On Unreliable Narrators

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of writing students attempt something narratively that it has never occurred to me to attempt: going to the page and making a calculated effort to take a set of events in a character’s life and depict them in a way that distorts their reality, in hopes of triggering a realization in the reader that the character is not on their rocker.

“Unreliable narrator,” (U.N.) this is called, for lack of a better term. I’ve developed a fair amount of disdain for this type of narrative, to the extent that it can be called a type. It gives me a guilty feeling for not being willing to play the game. But I’m trying to understand my resistance and aversion and learn about my biases and limitations a reader. Is it me? Am I an uber-serious reader who cannot tolerate a bit of unreliable narration in my stories? Am I hopelessly out of touch, and U.N.s are par for the course for other readers, familiar territory? Do they recognize this scenario and embrace it, detecting a bit of mystery or inconsistency or inexplicable events and saying, “Oh, hey, an unreliable narrator situation. Cool, fun, let’s figure this out!”?


It’s hard to say where I stand in relation to others. But what I know is that I have yet to see it executed to my satisfaction. Usually it ends up like a magician’s trick—say, sawing a woman in half. But the writer seems to put an actual woman in an actual box and start sawing. When the blood hits the stage floor, I usually head for the aisles.

A Thesis Forms

I’m working on theories. It may be that the problem lies in the nature of narrative and the fact that the attempts I’m reading are based in realism. After all, the most interesting application of the U.N. is the one that provides the greatest dramatic contrast: a story of the real world in which an apparently functioning and sane member of society (of member of family, or member of a corporation) harbors delusions, suffers hallucinations, and does something shocking. It’s within the bounds of an otherwise normal, peaceful societal context that a U.N. becomes the most threatening, right? So the real parts of the story are told with verisimilitude, luring us in, creating the staid backdrop, and, most often (or in the cases I’ve encountered) then we move to the deluded, imaginary parts: the events that don’t actually happen but only seem to happen to the protagonist; the voices that aren’t actually there; the visions of things not actually present; the other characters who are figments, etc.

One thing that can go wrong here is the use of identical styles for the straight parts and the distorted parts. The same level of detail. The continued employment of complete sentences with subjects and predicates. The continued use of accurate and tastefully selected adjectives and adverbs. The continued use of roman type, left alignment, and otherwise standard typography and layout, as well as persistence of thoughtful attention to a variety of sentence types and sentence lengths.

In fact, presently in my assessment of unreliable narrator stories, I posit that the main impediment to their success is this use of identical style. It is the one guarantee that the deluded parts will be overlooked for what they’re intended to be.

Conclusive Leap-Ahead

Ultimately, I don’t think any narrative depiction of mental illness or any mental state or condition that represents a distortion of reality or distortion of a character can be told with straight narrative description. When grammatical logic holds up, readers reading in a realistic context will take these sentences at face value, even if they’re full of falsehoods.


Recently I heard Derren Brown on a Sam Harris’s podcast. Brown is a self-described “psychological illusionist.” He has a stage show and a series of TV specials. In his TV specials, hordes of actors are used to create false realities around a “mark” — someone whose reaction will be tested, or examined. Will a man throw a beaker of liquid into another person’s face, even if he’s told it’s acid? Brown is a hypnotist as well, and he screens for suggestible people. His shows are like live-action psychological experiments.

Interestingly, these marks are kind of like readers of unreliable narrator stories: everyone else is in on the gag except them. I think one thing Brown said that helps illustrate why writers of U.N. stories continue to be baffled and let down (and much more) by their readers’ responses. Harris asked Brown if his cover had ever been blown during filming, making the whole gag go bust? No, Brown said. Because even if a guy is in a restaurant and he goes to the restroom and a hidden camera falls out from behind a curtain, the guy is not going to say, “Oh, hey, this whole restaurant and everyone in it must be actors pretending something massively delusional for my sake.” It’s far too unlikely. Instead, Brown says, they just go, “Oh, hey, that camera’s fallen from behind the curtain.”

In other words, our minds come up with probable explanations for anomalies. And that’s precisely what my comments to students who’ve written U.N. stories look like for the first few pages. Hey, I noticed this odd line. Maybe you meant that instead. I end up embarrassing myself for a few pages with my naïve assumptions and innocent interpretations of odd details, until deep into the story I figure out not the nature of the psychosis necessarily but that there is a game afoot.

Once a reader feels manipulated, it’s hard to recover their trust. It may be best never to test that trust, if you wish to keep it. Caveat: The aims of different genres may differ. Readers of certain genres may be looking to have their expectations tested. Like a certain type of john, they may feel cheated if they’re not toyed with. (What a vulgar analogy!)


As it happens, my single favorite book of all time features a narrator who is completely off his rocker. The book is Thomas McGuane’s The Bushwhacked Piano. This year I read this book for the fifth time, and I have yet to feel manipulated by it once in a way that I did not enjoy. Its protagonist is one Nicholas Payne, and its third-person point of view often operates closely through Payne’s deranged psyche. “He thought: Windex, buffalo, Zaragoza.” But in other places, the narrator assumes a comfortable remove and makes the clear-eyed declaration that Payne is non compos mentis. Several times, in fact. For example, there’s a series of scenes in which Payne believes he sees stray dogs entering the house, drinking from the toilet. In the two single lines preceding the first of these passages, in which the dogs are described via the truthful narrative verisimilitude of Payne’s experience — that is, intruding dogs as really there — McGuane includes the unequivocal line: “When Ann [Payne’s girlfriend] had come home from Europe she found Payne crazy.” After the scene: ” ‘It’s all in your head,’ Ann said. Which was exactly right.”

Excerpt from Thomas McGuane’s THE BUSHWHACKED PIANO. Used without permission.

The Use of Style with Nonstandard Psychology

It’s not likely to be sufficiently clear in the above excerpt alone — that is, independent of the rest of the novel — but there is a stylistic departure within this passage that operates close to Payne’s psyche. The features of this departure are:

  • It employs many short sentences.
  • It’s repetitive (“He was not afraid.” “He was never afraid.” Also: “He kept it clean for them.” “They kept it clean.”)
  • It abandons interest in fluidity of prose (unlike the majority of the work) and employs starkly unadorned declaratives, suggesting a kind of blunted psyche and alienation of mind.
  • It also doesn’t ignore the physical manifestations of mental illness in the protagonist, which often U.N. narratives [sic] are careful to omit. Chiefly: dozing, repeatedly, due to “unspecific exhaustion”; speculated middle ear trouble; whirling; and disorientation.

So presently, my operating theory on unreliability of perception, and thus reportage, in narrators is that, barring a clear distinction between third-person narrator and protagonist, I think there has to be some representation of the psychic breaks in the prose. The narrative is the equivalent of the protagonist’s psyche. Therefore if the psyche is broken, the narrative, the grammar, the spacing, the punctuation, the line breaks, the alignment, the word order, the word use, the diction — something has to be broken. And even when this is employed, some highly suggestive lines that the disordered subject is unwell are in order. This is presently my best advice on the topic.