Would I Lie To You? A Case Against The Unreliable Narrator

By PJ Parrish

I’m a big fan of Ridley Scott’s movies. Yeah, even that smaltzy one A Good Year, with Russell Crowe as a heartless London banker who chucks it all to live in a moldy French villa with Marion Cotillard. So I was a happy clam when I unwrapped a Christmas gift from the husband — the director’s cut of Blade Runner. 

The husband had never seen the seminal 1982 cyber-noir masterpiece so I was thrilled to introduce him to it. But then…

Toward the end of the movie, there are two scenes that Scott had reinserted. In one Harrison Ford’s character Deckard has a dream about a unicorn. Later, when he’s escaping with his lady-love replicant Rachael, he finds an origami of a unicorn, left by his ex police partner Gaff.  This signals that Gaff knows about Deckard’s dream because it’s not really Deckard’s. The dream is fake, implanted to give a “back story” needed to stabilize the replicant’s artificial personality.

So Deckard is really an android? I had always seen him as human. But with this latest viewing, now I have to question everything he says and does.

This debate, I’ve discovered, has been raging for more than three decades. I haven’t read the Philip Dick story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” but it’s said Dick wrote Deckard as a human in order to explore the increasing similarity of humans and replicants. Harrison Ford has long maintained that Deckard is human. (One reason is that replicants are super-strong and Deckard gets the snot kicked out of him throughout the movie). But Ridley Scott is on that record saying Deckard’s a droid.

Does it matter? In terms of my enjoyment of the movie, no. But in terms of Deckard’s reliability as a narrator, it certainly does. The story takes on completely different tones depending on whether you see him as man or machine — and whether or not Deckard himself does.

Which is a long way to go to introduce what I wanted to talk about — unreliable narrators.

We’ve had many great posts here on the subject. But I’m sort of obsessed with this today, given that now I am dreaming of electric sheep. Plus I just cracked open Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I loved the movie so thought I should finally read the book with it’s uber-liar Briony Tallis.

Reading a well-conceived unreliable narrator is a treat. Writing one can be a nightmare. It’s a hard technique to pull off, and frankly, it’s become a bit stale in crime fiction and thrillers since Gone Girl.  So if you’re thinking of trying this at home, give me a chance to try and talk you out of it.

What exactly is an unreliable narrator? It’s not a matter of just fibbing. Simply put, this is a character whose account of the story is supposed to be authoritative for whatever reason, is suspect.

There are as many reasons for this as there are demons in the human heart and head. Unreliable narrators can be just pathological liars like Verbel Kent in The Usual Suspects and Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. Or they might be biased in some way that affects their thinking and ability to give the reader a clear picture. Some unreliable archetypes:

Mentally ill: Chuck Palahnick’s narrator in Fight Club has debilitating insomnia that makes him sound irrational. Amnesia is a trope on verge of cliche. I used it myself in my thriller She’s Not There and you find in the cult movie Memento. Vonnegut warns us about Bill Pilgrim’s unreliability in Slaughterhouse Five’s great opening line: “All of this happened, more or less.” And in A Beautiful Mind, we don’t find out until the movie is well along that John Nash is schizophrenic and that his version of reality cannot be trusted.

Children: By virtue of their limited experience and gullibility, kids can’t be trusted narrators. I loved the 9-year-old boy in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close who is searching for his dad post 9/11. But I didn’t buy the narration of the boy trapped with his mother in Emma Donoghue’s celebrated Room. In the latter, the boy tells us, “When I was a kid I thought like a kid, but now I’m five and I know everything.” Right…

The Naif. The narrator here has a limited world view, naive in nature, as in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or in Winston’s Groom’s innocent in Forrest Gump. I’d even put Huck Finn in this category.

Dead People or Ghosts: Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones is the best example here, although I wasn’t crazy about the book. A little sentimental for my taste. Amy Tan has a great ghost character in Saving Fish From Drowning. This trope is popular in movies — Kevin Spacey’s first person narrative in American Beauty, for example. And of course, poor Bruce Willis is in deep denial over his protoplasmic presence in The Sixth Sense. This is not a device for beginners, I’d say. Unless you’re solidly in paranormal land.

