is forever picking up something and putting it in his pocket, but it works because your seeing events from Dr. Watson’s perspective. Its intriguing to see Holmes working but to be left so out of the loop. you know he has solved it and is holding that vital clue back, Doyle really makes you work to try to piece together the puzzle but at the end you’re almost always left with that same moment of awe and amazement when Sherlock unveils the twisted plot to Watson. Its a case where the personality of Sherlock allowed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle be a jerk and not give you the hints you need to figure it out.

  7. Your examples in this episode were awesome, by the by. Really glad that Ian M. Banks got dropped in on this one, and now I have to read the Last Duchess that Dan referred to. And LOL at the unreliable episode numbers :D I’d really like to hear a podcast on the tricks to good unreliable writing that Brandon called ‘can of worms’ on. :)

    I think it’s probably worth pointing out that there are degrees of unreliability- that is, Wheel of Time characters probably see the world a bit more clearly than John Cleaver does. One of the things I’m playing with at the moment is switching between a very unreliable first person narrator and a few more reliable third-person limited narrators. None of them give you The Truth, but this way if I need to drop clues without revealing too much, or let the reader know something without letting the characters see it, I use one of the main character’s viewpoints, because they’re the most unreliable. (I hope it also has the effect that it means they stick out more and people get to know them better)

    Referring back to Rafael’s post, often (2) and (3) (opinion and ignorance) are combined in various degrees. I’d also say there’s a (4), which is that there are different ways of thinking and narrating even aside from differing opinions. Some characters are crazy. (in the mentally ill sense) Some people emphasise different senses, and will pick up different details. Some people are observant, some aren’t. Some people are better at misleading themselves than others. And so on. You don’t even need multiple viewpoints to use (4)- I Am Not A Serial Killer is a great example again because it shows how you can contrast an extreme viewpoint with the one the reader (presumably) identifies with.

  8. Yes, dementia is a common source of unreliability. More so when the narrator questions his sanity or the sanity of others. Then again, if the story goes all Twilight Zone on the reader then it usually means that Freud was right an everybody is mentally defective just separated by degrees.

    Talking of TZ, a common device was to contrast the unreliable narrator with a reliable one (the reliable one served as the reveal) or make a seemingly unreliable narrator (William Shatner is the classic example) be the one who knows the truth while everyone else ignores him.

    I think one should assume that no narrator is entirely reliable, just has degrees of reliability.

  9. Some other great examples of unreliable narrators are Huck Finn and Holden Caufield. Huck is an unreliable narrator because he is ignorant and self-effacing. Holden is unreliable because he doesn’t know how to express himself.

    I think that writing an unreliable narrator is really difficult to do, but it is worth the effort. The characters seem much more human when they don’t know everything and when the reader doesn’t know everything.

  10. I’m not sure I agree with Howard when he says that the modern reader is more sophisticated now than in previous decades. Nor am I convinced that omniscient narration is inherently inferior. Some of the best books of the 20th century had an omniscient narrator, and they didn’t always make it so that the reader knew the end from the beginning. What I do know is that omniscient narration is hard. So hard, in fact, that I doubt many authors can make it work at all.

    So maybe the sophistication of readers hasn’t increased. Maybe the skill of writers has decreased.

  11. So maybe the sophistication of readers hasn’t increased. Maybe the skill of writers has decreased.

    It’s possible, but maybe a better explanation is that many writers have concluded that you don’t get very much out of omniscient for how hard it is to do. There are certainly advantages, (such as being able to get into the heads of side characters) but you need a book that really relies on those advantages for it to be worth losing the advantages of unreliability. Perhaps we’re just not as interested in getting superficial thoughts from side characters right now.

  12. I listened to this one twice, and as I often do listening to these things, realized that a story I am polishing now has an unreliable narrator (the doesn’t know everything variety and makes assumptions that are untrue type).

    The writing prompt was identical to the writing prompt for the podcast on viewpoint. A telling comment on how close those issues are to each other. So much of this is about perspective. Realistically, any character you get really, really close to – either first person or close third – is going to be unreliable in some way because of their opinions and perspective. If they are not, who are they? God?

