Fiction thrives on spectacle and deceit. We’re intrigued by a protagonist who lies. The narcissist, whose egotism obscures alternative viewpoints, is greeted enthusiastically in the world of film and literature. We marvel at the sleight of hand, if pulled off adeptly.
Unreliable narrator is the term writers use to describe a narrator or protagonist who is—well—unreliable. First coined by literary critic, Wayne C. Booth, the unreliable narrator’s thoughts and actions are suspect. He is the con artist who spins a tale based on trickery and guile. The naïve child. The psychopath. The madwoman possessed. In art, it’s called trompe l’oeil–literally, “deceives the eye,” and is illustrated by this Pere Borrel del Caso painting.
In real life, we don’t expect the financier to purposefully leave us a trail of breadcrumbs leading to his Ponzi scheme. Russian hackers aren’t televising their activities. It was decades before we learned the identify of Watergate’s Deep Throat. But in fiction, the author must clue us in, however subtly. We’re likely to feel duped if we find out on the last page that the entire narrative was a dream. My mother, an avid mystery reader, used to complain about writers who withheld crucial details, making it impossible to solve the crime along with the detective.
Even in fiction, it felt like cheating.
One of my favorite examples of an unreliable narrator is Nabokov’s Lolita. Humbert Humbert is a middle-aged professor obsessed with the twelve-year-old Lolita. Along the way, it becomes profoundly clear that his professed love for her—despite Humbert’s well-formed rationalizations—is beyond creepy. So believable is his delusion, the novel was banned.
Perhaps Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl works so well because the reader is never sure whether the unreliable narrator is Nick. Or his wife, Amy. Or Amy’s diary.
On the other hand, a novel or movie based on a true story needs to get the historical details correct. Otherwise, we’re likely to feel scammed, manipulated.
I’m reminded of the 2014 movie, The Imitation Game, about code-breaker and mathematician Alan Turing. There was so much about the movie—crucial details—that were misplaced in time, outright distortions, misrepresentations. While casually fact-checking, I discovered the deceptions. Twisting the truth beyond what’s necessary for dramatic effect leaves us feeling betrayed.
There are rules. Even at the movies.
But real life isn’t the same as a story. In real life, omitting crucial details so as to manipulate the truth is not simply unreliable, it constitutes a lie. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons many of us are lately feeling so angry, wondering whose country we’re living in.
Ultimately in fiction–or real life—it’s consequential that we discern the unreliable narrator. Because lies matter. And so does the truth.