There are few plot devices more divisive and difficult to pull off than the unreliable narrator. Unless your work somehow manages to distinguish itself as a classic, the audience often feels cheated and is quick to turn on a story that can’t be trusted.
How many times have you rolled your eyes at an “it was all a dream” ending or argued that the story loses all meaning if none of it really happened (even though it was fiction to begin with…). Most of us don’t like feeling that we’ve been lied to and tricked. That the narrative made fools out of us. Most of us maybe but not me. This is one of my favorite narrative tricks and when done well, it can be absolutely brilliant.
Now, I have not in fact gone around and asked people’s opinions on unreliable narrators. I have however seen many shows and movies that use the device, and subsequently read the reviews. These stories tend to either be beloved and hailed as masterpieces or downright maligned. And when the reviews are negative, the same complaints come up all the time. Making the story all or partly in the narrator’s mind is lazy and cheap. If there’s no risk, as none of it is happening, then we are robbed of emotional impact – what’s the point? I have seen more genuine anger in these reviews than in those for disgustingly bigoted pieces that occasionally make their way to mainstream. People take it very personally.
Disclaimer time: whenever I make these generally unfounded sweeping declarations, you guys are very quick to drag me back to reality. I figure a lot of my readers have similar tastes as me (which is unbelievable considering how often I stand on lonely hills) and will be open to occasionally being lied to for the sake of a good tale. But humor me on this one, and let’s talk about why unreliable narrators can be tons of fun!
For me, there’s a bit of a rush to finding out I was outsmarted. It smacks me out of complacency and gets me to pay attention.
A well-crafted story that respects its own internal integrity can then take advantage of being freed from sincerity by adding a secondary layer to the narrative. An ultimate truth happening behind the events we see. A talented author can scatter clues and foreshadow reveals to give the attentive viewers a few extra treats. This adds another dimension of interactivity to the plot that can draw a viewer in rather than alienate them with a misdirect. The examples I can state are all rather spoilery I’m afraid but if you want to take the risk you can highlight the rest: Both the early episodes of School Live! and the later episodes of Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 use this to have their traumatized narrators continue to interact with people who are no longer there to devastating emotional effect!— End of hidden text!
It also has the potential of giving you twice the fun. My first big encounter with this device was in fact through video games rather than movies or anime. Because in RPGs, you spend so much time exploring the story through the eyes of the narrator in question, this type of reveal packs quite the punch. Spoilers again but these are pretty huge and very old franchises so if you didn’t know yet… I mean Spoiler warning for decades old games…
The first time I really grasped the full potential of an unreliable narrator was in Final Fantasy 7. I love that game so much you guys. After mindlessly playing through hours upon hours of increasingly disjointed plot as Cloud, driven forward by his unrelenting need for vengeance and brutal if questionable moral compass. I didn’t just know what I should do next because the story told me, I felt it! Sometimes Cloud was a little intense but who could blame him after what he went through. No, no…what we went through. Imagine how little me felt at finding out we hadn’t gone through any of it. We had been one of those disposable foot soldiers with nothing to bring to the story except fodder. More than that WE had been Shinra!!! I instantly replayed dozens of hours of gameplay in my head trying to figure out what it all meant. What did my actions actually imply in light of this new information? I already loved the FF7 story and now it seemed I had a brand new one in retrospect. I’m still impressed.
Years later, Bioshock did something similar with the infamous “would you kindly” cinematic. This one had a meta element as it also brought into question our instincts and decisions as gamers with an absolutely brilliant little piece of narrative manipulation. Not only did I have to rethink everything I knew about Bioshock, I ended up questioning everything I thought about FPSs in general, and myself!
It’s one thing when you are misled by a narrator, it’s another when you have been lying to yourself…
Of course, it takes a bit of effort to make sure these stories hold up. Without a tight leash on what’s actually happening and what’s a fiction within a fiction, you run the risk of having your plot unravel into incomprehensible nonsense. But even this added confusion can have its own value.
For this, I must go back to possibly the least reliable narrator of all time: Lain. Serial Experiments Lain is told from the point of view of a character that is in turns scared, misinformed and just plain mischievous. She regularly lies to both the audience and the other characters without explanation or correction, she often lies to her own self and in turn believes her own lies which are then presented as fact or she willingly cuts herself off from crucial information that completely changes the interpretation and meaning of events. Even the voice of god narrator at the beginning of episodes proves to be untrustworthy. But the fact that nothing in the series can be taken at face value, that the very concepts of existence and reality are challenged by the plot, is a huge part of Lain’s legacy and what makes it such a unique experience.
The exact same story told in an honest straightforward manner would never have elicited the same reflection and fascination. At least, not for me…
So, tell me, are you offended when a narrator deceives you? Do you think it takes anything away from the story? Do you have a favorite unreliable narrator?