Characters are often one of the elements of fiction (and sometimes nonfiction) that make or break a story for readers. It remains unspoken but is generally known that characters, as it is with acquaintances, should be varied in appearance and personality to remain interesting. Unreliable narrators are only one out of the many kinds of characters that inhabit the fictional domain. Who are they, and what makes a character fall under this classification?
Unreliable narrators are characters whose account of events cannot be trusted due to biased beliefs or thwarted worldviews. To identify them among a cast of characters, Michael Smith suggests readers to compare the narrator’s speech and actions, tally it with the story’s facts, and consider what they know of the story’s world. Perhaps as an attestation to their popularity is the existence of different types of unreliable narrators (9 of them, according to Writers Write). A few well-known examples include Mrs. de Winter from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Nick Carraway from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Nina Sayers from Darren Aronofsky’s film Black Swan.
The appeal of unreliable narrators can be difficult to explain, especially to those who are unfamiliar with them. How do you let the world know that you enjoy fictional characters who are shifty, mysterious, and potentially horrendous to deal with if they had existed in the world we live in?
That’s the question I’ll be attempting to answer here.
It’s undeniable that when done right, unreliable narrators can add a point of tension or drama to the story. When a character’s motives are questionable, it naturally brings up questions: Why are they acting like they are? What is true and what is not? It requires the reader to participate in the story, to objectively take in the facts and different elements in the story in order to come up with a conclusion of their own. This is similar to instances in crime fiction, where readers are presented with a mystery and can attempt to solve it along with the characters and throughout the progression of the story. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that reading, no matter it being fiction or nonfiction, can stimulate critical thinking and can help readers gain a richer understanding of the world we live in.
Furthermore, unreliable narrators could be key to making a story less predictable. Having an unreliable narrator in the forefront of the story can mean that key truths are tampered with or left untold. This means that once again, readers will need to actively take part in the story and attempt to see through the eyes of the narrator while also considering viewpoints different from it. It was found that the more the readers could generate imagery while reading, the more they displayed empathy and prosocial behaviour, which could lead to a potential growth in empathy. While doing this, the reader could possibly discover different truths in the story based on their individual interpretations. If a story is told entirely through a single narrator’s point-of-view, this makes things more exciting, because the reader wouldn’t be capable of gaining insight into “accurate” perspectives other characters may have.
An example that comes to mind is Xie Lian from Heaven Official’s Blessings. Being a crown prince who has been thrown into the depths of despair time and time again, Xie Lian has gotten to a point where he handles life’s challenges and surprises with grace (mostly). Readers will soon discover that Xie Lian’s observations are biased when it comes to Hua Cheng, a mysterious ghost. While Xie Lian may present Hua Cheng as a charming and mischievous individual, this may not be the same case for the victims of Hua Cheng’s threats. It doesn’t help that Xie Lian’s thoughts and feelings aren’t fully at the reader’s disposal. Throughout the book, there are many instances where he doesn’t share what he knows with the audience or with anyone else, for that matter. At a casual glance, it may seem as if he is an innocent and serene character, when that cannot be further from the truth.
Moreover, the existence of unreliable narrators challenges the trust between the storyteller and reader. It’s a relationship where the author or storyteller possesses the authority to intentionally conceal information from the reader. By including an unreliable narrator in the story, would it be fair to say the storyteller is, by extension, unreliable as well? After all, points-of-view and narration are tools for writers to fully utilise in their craft. Sometimes it’s not that narrators are deliberately twisting the truth. It should also be considered that they truly believe in the facts they are speaking, and that it is the truth to them, even if it may be false for the rest of the fictional world they reside in.
To sum things up, unreliable narrators can be a fun addition to a story because they add suspense to a plot, make a storyline more unpredictable, and dares the reader to question their belief in the author or narrator. It is through this way that the reader manages to be an active participant in the story itself, potentially enhancing the engagement the reader experiences within the story. And there we have it, a few reasons why there’s more that meets the eye when it comes to fictional characters such as these. Whether you like them or not, these characters can add value to the reading experience when created by masterful writers. With the vast array of characters out there, are there any character tropes that you favour?
Written by: Jia Xuan