troperville

tools

toys


main index

Narrative

Genre

Media

Topical Tropes

Other Categories

TV Tropes Org
random
Unreliable Expositor
"How amusing... You say that what I'm saying now is a lie — yet what I said in the past is not?"

Sometimes, exposition is put into the mouth of an unreliable figure. The result is an Unreliable Expositor. Frequently invokes From a Certain Point of View, or in-character research failure.

This includes exposition that is later proven to be flat out wrong, exposition from somebody later proven to be a lying liar who lies or much less knowledgeable than they claim to be, or badly researched science in the mouth of somebody who either is willfully simplifying or is a liar, fanatic, or otherwise fundamentally unreliable.

Compare Unreliable Narrator, where the unreliable party is the storyteller instead of merely providing exposition. Related to Mission Control Is Off Its Meds, which concerns unreliable advice rather than unreliable exposition. May overlap with Motivational Lie.

Examples:

    open/close all folders 

     Anime and Manga  
  • Darker Than Black provides a healthy dose of Expo Speak early on, from a scientist who studies things that are under the Masquerade, no less. The next thing we see? Our expo-speaker did not even know who she herself is and presumably was not allowed to have any really sensitive information at all. So, have a happy dish of common oversimplifications and tampered memories. You're on your own. Hell, 90% of everything anyone says in the first two episodes is misleading at best, and Blatant Lies at worst. We're looking at you, Hei.
  • As seen in the page quote, half the things Sosuke Aizen of Bleach says are lies. The other half are half-truths and A God Am I BS. Everything he doesn't say is a lie. His power even has the ability to alter all of your perceptions, or, lie. This is a problem, considering that almost everything we learn about the plot comes from that guy.
    • Bleach seems to love this trope in general. Even later arcs, which removed Aizen as the Big Bad, still had characters who provided crucial exposition . . . that later turned out to be complete fabrications or deceptions.
  • Applied in layers in Naruto, where Itachi provides exposition about himself and Tobi, who in turn offers conflicting exposition about both of them. Later events reveal Tobi tells the truth about other people but generally lies about himself and any event he was personally involved with. Whatever he says is aimed at driving others to help him achieve his end goals. His boss, Madara, does the same thing and is exceedingly malicious about it.
    • The late plot of the series is driven by the stories left to the Uchiha clan by their ancestors on a stone tablet. As a narrator the tablet is proved unreliable when Black Zetsu admits to having modified it and other histories to ensure Kaguya's resurrection.
  • In FLCL some of what Amarao says is true while other parts are suspect. They may be deliberate lies or just out-of-date information.
  • In the Ace Attorney manga, Robin Wolfe invites Phoenix to his house, saying that he's a suspect in killing his employee Eddie Johnson because he had a talk with him about his disrespectful attitude before he committed suicide, and was the last person to speak with him before his death. It then comes to light that he had taken Eddie to the Den of Spiders and restrained him in a chair for three hours, but while Robin claims that he was unaware of Eddie's arachnophobia, his wife Theridia testifies to his knowing about it. Robin's other lies include the claim that Eddie tried to get into a relationship with his daughter Lira but failed (Lira loved Eddie and hates her father for driving him to his death), and that his brother Bobby is "a servant" (not only do the Wolfes not have servants, but Robin keeps Bobby out of sight of guests, thinking him an embarrassment to the family name).
  • Haruhi Suzumiya
    • Yuki, Mikuru, and Koizumi all have different explanations for what's going on, and it's never confirmed which one is right. They could be lying or just wrong, but Yuki states outright that each of their theories is incompatible with the other two.
    • Koizumi is Kyon's primary source of exposition, but he's the worst of the three. In addition to throwing out theories and then pretending it was all just a joke, he's the one with the least information. Mikuru is from the future, so she at least knows the world will survive to her time, and Yuki is an alien interface created by a nearly omniscient data entity, but neither of them talks much (Mikuru is brainwashed to be unable to say anything important, and Yuki just doesn't talk much).
  • Pandora Hearts gives us Jack Vessalius along with the biggest Wham Episode of the series (Retrace LXV) when it's revealed that the aforementioned character is this trope. Everything he once attributed to Oswald/Glen Baskerville turns out to actually apply to himself.
  • Attack on Titan has Reiner Braun. Many of his statements and actions are questionable at best, as a result of Half Truths and The Reveal that he suffers from delusional episodes. As such, it really isn't clear when he's telling the truth and when he's spouting nonsense.