Okay, so you still are determined to try to do this in your book? I haven’t scared you off or convinced you to go with an easier method? Sigh. All righty then. Let’s ask some tough questions:

Can you write well in the first person? In a way, all first-person POVs are unreliable in the sense that all the info the reader gets is filtered only through one consciousness. Most unreliable narrator novels are in the first person. So unless you can sustain a normal first person POV, taking the next leap to a true unreliable narrator will be above your pay grade.

Are you going for a gimmick? Be honest. If you’re writing from a kid’s POV or using amnesia or a mental illness, you have to ask yourself if you’re merely looking for a crutch to prop up a weak plot. Or are you looking for easy way to get noticed?

How much stamina do you have? I’ve written one first-person POV book and it was exhausting because I had to find so many other methods of providing depth. It will be even harder with an unreliable narrative because you, the writer, have to constantly assess how much — or how  little — information you are dribbling out to the reader. Also and this is very important: You must be in total control of a character who is not in control of himself. If you’re a pantser who believes that characters just lead the writer around by the nose, you’ll be lost with an unreliable guide. Consider, too, that it is not easy for a rational person (you, the writer) to “become” an irrational person. This is why so many serial killers feel wooden.

Can you act someone else’s age? If your narrator is too young or immature, it’s hard to entrust them with the full weight of an entire story. Teens are easier to pull off, but children can be wearying. Why? Because everything you write — words, syntax, description — must be filtered through a child’s mind and eye. This is why I couldn’t finish Room. I just got tired of listening to a 6 year old.

And the last and most important thing to ask yourself:

Confess or conceal? You must decide whether to reveal that the character is unreliable up front or make it a twist deep in your story. In one of my fave books, Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas, we are told that everything Odd Thomas says should taken with a grain of salt:

Understand, I am not a murderer. I have done nothing evil that I am concealing from you. My unreliability as a narrator has to do largely with the tense of certain verbs.

Don’t worry about it. You’ll know the truth soon enough.

The unreliable narrator is one of the trickiest literary devices to get right. Get it wrong, and your plot falls apart and the reader gets bored or frustrated. It can feel manipulative, confusing, and often pretentious. When it’s done right, though, it can be powerful.

Believe me, I know. Would I lie to you?

p.s. No matter what Ridley Scott says, I still think Deckard was human.

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

36 thoughts on “Would I Lie To You? A Case Against The Unreliable Narrator

  1. For me, the unreliable narrator never gets old. (Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street is a recent example that I enjoyed.) But I need to develop my writing chops more before I try it myself. I’ll keep your advice in mind!

  2. Props for the Philip K. Dick nod, Kris. I’ve read all of Dick’s works. His science fiction stories dealt with perceptions of reality. All of his narrators were unreliable, as was the author. So too, the reader. Dick was not a terrific author from a technical standpoint but his books leave one wondering and questioning the fabric of existence, or if such a fabric actually exists. Scott gets some of that, but not all.

    • I remember reading an interview with Scott who essentially agreed with you re Dick and unreliability. He said that’s what drew him to the Deckard story. I guess this is one of many gaps in my reading I should try to fill. 🙂

  3. Thanks for a great post, Kris. You convinced me. I won’t try it. I promise.

    Seriously, this is a wonderful coverage of the topic. I’m putting this in my file. And I’ll keep my promise…for at least ten years.

  4. Maybe it’s my upbringing in the sciences, but I feel cheated when I find out I’ve put my trust in a character only to find they were untrustworthy. You can count on me never to try writing one.

    • This was the reaction of many folks to Lehane’s “Shutter Island.” They felt betrayed and manipulated. I was gobsmacked in a good way. I love endings that I don’t see coming. But I’ve also read some really disappointing unreliable narrator books, and yes, I will name one — The Girl on the Train. Oh, and I didn’t care for Gone Girl.