  13. @Matthew: True. And of course, books are subject to trends just as much as any other art form. Just because omniscient narrators are rare nowadays doesn’t mean they always will be. All the same, I don’t think I could write a very good third-person-omniscient story. And then there’s also the fact that very few writing instructors teach how to write omniscient narration anymore.

  14. There are other ways of introducing unreliability, too.

    I did a short piece recently that mainly consisted of a letter from a famous writer to a rival. The catch is that it’s not clear if it’s an actual letter from the writer, an epistolary story he wrote in the form of a letter, or a mixture of both due to a head injury he mentions early on.

    Not sure I completely succeeded with it, but it sure was fun to try!

  15. I actually just finished a book that totally abused a form of the unreliable narrator technique. It was Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol and in it he almost always had the viewpoint character make a discovery and we know they’ve figured something out but he purposely doesn’t let us know what’s going on. Granted that Dan Brown’s books aren’t consistent with their third-person perspective but stil . . . And yes, I know this book is a thriller and it’s supposed to play that card but when it’s done so many times it just frustrates the reader rather than pulls them in. Dan Brown tells a good story but I will agree that he’s fairly heavy handed and plays with a limited bag of tricks that gets old after a while. Anyway, perfect example of the unreliable narrator taken too far.

    And on another note: Shame Shame Howard! I was so excited to hear that Tragedy was next week (seeing as how I requested that topic – thanks btw) and then you crushed my dreams ;_; All I ask is that you get it to us on time for the week it actually comes out on. I’ve got a plane to catch that Monday and if it’s not on time I have to wait a week and a half to listen to it. And no sneaky tricks like making it late so we have to suffer tragedy – we’ve had more than enough object lessons made through the manipulation of release times for one season.

  16. Letting the readers figure it out themselves – now there is a topic that needs its own episode. Since every reader is different in terms of how attentive he or she reads, I always found it hard to establish the amount of hints required for them to get it. Too many might get boring for them, too few might leave them confused.

  17. I love Dan for using literary references outside the realm of genre fiction! So often there are great examples of whatever topic you’re on that are overlooked because they’re not sci-fi or fantasy.

    I think it should be safe to assume that if a person wants to write they will read all forms.

    Off to read The Last Duchess now.

    Great podcast topic.

  18. Many people reading My Last Duchess now–Dan should get publicity kickbacks from Browning’s estate. Except that we’re all googling it instead of buying a book. Ah, well. I concur with Chella that Dan has excellent taste in literature :)

    My favorite variety of unreliable narrator is the insane kind, a la Edgar Allen Poe. Even when the narrator isn’t decieving you about the events themselves, their unreliable reports of their own and other’s motivations still gives you that “aha” moment where you realize how horribly wrong their account is. It’s the “aha” moment that I keep reading for, whether I’ve discovered the facts behind the obfuscation or pieced together the way the magic/political/social system in that world works.

  19. Thanks, fellow readers–I think you have excellent taste in literature as well.

    If you want to read an awesomely unreliable narrator who is ALSO slowly descending into abject madness, read The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In fact, since it’s short and awesome and public domain, you can read it online: http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/dept/history/lavender/wallpaper.html

    This gives me the heebie jeebies every time. Do yourself a favor and read it alone in the middle of the night.

  20. My favorite example of an unreliable narrator was Millions (the book). It’s first person from the point of view of a seven or eight-year-old kid, and the kid doesn’t understand a lot of what is happening around him (or, he understands it in a very different way from how adult readers will understand it). It’s handled amazingly: the book hits a number of powerful themes, such as consumerism and the corrupting power of money, but it’s all through the eyes of an innocent little kid.

    So he’s not unreliable in that he’s trying to hide something–he’s unreliable because he’s young and doesn’t really know what’s going on around him.

  21. @Ineluki: I think you should err on the side of writing too many hints, because you can always strip out the worst ones if it’s just too easy to guess. That’s the sort of thing test readers and writing groups are made for. There’s no reason to be afraid of trying it either way (or both ways) and seeing what works for your current project.

    There are guidelines, like the rule of threes if you need to establish a pattern of things happening. I’d also say there’s a rule of oversight: You can drop at least three times as many hints if an object is completely innocuous yet critically important to the plot later. If you talk about a hairpin in five throwaway statements the beginning of the story, it’s totally awesome to find out it was the murder weapon later. Remember, you can always go back and make it more surprising by sharpening up your misdirection. Revision is awesome.