     Comic Books 
  • In Gotham Central #14, The Joker alludes to his hostage being hidden somewhere with a Time Bomb. The GCPD note this, but are Genre Savvy enough to know they shouldn't discount leads to the contrary since Joker is the "least reliable person on the planet".

    Film 
  • Star Wars:
  • In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Walter Donovan:
    "Didn't I tell you not to trust anyone, Dr. Jones?"
  • In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka with regards to how the Oompa-Loompas seem to know so much about the members of the tour group and the trouble they get into.
  • In Miracle Mile, Harry receives a phone call from a stranger frantically exclaiming that World War III is beginning. When Harry tries to confirm what he just heard, the caller plays the whole thing off as a prank.
  • In Room in Rome, both main characters are often lying to each other.
  • The Usual Suspects: Detective Kujan suspects that Verbal Kint knows more than he told the grand jury. Boy, is he right.
    Verbal: "Back when I was in that barbershop quartet in Skokie, IL, the baritone was this guy named Kip Diskin. Big fat guy. I mean like, Orca fat..."
  • In X-Men: Days of Future Past, according to Erik, he curved the bullet in an attempt to save JFK since he was actually a mutant, but failed.

     Fan Works  
  • In the Metal Gear Solid 3 Fan Web Comic The Cobra Days, the Fear lies about pretty much everything, including his Back Story. Considering he starts out as the main expositor for the Sorrow, he really messes with the Sorrow's perception of the unit.
  • In another Metal Gear fanfiction, Mark Astrus in ''The Joy Of Battle lies to the Cobra Unit from the beginning in order to turn a mission from the American Philosophers into his own mission. He's not the only one. Actually, any exposition or explanation given by ANY character has a 90% chance of being a lie.
  • The books Twilight reads in The Son Of The Emperor tend to be biased or simply incorrect about a number of topics. Mostly those concerning Equestria.
  • With Strings Attached has the Fans, who out-and-out lie to the four on many occasions when they're imparting information—and Jeft lies quite frequently to Shag and Varx as well. While Jeft's expository lies are apologetically detailed by the other two after he leaves, their own lies never get exposed (though Shag does feel shame about them at the very end of the book, after the four have been returned home). The biggest lie is why the four are on C'hou in the first place; they were actually part of an undergraduate science experiment to gauge their reactions to being sent to another planet, but they're told they were sent there to break the curse on Ketafa.
    • Also, the story of C'hou's history concerning the Vasyn and the gods gets told several times by different people, until Shag and Varx find out the real story and reveal it to George and Ringo. Even Jeft didn't know the truth.
  • Imperfect Metamorphosis utilises this frequently as part of the Gambit Pileup. Nothing Yukari, Eirin or Yuuka says can be trusted without outside confirmation, and plenty of other characters occasionally get in on the act.
  • In the Girls und Panzer and Saki crossover, Necessary To Win (found here), in the Interludes, it is implied that anything a character says to others in the present day about what happened in the past is not necessarily true. This particularly applies to a large hole in Saki's story about the time her family broke apart, as well as people having differing opinions on why Black Forest lost the last tournament.

