Unreliable Narrator

edited January 2015 in The Toolbox
I've been thinking a bit lately about the literary technique of the Unreliable Narrator, as it applies to comics.  If you aren't familiar with the term, the idea is that the narrator of the story (usually telling the story in the first person) is not the impartial omniscient observer that readers are in the habit of trusting. He can be confused, he can be biased, he can be misinformed, he can be misremembering, he can be lying.

I used this technique on a recently-posted JAQrabbit Tale [NSFW], in which the drunken protagonist's misperceptions are exposed on the last page when he wakes up sober and discovers that the person he just slept with isn't quite what he thought the night before. To give the reader a hint that the visuals shouldn't be taken too literally, I gave the art some wavy distortion to suggest drunkenness. Meanwhile, the dialog was accurate, offering a few subtle clues (probably not picked up until after the reveal) that things weren't really the way they looked.

I'm also using it – sort of – on a script I'm working on. In this case, the two characters are telling each other tales, which aren't entirely truthful.  This time it's the art that tells the truth, while the narrative captions tell their dissembling version of the story. This isn't a true case of Unreliable Narrator, because I'm being honest to the readers, it's the characters within the story who are showing themselves to be unreliable to each other.  The medium of comics is ideally suited to this kind of parallel storytelling, so it's fairly common.

And there's also the question of whether you can even trust the writer himself. Because between you and me: some of the stories I tell ... aren't exactly true to life. ;)

What experiences do you have with Unreliable Narrators, as writers, or as illustrators? What are your favorite examples as readers?  (Be honest.)


  • Isaac & Lee is based on unreliable narration. It's a biographical re-imagining of two of my closest friends and an extreme comical exaggeration.
  • edited January 2015
    There's a Conny Van Ehlsing story that's based on Huckleberry Finn. Conny's self-proclaimed nemesis Gaijin is the narrator, and he insists on telling the story his way, which the others keep calling him out for, disrupting the narrative. That one was a total joy to write.

    I'd done something similar some time before that, too, again with Gaijin and Conny, to try some Manga style stuff. The kids in Conny Van Ehlsing all have very strong convictions about reality, that makes it easy (and fun) to cast them as unreliable narrators.
  • In one of the early Glorianna stories, I had an extended flashback where a character narrates his life story. After writing and drawing that sequence, I thought it felt a little too pat and cliche, so later in the story I revealed the character had been lying to make himself look good. Kind of the ultimate unreliable narrator, since he even had me fooled at first! ;)
  • I like this technique and I have used it a few times. It works particularly well when you're writing first-person, because that establishes an intimacy between the reader and the fictional narrator.

    I think the Gene Wolfe leverages this technique better than anybody. Let me talk about two of my favourite books with unreliable narrators, both by Wolfe:

    Soldier in the Mist takes the form of the journals of a Roman mercenary who receives a brain injury during the Battle of Thermopylae. As a result he suffers both retrograde and anterograde amnesia--he's lost most of his memories and he is unable to form new ones. Every day when he wakes up he is a clean slate. He knows he's a soldier but he doesn't know his own name--hence the diaries. But the journals quickly get too long for him to read in their entirety every day, so quickly we find that we have more knowledge of what is happening to him than he does. It's an amazing piece of work. We see how his perception s of his companions changes day-to-day when there's no real continuity--but some emotional bonds last. He knows his best friend is a friend whenever he sees him, even if he doesn't know why. He succumbs to an episode of depression that lasts for months, during which he doesn't write in the journal. 

    Then there's Wofe's Book of the New Sun, which has a narrator with an eidetic memory. He reminds us of this often. But the fact that he remembers everything perfectly does not mean that he's sharing all of the information with us, or that he's telling the truth. 
  • Or in the case of Severian, that you understand the things you remember, since he's not all that bright. This becomes a form of unreliable narrator, because his explanations and interpretations of things are presented by him as fact.
  • Yup, exactly. Severian is cunning but not all that bright and easily manipulated. He's trying to be honest in his memoir but there are times he refuses to understand the truth, or where he withholds important information.

    Severian=protagonist of the Book of the New Sun, for those following at home. 

  • My latest comic (in process) features a Walter Mitty-type character who has a very active imagination. As the story unfolds we alternate between real life and his over-the-top fantasies, all fleshed out on the page. I tossed the idea in to liven up an otherwise straightforward script, and am very happy with the outcome so far. 

    {Do people know who Walter Mitty was?]
  • Yeah, Wolfe pulled a good trick in that in took me a long time to realize Severian is kind of an idiot. It's obfuscated by the way he talks, but he really, really doesn't get what's going on.
  • @JustinJordan yeah exactly. He's a good writer and he remembers all the details but he doesn't see what's going on under his nose. 

    Also, he's a young guy who was raised by an order of torturers in a prison made out of an old rocketship. His education has been extremely narrow and he's not had a lot of exposure to the outside world. 
  • You mentioned The Book of the New Sun. I tapped out about halfway through the first book because the plot just kept meandering and Wolfe seemed to be in love with his own prose. I had no idea what Severian wanted or what he was doing to get it.

    Instead, I'm re-reading Scott Lynch's Gentleman Bastard series, which is third person and doesn't use this device. However, we do see that Locke is not nearly as confident as he appears.
  • Back to the original point ... I love this narrative device, and it's especially effective in comics where what we see is DEFINITELY not what the narrator is telling us.

    Probably my favorite "unreliable narrator" bit is in Princess Bride, where Fezzik is reviving Inigo by dunking him in alternating hot and cold water, while the Grandfather reads, "He took GREAT CARE in reviving Inigo."

  • It's interesting: In Joe Abercrombie's First Law books (and this includes the standalones) the books are third person so it's not really unreliable narration....

    ...but essentially ALL the POV characters are wrong about themselves in such a way that it almost becomes this. Some are better than they think, some are worse, but there's a lot of delusional about their own natures. It's a pretty good trick to pull of writingwise.
  • It's interesting: In Joe Abercrombie's First Law books (and this includes the standalones) the books are third person so it's not really unreliable narration....
    On the rare occasions I write prose, I favour what (I believe) is called 'Tight Third Person', which is where the narration is in the third, but holds tight focus on one specific character in the scene/chapter/story and the narrator never imparts information that isn't directly known or know-able to the focus character.
  • It's been a while since I've seen it now, but I'm guessing Memento also counts as using this technique...
  • I wouldn't classify Memento as Unreliable. Granted, Guy Pearce's character is a bit out of sorts, but pretty much everything shown to us is objectively accurate.  It's just incomplete, so the audience doesn't have the context needed to understand what they're seeing.
  • I have a sudden urge to watch Rashomon...

    ...or do I?
  • I've never seen that particular bit of source material. Might be that we could all do with a viewing of Rashomon?
  • I've heard conflicting reviews of Rashomon.
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