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.

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you say that’s a dude but…..

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.

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the guy was in suspended reality!!!!!????!!! must kill

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!

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what’s with all the secrets?

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.

also Sephiroth…he was cool too (Virus-AC)

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.

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what’s going on???

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?

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49 thoughts

  1. For the first time since coming to this blog, I’m going to type a reply before reading any of the comments. The thing is that I used to be a hobby writer of fiction, and reliability has always been my main theme. I’ve always been embracing thrid person limited (a character’s experience filtered through an omniscient narrator who doesn’t give away what’s really happening), and I’ve always been using as many distinct points of view as possible, in rare cases re-writing scenes from a different point of view, of having overlapping transations. This is not a method fit for pick-your-darling-and-root-for-’em stories, but I usually didn’t write those anyway. In any case, to me “unreliability” doesn’t primarily mean lying. A lie is yet another layer of unreliablity on the basic perception-level. It’s my writing (and reading) philosophy that all narrators are unreliable to an extent, some more obviously than others.

    My favourite unreliable narrator, and I’m still in awe as I write this, is the first person narrator of Thomas Holt’s A Song for Nero. The book’s premise is that Nero didn’t die during the burning of Rome (a double did), and he hit the road with the double’s borhter as wandering bard. The double’s brother, a conman, is the story’s narrator. A conman as a narrator? Could you be any more obvious? Well, well… Here he is firing machine gun salvos of words at you, and you’re just following along for the story. Does it matter if it really happened as long as it’s entertaing? As the story goes on the unreliability is steadily foregrounded until – for the finale – you’re in straight myth territory (you’ll recoginise the scenes he’s pinching more readily). The fun thing, now, is that the story’s theme from the get go is: what if this didn’t happened in history, but instead this. But instead of giving you a straight alternative account, the story modulates reliability so that we start with eye-witness account and end up with myth. The book’s final lines are something like this: “So what if I’m sitting in my death cell now. Aren’t we all?” They say the history is written by winners, but the books suggests history is written by bored conmen. We never get to know what really happened – just like real life history. It’s a master stroke, well worth reading.

    Sorry, this has so little to do with anime, but I can’t let a mention of unreliable narrators pass by without mention of A Song for Nero. (And if you know Tom Holt, writer of mostly comic fantasies and sometimes historical fiction: that’s him. A Song for Nero is the only of his books I know published as Thomas Holt. It might be a coincidence, but it’s sort of fitting. Way to upset the library index!)

    I wonder if the presence of Steins;Gate in this season’s animescape has hurried this post along (or even inspired it?)

    1. actually the post was entirely inspired by my desperate following o any and all FFVII remake news. But I can see where you would get the idea. I almost feel silly for not being inspire by it.
      I have never read a song for Nero or anything from Mr. Holt but it’s going on th list!

      1. Oh, you’re inspiration makes perfect sense. This side of the screen the knowledge is limited, so whatever I’m wondering about is inevitably a reduced model-Irina (which is why I think every narrator is unreliable to an extent).

        Also, I’ve never played FF VII. When it was new I didn’t have a PS, and my PC wasn’t good enough to run it, and somehow I never got it later.

        Even if you disagree with me aobut the brilliance of the unreliable narrator, A Song for Nero should be a very entertaining read (though you might have a less favourable view of the ending than I do).

        Also, I haven’t written much in the last eight/nine years. I do still mull over stories in my head; that’ll never leave me.

  2. Nice topic to bring up Irina! I think it is also important for unreliable narration to ‘compensate’ the reader/viewer/player with another emotional overdose (in addition to clues) for what has been ‘stolen’ and ‘cheated’ of us from the initial narration, in order to feel that the series/story is still good?
    Do amnesic individuals thus contribute to unreliable narration then?

  3. Well shit, my stories are generally unreliable narrators since…I mean, it’s first person.
    So this is why you didn’t want to read it… v.v
    But yup, I feel a closer relationship with the characters in a story somewhat if it’s unreliable narration. The biggest reason would be how much more realistic it feels to me rather than, you know, “He did this. He felt that.”.
    Yup. Amazing high quality post by you as usual. Lovely.

  4. I really liked School-Live (the manga more than the anime) specifically because they try to imagine what sort of psychological traumas those kids would have, and looking at world through Yuki’s eyes and then seeing the reality around is distinctly shocking. Oh, yeah, la la la, slice of life, school girls, seen it seen it seen it…and then BOOM!

    The other girls have their traumas as well, but it’s Yuki’s that made it easy for me to engage with the story.

  5. Unreliable narrators are one of those things that when done well can be amazing. I loved School Live for how it used this device. And yet, when done just as a gimmick or to be clever it can be really quite appalling and just kind of deliver a very flat or frustrating viewing experience.
    Great post.

  6. Very cool post! I guess I would be on the side that loves unreliable narrators / being deceived. That feeling of “I should have seen this coming!” is great, and even if you get enough hints and manage to figure something out before its revealed, that also feels good.

    Instead of my favourite unreliable narrator, I will throw Divine Gate out there as the worst narrator of all time.

  7. If the story is written well, then unreliable narrations work wonderfully. The part in Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 works well, because you’ve already connected with the characters and their journey.

    As for whether I love them or not…I think it depends on the story and how I’m feeling at the time. I loved Higurashi and the mind trip that it provided, but something like Gone Girl or Serial Experimental Lain I didn’t really care about.

      1. I would say it depends. Twists are great if there’s foreshadowing and it’s done well, but I’ve read books where things just happen out of no where or the characters act dumb, even though the twist is clearly defined.

        If I care enough about the story and characters, then anything will work for me.