    Literature 
  • Practically every book by Tom Holt has at least one of these, often several, outrageously contradicting each other. Falling Sideways is probably the worst about this: fortunately it's all sorted out when one character points at the sky causing giant fiery words to appear: Yes, this is the real world, it's all true. Regards, God.
  • Every member of the Discordians in The Illuminatus! Trilogy. Then, once you get used to not believing a damn thing they say, the narration starts proving unreliable. It Culminates in a scene where Joe Malik shoots Hagbard Celine dead. And then they are having a friendly conversation a little while later, implying but never actually stating that the shooting only happened in Joe's imagination.
  • The entire plot of R.A. Wilson's The Masks of the Illuminati is based on the unreliability of second and third hand exposition.
  • An in-universe example in Good Omens, where Agnes Nutter, who predicts the future, turns out to be wrong. She acted as an expositor for generations of witches. It's implied that this was intentional; "There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path," and all that. (Complicated by that predicting the future for her was "like seeing through a straw", so she didn't get the full picture on things.)
  • In The Roman Mysteries, a number of characters state scientific, medical or geographic facts that are inaccurate but correspond to what characters in 1st century AD Rome actually believed.
  • Tomorrow War subverts a Sci-Fi cliché of the infallible Mr. Exposition — it's narrated by a Space Fighter pilot who thinks the range of some missiles is limited because their warheads freeze (What? He's a good pilot). Fanon explanation is that while we can be reasonably sure that an engineer making a rather "hard" setting knows better than that, this unties the authors' hands in more slippery cases: now they always can write off a few details as mistakes of one Space Cadet who slept through half of his lectures.
  • Done by various people in Warbreaker to the point where it's difficult, even in the end, to tell who's been telling the truth about the origins of the God Kings, the nature of the religious turmoil between Idris and Hallendren, or much concerning biochromatic breath.
  • An entire prologue in one of the Belgariad books is written by Torak, who plays up his role in creating the world, and tries to paint Aldur and the Orb as evil and his theft of the Orb as a noble sacrifice to try to save his brother.
  • Ciaphas Cain has both an Unreliable Narrator and an Unreliable Expositor. The Framing Device of the series is that they're Cain's personal records, compiled and edited by Inquisitor Vail, and because Cain is very egocentric any details that don't directly involve him aren't present, leaving Vail to "fill in the blanks" concerning events and interpretations. Except that not only is Vail far from impartial regarding Cain, but much of the material she uses is even less reliable than Cain, such as the hilariously paranoid writings of a historian who blames everything on Rogue Traders.
  • The Last Wish: In "The Lesser Evil" Geralt doesn't really believe either Renfri or the wizard is telling the whole story. The one claims she was driven to evil by the abuse she suffered at various hands, the other says Renfri is a mutant who was born Ax-Crazy.
  • Lampshaded in-universe with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. While the titular Guide is marketed as the ultimate handbook to the Universe, in truth, it's mostly made up of parts that have been bought off by business companies, entries that haven't been upgraded for decades, and things that sounded good at the time. When you have folks like Ford Prefect as your roving researchers, it's to be expected.
  • The Star Wars Expanded Universe takes this view of The Force, making it abundantly clear that anything we hear regarding its source, how it functions, and how it is divided is merely a particular person's opinion — a handy dodge, given that no two sources can agree on even basic things like the effects of The Dark Side, how one succumbs to it (or is freed by it, if you ask certain Sith), or even if there is a Dark Side at all.

     Live-Action TV  
  • Because LOST was all about how meaning and truth are shaped by unconscious psychological baggage, severe daddy issues, and the need to play on those issues to get others to do what you want, anytime anyone provides exposition on the show it's a guarantee you're going to be hearing a very biased account at least, and an all-out crockpot of lies at the worst. Ben, one of the people who knows the most about the Island, is probably the most consummate lying liar on the cast.
  • In Doctor Who, nothing the Doctor says can be trusted, either because he's being deliberately deceptive or because he genuinely doesn't know as much as he thinks he does. The Seventh Doctor's defining trait is keeping everyone but himself ignorant so that they would be more easily manipulated, and one of the Arc Words of the new series is "the Doctor lies".
    • The Arc Words are especially funny as the character who uses them the most, River Song, is an even more prolific liar than the Doctor and almost as prone to providing false information.
    • Of particular note is the unreliability of The Doctor's testimony as to how old he is; in the old series, Romana actually called him out on claiming to be younger than he was, and while it's never stated outright in the new series that he's lying about it (or, as Word of God hints, just plain unsure himself), the Tenth Doctor claims to be fifty years younger than the Seventh Doctor once claimed to be.
      • Current Word of God is that he has no idea how old he really is, and claimed nine hundred because it's a nice round number.
  • In Mythbusters, Adam has called this on himself. It seems the assorted wild stories he's made up about Jamie, the ones he assumed everyone knew were fake, were being taken seriously. (Adam's first-season claim that Jamie was former-Special Forces note  caused some serious issues with actual Special Forces personnel.) Though still making up stories, he later started announcing immediately afterwards that what he just said is a complete lie.

