Can You Trust Unreliable Narrators?

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Everyone who’s ever played a childhood game of telephone knows that a story is only as good as the person telling it. Books function similarly. The plot only moves in the direction the narrator takes it. And the narrator’s perspective moves with it – you can’t separate the two. So the question begs itself: can you trust narrators?

The answer to this question is part of the allure of reading. Not only do you get to live somewhere else for a while, but also as someone else. In my opinion, the best-written books are those that make the reader not only sympathize with the protagonist, but also think like them. Or, if the protagonist isn’t the narrator, maybe there’s a unique tension between the two. 

In this week’s article, I’m talking about the different types of unreliable narrators you might meet in your bookish journey.

1. Snarky Narrators

This narrator could be the eccentric neighbor next door, or even the mean girl at school. Whoever they are, they’re almost always characterized by a very sarcastic tone depicting ironic situations. Their motive might be affected by their own daily frustrations – or maybe something deeper like feelings of inadequacy or imposter syndrome. No one ever takes them seriously in conversations, which breeds resentment and contempt. They put up walls, making them difficult to empathize with. Their power comes from the reader buying everything they say, until the end of the story when all is revealed. 

2. Villainous Narrators

Simply enough, this one is the antagonist to your main character. A common way to distort their motives is to provide a tragic backstory that might give the reader conflicting opinions about them. The villainous narrator is the epitome of a love-hate situation. Maybe the reader hates them but also secretly admires their dedication to avenging the death of a family member. Because they are so fixated, they have blinders on (Dr. Doofenshmirtz, I’m looking at you). Common characteristics of these narrators may include extreme jealousy, feelings of superiority, and a (twisted) moral obligation to right wrongs. 

3. Rose-Colored Glasses Narrator

This narrator can do no wrong – except when it comes to telling the story how it really happened. Common examples of this include happy-go-lucky teenagers who haven’t yet been hardened by the world. My personal favorite example would be Sue Heck from ABC’s The Middle. This type of narrator is unwilling to accept defeat, choosing to see the bright side of everything. Once the reader notes this tendency, it can be easy to see the clouds forming above. It’s a nice vibe, but largely inaccurate in the long run. You can use this to illustrate points about how mental health matters, or how it’s hard to feel like the only unicorn in a field of horses. You can’t trust this one not because they’re inherently “bad” like the villain. Actually, they’re so inherently good, they can’t see the bad for what it is.

4. Conniving Narrator

This one, quite literally, is trying to sway you. Maybe they lean a bit close to the villainous category, or they’re trying to cover up a crime they committed. They might also be the most frightening, because they are fully aware of the reader, maybe even speaking to them directly. They are seen most commonly in psychological thrillers, and can be a really effective way to make the reader uncomfortable. You can’t trust them because they purposely are trying to manipulate you, for reasons that won’t likely be revealed until the story is almost over (if at all). But out of all the narrators listed here, they’re definitely the most intriguing – because they have more depth than all of them. It’s not a personal shortcoming that has them wearing blinders; it’s actually a purposeful control tactic.

5. Naive Narrator

Also known as, every protagonist in every Young Adult or Middle-Grade book ever. These kinds of stories are often presented in the first person, so you really are inside their head. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to scream at a character for being so convinced the love interest didn’t like them back even though it’s so obvious they did. It’s a salty mix of being a little petty and a little inexperienced, all rolled into one adolescent brew. That being said, there are obviously plenty of naive adult characters, but this trend seems much more common under eighteen. To read more about the Young Adult genre, read this article HERE. 

This list is completely non-exhaustive, and there very well may be more that I didn’t cover here. But hopefully, this gives you a good sense of what you might come across in your next read. That way, you can identify what kind of narrator you’re relying on, and how much of their drivel you actually want to believe. 

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 


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