      • Oh I LOVED Shutter Island!
        Granted, I have a weak spot for tragedies.
        (Bookwise, that’s Mary Gentle’s Ancient Light duology. Still haunts me in delicious ways, even if the narrator was unreliable in the fact that even she didn’t know the truth half the time!)

  5. I’ve not done a deep dive on this subject, but it seems to me you could break this down into two basic types: 1) the narrator who is purposely withholding information from us; and 2) the narrator whose giving us the story through his or her subjective lens, as it unfolded to them. The first is a clever cheat. The second is being honest but is necessarily limited to what the narrator experienced and was able to process.

    Gone Girl would be of the first type. You have to be so careful with this because it’s easy for the reader to feel cheated for the sake of a gimmick (I think Flynn carried it off quite well). It can come off as an “And then I woke up” type of ending.

    Rebecca would be the second type, and in this way it becomes more like a straight-on mystery. The narrator is trying to solve something she cannot understand due to her subjective misinterpretation of the evidence. She takes us on the journey with her.

    A lot of cogitation on only one cup of joe, Kris, but there it is.

    • Yes, that is a good basic distinction to make — the purposeful liar and the liar whose experience, circumstance, illness, whatever, shapes their ability to be trusted. I agree Flynn did carry it off well. But I didn’t like the book in the final assessment.

  6. Tough topic, Kris. In a sense, all narrators in a mystery are unreliable. They don’t know what they don’t know…yet. But yes, I agree that a purposeful unreliable character often leaves the reader feeling cheated. It takes a skillful hand to write an unreliable narrator like in Gone Girl.

    • That’s a good point — unreliable because they can’t know what they don’t know (the essence of a good mystery). Which is different than the pure thriller in which the protag knows who dun it but the plot revolves on how they solve/catch him.

  7. Thanks, Kris, for this post. It reminded me of the French movie “He Loves Me … He Loves Me Not” with Audrey Tautou. It’s the story of a young woman (Tautou) who is in love with a married man and believes he will leave his wife for her.

    The first half of the movie is told from the young woman’s point of view. I believe casting Tautou in that role was brilliant because the audience buys her story as the sweet, young thing based on her role in Amelie.

    Half-way through the movie, though, the story abruptly begins again, told from the man’s point of view, and you realize you’ve fallen for a lie. I thought it was very effective.

    Has anyone else seen this movie? I don’t know if it was based on a book.

  8. Excellent breakdown of unreliable narrators, Kris. They are tough to pull off. I have not written one. My Empowered series was written in first-person, as was my novel Gremlin Night, but in both cases, the narrators fit Jim’s #2 type of 1st person narrator, which I think is the far more common type. We are limited to what they know and believe, but they are being honest. If they are being dishonest, it’s with themselves and thus with the reader and there should (IMHO) be a reckoning at some point.

    For the record, I’m with you about Bladerunner. Decker’s a human. That’s how I want it, and that’s how it fits the story 🙂

  9. I had a bit of a deja vu or a “been there and musta done it” moment reading your unreliable narrator post this morning which, I must say, is excellent, Kris. I went and picked up my first work of fiction and there in the Author’s Note is “Everything took place exactly as told, except what didn’t, and then it should have”. I suddenly realized I’m what people have been telling me all my life – that I’m a pathological liar. A good liar, but still a liar all the same. Enjoy your day!

  10. Holden Caulfield is a prime example of the unreliable narrator. He tells us he’s been in therapy early on, but many readers still judge him on his reactions to events, rather than on his mental state. Why “ejjakaters” think it’s a good idea to assign Catcher to high school students, I can’t imagine. There is no way for HS students to fathom what’s really going on without having it spelled out up front or, sadly, to have been there, themselves. Most of them end up hating the book. Cliff’s Notes for Catcher didn’t even include the word “grief,” last I checked.