     Tabletop Games 
  • Forgotten Realms has a lot of this.
    • The "best" case, of course, is Volothamp Geddarm and his "guides" that canonically combine dangerously clever investigations and silly hearsay. Mintiper's Chapbook is a Realmslore textbook on Unreliable Exposition: it consists of short excerpts from verses or tales by Mintiper Moonsilver, long comments by knowledgeable Keeper of the Vault about events in which Mintiper's "or his source's" alias participated and... even longer Chronicler’s Footnotes that explain how some or other Keeper's notion above is flawed due to his bias toward Silverymoon history and realities and unwarranted skepticism regarding the breadth of Mintiper's adventures.
    • The history of High Moor. The resident pissed-off druid in Elminster's Ecologies II, Bara, assumes it to be the result of typical human deforestation. It's the result of a Killing Storm. She just assumed based on what she saw and knows, and probably never saw a single elf capable or willing to do so, nor would know, since elves aren't eager to tell anyone else about less glamorous moments of their past. The fact she's a self-professed misanthrope who figures Humans Are Bastards probably didn't help her.
    • Also, a two-part article named simply "Trusting in Lore".
  • Most background material about how things work in Paranoia is inaccurate, while the real truths are mentioned in the ultraviolet-security chapters. Of course, anyone revealing this information without being of appropriate security clearance (and good luck for a troubleshooter reaching ultraviolet) is guilty of treason.
  • Basically everything in Warhammer 40k. Most codices are written from the perspective of the featured army, and all other sources are likewise written from an in-universe perspective (generally Imperial). Imperial scholars tend to be pompous, self-assured, and despise all forms of aliens, heretics, mutants, traitors, etc., etc., so you can imagine how reliable they are.

    Theater 
  • Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The news about Sweeney's wife's rape and his daughter's adoption by Judge Turpin were most definitely true, but the same cannot be said about Lucy's ultimate fate — Mrs. Lovett only mentioned that she poisoned herself after what went down at the ball, but the way she tells him this implies strongly that she died as a result of it. In truth, Lucy was left half-mad as a result of the trauma and the poisoning and wound up in Bedlam House, and would ultimately wind up as the crazy Beggar Woman. Mrs. Lovett didn't want Sweeney to know this because she wanted Sweeney for herself. Sweeney only learns the truth after he takes vengeance upon Judge Turpin immediately after killing the Beggar Woman, and needless to say, he is not happy.

