"You just show that your first-person narrator was actually in an insane asylum and then OH MY GOD, did it actually happen? Who can say? Here, I can say. It didn't happen because your narrator was just no good. Listen. Never lend an unreliable narrator money."
In most narratives, there's an element of trust that the person telling you the story
is telling the truth, at least as far as they know it. This trope occurs when that convention is discarded. The narrator's facts contradict each other. If you ask them to go back a bit and retell it, the events come out a little differently. It can be like dealing with a used-car salesman
— there's a real story in there somewhere, but you're left to piece it together through all the lies, half-truths, and mistruths.
Reasons for the unreliability vary. Sometimes the narrator is a guilty party and is trying to mislead the audience as well as the other characters. If the narrator is insane, it's Through the Eyes of Madness
. A consistent and sincere testimony may prove Unreliable if coming from a perspective of personal bias, or conclusions drawn from incomplete observation. If the narrator has honestly misunderstood what's going on due to naivete or inexperience, it's Innocent Inaccurate
As an author, this is a difficult trick to pull off. It is a lot easier to tell a straight story than it is to deliberately mislead the audience, never mind that it violates the traditional assumption that Viewers Are Morons
. And there's always a risk of attracting Misaimed Fandom
One common technique is to use a Framing Device
, so that the narrator is presented as a character in the frame story, to emphasize that he is not actually the author. Another, even trickier method, is the Literary Agent Hypothesis
, where the narrator is supposedly relating things that happened in Real Life
. Multiple unreliable narrators results in "Rashomon"-Style
. If it's a visual medium and the picture contradicts the narration, it's an Unreliable Voiceover
. This can also be used as a trick in commercials
, to evade claims of false advertising by having an unreliable character do the talking.
is a variant with less than credible exposition
from specific characters, as opposed to narrators of the whole story. Contrast Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane
where the evidence is reliable but insufficient, and Infallible Narrator
, when the narration is far more accurate than the character giving it ought to be capable of.
This can also be a source of humour for the work, too.
A specific sub-trope of this is Written by the Winners
- the Unreliable Narrator is the one in power.
Note that this is specifically for narrators within the work. When it's the author that's lying, that's Lying Creator
. When the author simply can't make up his mind, that's Flip Flop of God
Note: as this is often a particularly subversive Reveal
, REALLY BIG spoilers
ahead, especially in the Literature section. See also "Rashomon"-Style
, The Mouth Of Madness
and Unreliable Voiceover