  8. I love unreliable narration…
    My favorite is definitely Monogatari… It’s super upfront about how unreliable it is, and that unreliability plays directly into the whole idea of how flawed human interaction can be- which is pretty much what the whole anime is about.
    But Monogatari is pretty much my favorite with everything, so it’s probably unfair.
    Higurashi was also super good with unreliable narration. It really controls the atmosphere of the show, and does a really good job of keeping you invested in the characters and the mystery!

      1. There’s tons of examples out there! Too many to list!
        Usually, I enjoy the biased narrator in anime, but sometimes it does kinda suck…
        Like the worst one I can remember was 11Eyes. I’m betting it was made from a visual novel, but it’s ending was just infuriating! It was just so UGH! If you’ve seen the ending of the last Twilight movie, Breaking Dawn, it was basically that!

  9. Good call with Serial Experiments Lain. That was a great example of unreliable narration. That’s a storytelling technique that is tough to pull off.

      1. Sure thing. I know I’m a bit biased since Yoshitoshi ABe was involved with that anime, but I liked the narrative style of that work.

  10. It’s a little different for me. I don’t mind unreliable narraration at all depending on three factors:
    The type of narration (from whose point of view is the story told or are we an invisible “eye”?), how much sense the overall plot makes/how much sense the twist makes within the established universal laws of that franchise and most importantly: Hints that you DO notice, never think too hard about them because they’re weirdly harmless at that point and then come back to bite you. This also goes hand in hand with how much sense the overall story makes and whether or not the twist actually makes sense (that sense needs to be easy to grasp, make it too complex and people are just confused for the rest of the story).

    Foreshadowing, even if there’s only a very small amount of it, is one of the most important aspects when it comes to unreliable narration (in my opinion). Whether it’s Misleading Foreshadowing (on purpose) or not is a whole different topic in of itself. 😀

      1. I love that moment when I feel sooooooooooooooo dumb because I either disregarded the information the second it came up or because I rationalized that red flag for no reason, only to ask myself later why I did that in the first place. 😀

  11. If Google ever gets a real AI, rather than the network it has now, it should be told of the existence of Lain and then when it watches it it may go into infinite loop and self-terminate its higher functions. It could be called the Lain Protocol or the Lain Paradox.

      1. But it doesn’t have superheroes in it so it won’t get made into a movie in Hollywood. Japan is more willing to experiment with SF themes. Have you watched Made In Abyss? You don’t have Prime so maybe not, but its pretty interesting. Culture on the edge of a really deep, manmade, hole filled with technology and biohack chimera lost from the current tech level are retrieved and used by the current 1890 level society up top. The deeper you go, the weirder it gets, and the more dangerous. Many optimists think that AI will advance technology so fast that it will follow Clarke’s Law (indistinguishable from magic), but I’m more inclined to think that actual AI is much harder to achieve than we’ve been told because the fake ones get funded anyway. Self Aware AI is still a fantasy. And we already know the wonderful folktale from the Greek myths about the sculptor Pygmalion who makes a woman from marble, she comes alive and kills him. There was a recent movie about that called Ex Machina. Same story, better effects. I was kinda disappointed by that, but I know my mythology. AI is nearly always a man-killer in movies, mostly because most Hollywood movies are by Jewish film companies and there’s mythology about the Golem being a living homunculus without a soul being inherently a home for demons and evil. Just like the plot of Full Metal Alchemist. All these stories are really justification for slavery because You are Human and They Aren’t. Ergo, slavery is justified. See Old Testament story of Noah, where he invents slavery after surviving the end of the world, and again with the 10 Commandments, where they ONCE MORE invent slavery on the Caanaanites, still used today to justify the persecution of the Palestinians, who unfortunately murder every Jew they can. The Middle East is a bad place, with a long history of evil. Even the recent news last week is a great example of this, and the guy who funded ISIS in Syria wants a multinational force to openly slaughter jews in Jerusalem, after his Kuuds and Hamas tried to escape gaza. Funny how it still ties back to Lain and the Emergent AI there. The recent re-release of the largely silly Pandora In The Crimson Shell Ghost Urn Word Salad Is That Toast I Smell? is actually a prequel about Ghost in the Shell. One of the two girls is Motoko Kusunagi, but I don’t know which one. And there’s an AI too.

          1. Its very strange. Kinda like Ghibli with blood and horror, yet very childish characters.

  12. I don’t see unreliable narrators often i anime, but I love seeing it in books and manga. My favorite unreliable narrator from manga is Punpun. Life seems a lot more awful when he’s talking about it, but if you look at it in a vacuum, Punpun chooses to be miserable, and so all of his interactions and even the way people look to him are exaggerated, though still rooted in reality.

      1. While I would love it, I think Punpun is something that was fully intended to be digested in manga form only. I don’t see how they would be able to pull of Punpun’s inner thoughts, the surreal setting, or the hyper-realistic people. Seems like too much effort for an anime to upset people.

        1. That’s precisely why I think it would be so interesting. The fact I can’t quite picture it captures my imagination!

          1. Definitely. I think the closest ones who can capture the surreal and character-driven style of the manga is Shaft. They already have experience with realism and surrealism after 3-gatsu no Lion.

            1. Trigger? I get their latest is not fantastic but Kill la Kill was. Or everyone behind Perfect Blue – I understand Kohn is sadly no longer around but the rest of the production team

            2. Trigger’s a bit too unorthodox, imo, but yeah, If Satoshi was still around, he could definitely capture Punpun’s style, especially with his Paprika experience.

              Surreal anime sounds very interesting right now, all of a sudden.

  13. There are two episodes of Scrubs that did this really well, and they both involved Brendan Frasier.

    But the most famous case of an unreliable narrator is probably the novel Lolita, as difficult to read as it can be at certain parts.

    1. I quite liked Lolita actually. I remember those scrubs episodes – they were so sad….
      Actually Lollita was a little sad too despite the reservedly happy ending

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