     Video Games  
  • Knights of the Old Republic II gives us Kreia, who lies. She lies a lot. Considering she is your main source of exposition, this poses something of a problem.
    • The first game has a much smaller example. On the unknown planet near the end of the game, one can find two tribes of Rakata who have retained the history of their race to some extent. But while one of these tribes kept their history stored in databases, the other is essentially a primitive tribe with only vague and legendary stories about their history, handed down orally over the course of 25,000+ years. Needless to say, the history they keep is somewhat less than reliable.
  • The Codex in Mass Effect. While it has a wealth of information that provides good background information on The Verse, certain details sometimes contradict what the player has seen or done.
    • The best example of this may be in Mass Effect 2 where the entry for "Reapers" claims they are nothing more than a superstitious myth. The players know better.
    • There's also Javik, your DLC Prothean squadmate in 3. It's possible he's entirely serious about nearly everything he says about his cycle. It's also possible that, as the galaxy's oldest Troll, he is simply screwing with you.
  • As in Mass Effect, the codex of Dragon Age has entries on a myriad of topics written by people in-universe. How true the entries are... varies. In the first game, you can get different entries on the same subject based on which Origin story your character is. For many things, it isn't certain whether what you read or what you hear is the truth.
  • In Planescape: Torment you awake in mortuary without any memories of your past, with your only clues coming from a long set of instructions tattooed on your back, read to you by a friendly floating skull who becomes your first companion and main guide through the first sections of the game. Later in the game you can discover a secret room in which the very same text is written on a wall, but ending with the additional line "Don't trust the skull!".
  • This is sort of a selling point for The Elder Scrolls series. There is no true canon except what happens during the game, and every person or book's version of the backstory (of which there are several, backstories and versions that is) has to be taken with a grain of salt. Essentially, the only information you learn about the game world is the stuff you could learn by actually being there, even recent history. Combine this with the depth of the world itself and the number of different overlapping mythologies and cultures in said world, and you wind up with a lot of really damn weird discussions on the forums with cosmological debates rivaling those of, well, the real world. Vivec embodies this trope, being a self-professed pathological liar and implied madman who provides most of the series' cosmology.
    • One chronicle that is completely reliable would be an Elder Scroll itself. The Scrolls are completely irrefutable due to their close link to reality itself; their power transcends even the gods. The only problem is that it could also end up showing you what could have happened if you don't read them right (though that information could be of use too).
      • A second problem would be that, for reasons probably related to their close link to reality, not everyone can read a Scroll, even incorrectly. This includes at least one of the series' player characters.
  • Psychonauts, being a game that takes place mostly inside people's minds, brings this up at times, though a little digging makes the real stories clear. Notable are Gloria's biographical "plays" (a bit warped by her own point of view of her childhood), Edgar's lost love (a deliberate romanticization), and Coach Oleander's memories of the military (completely fake).
  • Portal. GLaDOS is basically lying most of the time. Or "enhancing the truth", as she puts it. She's the only source of information in the entire game, leading to much confusion about everything.
    • Portal 2 turns this trope into an art form with three different examples, all of them unreliable for different reasons (GLaDOS again, who retains her lying ways, a literal Idiot Ball, and a narcissistic maniac who's been dead for decades).
  • This is par for the course in all Metal Gear games. The person who gives you your first bit of exposition is more than likely trying to manipulate you into doing something you'll regret by the end of the game. The Colonel Campbell AI in Metal Gear Solid 2 is an example of an unreliable expositor where, in the end, you still don't know what the truth was.
  • Early on in Last Scenario, most of the exposition about the overall plot comes from Zawu, a mysterious woman who shows up out of nowhere one day to tell the main character he has a great destiny. As the story continues, her motives start getting called into doubt; ultimately it's revealed that everything she said was a lie. Even the things she thought were true, which were rather few and far between, were lies told to her by Ortas and Castor.
  • Somewhat similar to the above Elder Scrolls example is The Legend of Zelda. As it is, really, a legend, the events of each game have faded into myth by the time of chronologically later games, so in any given game the exposition about what happened previously is as heavily corrupted and confused as any real-world legend, and every game will inevitably delve heavily into the in-universe legends about what happened last time in the chronic Vicious Cycle. This can lead to massive player confusion when they make a prequel about those previous events, and they turn out to be not very much like what legend remembers them as at all.
  • The loading screens in Divine Divinity contains various helpful tips similar to those in Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Except a lot of them are wrong, sometimes dangerously so. (One claims that Othar will gladly let you kill his pigs, when he actually responds violently if you do so.) Fittingly, one tip is "Don't trust everything you hear!"
  • In Tales of Symphonia, for the first section, you're supposed to go on a journey to regenerate the world's mana supply, and are sent an angelic messenger who first describes the mission for you, then meets you at each checkpoint and gives you directions to the next one. However, he leaves out some key details, like that restoring the mana of your world will doom its parallel counterpart, and that completing the journey will claim the life of The Chosen One, and he blatantly lies about a few other things (being Colette's true father comes to mind)...because his boss, the leader of the angels, is actually the Big Bad. Discovering all of this kicks off the true plot of the game, which is of course a quest to Save Both Worlds.
  • Baten Kaitos deals with a God of Evil who, according to the stories passed down for generations, rebelled against the virtuous rest of the gods, and the ensuing battle more or less destroyed the world; the evil god was then divided into five pieces which were sealed away. The prequel, Baten Kaitos Origins, reveals that this was Written by the Winners, and that the so called "gods of good" were actually a single Eldritch Abomination named Wiseman who was also evil, and that the "evil god" from the first game was actually a group of five separate heroic individuals that made a Deal with the Devil for the power to defeat Wiseman at the cost of sanity, gaining the ability to fuse into one temporarily in the process.