  22. This podcast reminded me a lot of The Turn of the Screw, in which a major aspect of the psychological horror is that you are stuck inside of this woman’s head who may or may not be sane. You can’t tell, because neither can she.

  23. Great show! I am new to the podcast, and I knew I would love it as soon as I heard the Douglas Adams reference. :) I enjoyed the podcast, and am off to listen to some of the older ones. :)

  24. Ok, Dan and Brandon, at least, should have known that I’d bring this one up: Where is the Don Quijote reference?

    Cervantes set that one of blatantly and obviously — his main character appears to have some sort of delusions. But the problem is, does he? There’s a good argument to be made from the text that he knows exactly what he’s doing by living out this fantasy, from the name of his horse to the way he treats others. So when he says “Yo sé quien soy” (“I know who I am”) after being identified by his (real) name by one of his peasants, how seriously can we take him? The answer depends on your reading.

    But he also does more than that. The frame story is hwo the narrator found this text — he bought the texts from a Moor (who in the beginning of the 17th century Spain were considered incredibly unreliable and were thought to deliberately lie to Christians) which were then translated by another Moor on the narrator’s expense. In 1606 Iberia, this meant that there wasn’t a single part of that process that could be believed. Top that with the fact that it’s clearly a satire of a genre known, even by then, to be extremely anachronistic — well, *is* there any aspect of it you can trust?

    (He takes one more step, too, in the ten years after part 1 was published, some “unauthorized” sequels were published, which Cervantes, his narrator, and the don himself all condemn as false — but most characters still believe them and they’re treated as part of Quijote’s past).

    These elements are at the core of the reasons why the Quijote continues to be an enduring classic both in Spanish and in translation more than 400 years later. What do we make of it? what about it is true? if it talks about our human nature, is it just making it up or are there things in there that we can actually use?

    Another very dramatic (if you’ll excuse the pun) is Beckett’s _Waiting for Godot_. Everything is seen from the perspective of our two protagonists, who are essentially hobos, and have the worst memories. They can’t even remember where they’ve been in their lives. (A slightly modified English translation approved by Beckett has a bit where one says they’ve been to California’s Napa Valley and the other says he only remembers being to the “Crappa Valley’). They believe liars and cons who come their way, and are hugely impressed by clearly false credentials. In the end… is this Godot person they’re waiting for real? Or are they waiting for nothing? it’s a good example of using character type and point of view to make the narrative murky at best, which gets people to think about it long after the author dies.

  25. Ya know, this post made me think of Mistborn (BEFORE they mentioned it). Specifically, Hero of Ages, and more specifically, the allomatic chart at the end of the book. Later on, Brandon released that poster of the chart on his website, which was different than the one in the book. The conclusion I’ve come to is simply that the characters got it wrong… so would that fit under this topic? Or is that just Brandon and his Knivening Sneakery? ;)

  26. Why use an unreliable narrator? When any character says something that the reader knows is in conflict with reality, it increases dramatic tension. Conflict is always good.

  27. Agatha Christie wrote a few books with unreliable narrators. They work very well in mysteries, I think.

  28. Dante’s Divine Comedy is probably my favorite poem in the world (even though I don’t read Italian). It contains narration within narration, and much of what the Pilgrim “learns” in Hell turns out to be completely false.

    I have heard Dante “experts” who didn’t seem to understand that Virgil is an unreliable narrator. Much is revealed to us in Purgatory and Heaven, but it is often done with a very subtle hand, and it takes multiple readings to start to appreciate what the Poet was up to.

    Returning to the example of Virgil, we assume that he is damned for the “sin” of being a pagan. But the moment Dante sets foot on the Mount of Purgatory, the attentive reader will realize that this is not true.

    To give another example: The first time the Pilgrim shows hatred for the damned, Virgil kisses him, and says, “Blessed be the womb that bore thee.” To understand the Poet’s intent in placing these words in Virgil’s mouth, we need to read– not Luke 11:27– but Luke 11:28.

    Of course, Dante read the Gospels in Latin, so the various English translations may be unreliable guides to Dante’s intent.

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