    • Yup, I didn’t have a clue what Catcher was about in high school. Were we supposed to relate because of his age? Had to read it again in college but still didn’t get it. Instructor never brought up unreliable narrator. Didn’t find out what it was til I began writing crime fiction.

      • Yes, if Cliff’s is clueless, you can bet that most HS students won’t “get it,” either. I read my son’s copy when he was in HS. I didn’t even bother asking him what he thought. By then, I’d had enough losses to know what it was all about, the meaning of the red cap, the museum, the ducks, etc, And I also recognized it as autobiography, despite Salinger’s denials.

  11. A great post. Although, if you want to stick the knife in deep and then twist it very hard, the unreliable narrator will twist that blade until it snaps.

    Netflix introduced me to Shutter Island. Pretty good tale. Enough red herrings to start a cannery. And well, an unreliable narrator and a big, big twist at the end.

    Now to find my copy of Do Androids’ and and it to the re-read pile.

  12. I recently finished Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, and he uses not one, but three unreliable narrators. Each POV character uses a different story device: 1) journal entries 2) unpublished auto-biography, 3) a confessional dialog scene with the “true” main character by a woman relating her childhood memories. I never grew tired of the presentations. The story is about stage magicians who deceive for a living, so the unreliability is presented up front.

      • I enjoyed the format and the writing and the story. There is enough intrigue and mystery to keep one reading until the end. The ending left me wanting ( a bit) more.

  13. I just got tired of listening to a 6 year old.

    That’s classic, Kris. You got me there.

    I’m no expert, of course, but I was trying to think if I’ve ever seen a movie with this “unreliable narrator” trick that worked. Sixth Sense worked for me, but I did think of another.

    Kevin Costner in No Way Out. I didn’t catch on until practically the end.

    So, as you said, when it works, it’s beautiful. I don’t think I’ll be trying it anytime soon, though. I’ll leave it to the experts.

    • Never seen the Kostner one, but you did make me remember The Crying Game. Now that’s not an unreliable narrator but boy, what a terrific twist about half way thru.

  14. I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? when Bladerunner was just a glint in Ridley Scott’s eye. Deckard was human. Both David Webb Peoples and Hampton Fancher considered Deckard human when they originally wrote the screenplay. Harrison Ford viewed him as human. Scott began to impose his idea of Deckard as a replicant later on set. I view Deckard as human. IMO the whole Deckard-is-a-replicant bit is unnecessary tinkering by RS for his own purpose. Whatever. He certainly had the right to do that, but I don’t care for it. In the so-called sequel it’s clear that Deckard IS a replicant, and is aware of this. This is but one of many, many reasons I didn’t care for that movie.

  15. Since I’m not good with first-person POV, no one has to worry about me writing a story with an unreliable narrator. Although I do agree with Sue that in a mystery most of the suspects are unreliable narrators. Except they’re really not narrators unless the writer writes in the villain’s POV.

    Great post–until today, I’d never really totally ‘got’ what an unreliable narrator is. 😉

  16. Re using 1st Person POV as a narrator (unreliable or not:) “You must be in total control of a character who is not in control of himself”

    Isn’t that the truth?
    All of my current series is 1st Person POV because I’m that oddball who prefers it, both in what I write and what I read.
    I did write a full-length book (with a ridiculously large cast of characters) in 3rd, and, while I learned the art of NOT head-hopping by doing it, I didn’t enjoy it.

    Not to say 1st is easier.
    Not at all.
    As you say, Kris, it’s exhausting. That decision of “how much info do I impart?” is all-consuming. As a dedicated 1st P-POV writer, I keep detailed notes on red herrings, dropped threads, detail knowledge depending on character, etc.
    But it’s so very worth it in the end!

    And my MC could be considered an unreliable narrator because she has a very different perspective of events than her supporting characters AND a great many secrets…all of which causes her to play her cards very close to the vest with everyone else.

    Thanks for a great post!
    FWIW, I’m very much on Team Human for Deckard. Ha ha! Surely, had he been a replicant, he wouldn’t have had such a hard time with the four he was chasing!

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