     Visual Novels 
  • After the Mastermind is revealed in Dangan Ronpa, they swiftly prove themselves as this, battering the survivors of the Deadly Game with truckloads of information. Plenty of Awful Truths are mixed in there, enough to leave even the player rattled and wondering how much is true and how much is being edited/deliberately phrased in misleading ways/left out/just the result of their desire for despair.
  • A bad case occurs in Higurashi: When They Cry where often even the unreliable expositors don't realize what they're saying is nonsense, or it's completely irrelevant or even just misleading. After all, the characters are trying to work out what's going on at the same time as the reader. Apart from not knowing whether their conclusions are correct, a lot of the time characters are going crazy or getting paranoid.
  • In Umineko: When They Cry Beatrice is this and an Unreliable Narrator during the first four arcs, since not only is most of what she reveals questionable unless she's using the red truth, but any scenes that aren't narrated by Battler are narrated by her, and in EP5 it's confirmed that in the first four arcs the only scenes that can be trusted are ones from Battler's point of view.
  • In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
    • It's quite difficult to tell whether Turner Grey is right about Mimi Miney being at fault for the incident in which fourteen patients died because of malpractice, or whether he's intending to use her to deflect all blame from himself. This also applies to Mimi herself, who is actually alive and pretending to be her sister.
    • Dahlia Hawthorne is one, even when she loses her facade and reveals her true colors. As a result of her bitterness, her comments about other people cast them in the worst possible light, in addition to several outright lies, such as that Maya killed her mother then committed suicide. This also applies to when she's impersonating Iris, as she makes several comments that are intended to cast Iris in a negative light while drawing sympathy to herself. As such, it's difficult to determine the veracity of much of what she says, including the reasons why her parents(whom she despises) did what they did.

     Web Comics 
  • Characters in Homestuck sometimes don't have any idea what they're talking about. A major example is the Scratch: Several characters think it's a rift that sends Jack Noir to an Alternate Dimension, but it turns out to be a Cosmic Retcon Reset Button that forces Jack to escape elsewhere just to avoid being erased.
  • A comic from Girl Genius illustrates the hazard of relying on a psychotic A.I. for a description of your Love Interest's activities. Though the next page shows that she is totally aware of this trope.
    Agatha: ...Even if you completely misinterpreted the situation— which I wouldn't put past you, by the way...

     Western Animation  
  • Batman Beyond has an interesting, possibly unintentional, case: One character claims that psychic powers are a result of being able to use the remaining 90% of Your Brain ; but that character is an avowed Psychic Supremacist criminal foot soldier (in other words, exactly the wrong person to be giving scientific exposition).
  • Likewise in Justice League Unlimited, when Amanda Waller claims Cadmus was made purely in response to the Alternate Universe where the Justice Lords conquered the Earth. At least two creations of Cadmus, Doomsday and the metahumans who would become the Royal Flush Gang, predate contact with the Justice Lords' universe which indicates either a continuity error or Waller lying about how old the organization was. It's later implied that it was actually in response to Superman being brainwashed by Darkseid two series earlier.
  • In The Boondocks, Grandad's stories about his life experiences are often questionable and he tends to lie to try to get out of just about anything.
  • Fans called Amon on this in The Legend of Korra due to the historical precedent of charismatic radicals fabricating their origin stories. Even before the show revealed his backstory, they knew he was lying about something. He was lying about everything.
  • An episode of I Am Weasel had the story of how I.M. Weasel and I.R. Babboon got their start as a small-time country singer and comedian, respectively (which they never were portrayed as in any previous episode). It was voiced over by an unseen narrator with a smooth, fairly deep voice with a hint of a Southern accent. At the end of the story, the voice abruptly changes to that of Jolly Roger, and it's revealed he was the narrator and made the whole story up.

Unpopular Popular CharacterUniversal TropesUnreliable Narrator
Two Scenes, One DialogueExpositionWar Was Beginning
Two Faced AsideTruth and LiesUnreliable Narrator

alternative title(s): Unreliable Exposition
random
TV Tropes by TV Tropes Foundation, LLC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available from thestaff@tvtropes.org.
Privacy Policy
68754
6