Updated: May 23, 2022
There’s a device in fiction called an unreliable narrator. An unreliable narrator is a protagonist who we as readers are not entirely sure whether or not we can trust. Maybe she goes on frequent drinking or drug binges and her memory is spotty. Maybe he’s a compulsive liar and we can’t trust anything he says. Maybe they are simply so biased or so flawed that their opinions are a bastardization of reality.
Clever authors use an unreliable narrator to weave an intriguing story. It keeps us on the tip of our toes, perpetually uncertain of what is true. If the writer is good at their craft, we’ll find a reason to root for the unreliable narrator anyway. We’ll find something endearing or charming or hopeful about them and be hopelessly hooked, waiting to see if they come out on top.
I have a friend who is known to exaggerate wildly. I’ve known them long enough that I’ve been there for some of the moments they'll now relay to others as stories. I’ve sat there as they recount a situation to someone else—a situation I was involved in—and I'll think, “That is absolutely not what happened.” At best, it’s a dramatized caricature. At worst, aspects are fabricated completely.
Sometimes I’ll suggest a correction. I'll say, “Well…I don’t think it was quite like that.” But most often, my people pleasing instincts kick in and I just let it slide. (Besides, their version of events is far more interesting.)
As I was talking to them recently, I had a realization: they are a real-life unreliable narrator.
But then another epiphany followed, right on the heels of the first: we all are.
Human perception is inherently imperfect; the way we see the world is both true and not true. Our memories are colored by flaws and biases and traumas, making it impossible to pin down exactly one true version of events. Meaning we are all unreliable narrators. In any given conversation, there are at least two true versions of what is going on.
I might get pissed at my partner because he didn’t respond in the supportive, empathetic way I was hoping for when I told him about a frustrating interaction I just had. He might be annoyed that I didn’t see what a long day he had supporting other people—or he might not understand why the interaction was so frustrating for me.
I might be expecting too much from him. He might be being insensitive. I might be overreacting. He might be being stubborn.
We’re both wrong. And we’re both right.
Of course, some narrators can be more unreliable than others. But in a way, even someone's distorted view of the world is a version of truth. Whatever trauma they've endured has shaped how they participate in relationships. It's tinted their understanding of conversations, tilted their responses. By realizing how they got to where they are now, we are able to see their version of truth. It's hazy—we haven't lived it—but it's there.
The only way to truly see reality is to hold contradictions all at once. And that means fully embracing the shades of gray. This is why black and white thinking (and social media which perpetuates it) can be so damaging. It paints the picture that every argument has one person in the right and one person in the wrong. It leaves no room for nuance, when in reality, all there is is nuance.
An unreliable narrator makes for a fantastic novel. But I don’t want to live the role. Our job as conscious, evolving humans is to clear out our crap so we can see reality with as little bias as possible. The better we can unpack our conditioning and understand ourselves, the clearer we see things—the more reliable a narrator we become.