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Unreliable narration refers to a narrative that cannot be trusted to give an accurate representation of events, due to the limitations or biases of the narrator. When using an omniscient narrator, I am wondering if it's still possible to make the narration unreliable since the omniscient narrator is all-knowing. Is there a way to make it work with the both of them at the same time, or do I need to use a different narrator who is not omniscient?

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    Nitpick: Careful! "Omnipotent" means "all-powerful." It's "omniscient" that means "all-knowing." So you're talking about the omniscient point of view. Mar 13, 2023 at 4:15
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    Just because the narrator is omnipotent and omniscient, it doesn't necessarily mean he thinks others are meant (or ready) to know the whole truth. It is common in many stories for all-knowing beings speaking in riddles, or deliberately telling half-truths which are misunderstood at the beginning, and only understood later when the circumstances are right and the context is revealed.
    – vsz
    Mar 13, 2023 at 6:29
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    The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie is interesting in that regard. It’s partially narrated by a God who can only speak the truth.
    – Michael
    Mar 13, 2023 at 13:40
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    What do you want to accomplish? Is the omniscient narrator here a character that you want to develop via this technique? And/or do you want the reader to question and sift through the information they get to figure things out? And/or something else?
    – usul
    Mar 13, 2023 at 15:59
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    Your last sentence gives you an option where the narrator is omniscient and unreliable BUT NOT a liar per se. The narrator can weasel his/her/its way around the truth by employing/quoting other persons. Like, "there is large number of people who can confirm that the Earth is flat." Could be that the narrator is trying to be funny. Or is sarcastic in a way the reader won't understand at first.
    – Klaws
    Mar 14, 2023 at 10:10

10 Answers 10

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That's easy. Part of your narration gets shoved into dialog of some kind. It lets you put in exactly as much truth as you need, and as much false info as you like, and leave out stuff that is dramatically useful to leave out.

Example from the book series "The Three Body Problem": The "bad guys" play a multi-player video game. In the video game they encounter the approaching aliens and receive their instructions on how to subvert human culture. The video game depicts a variety of details about the aliens. But, since it's a video game, not the narrator, that is telling us these things, there is no way to know for sure that the descriptions of the aliens are correct. And especially no way to know if they are complete.

Example from any of a large category of detective fiction and crime fiction: We get witness testimony rather than what a narrator is telling us. This is the POV of the detective, so it's a frequent approach for such stories.

Example from Shakespeare's play "Hamlet": When Hamlet is trying to get his uncle to confess to killing Hamlet's father, the recently deceased king, he uses a travelling troupe of actors. They put on a play depicting one method the uncle could have used to do the killing. Hamlet hopes it will "rattle" his uncle enough that guilt will become apparent in the uncle's behavior. This has become a trope and has been stolen and used in many other situations. For example, it was a big part of an episode of the original series of Star Trek.

There are lots of other related ways to get info in through unreliable means. The grandfather tells a story, his faulty memory giving you your required gaps. The priest relates a parable, his imagery providing you your required "fig leaf." The young child sneaking out at night relates what he saw to his friend, with the teacher eavesdropping and hearing only what the story requires. Even a fragment of a newspaper story can be used.

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There is another way, but I would usually call it cheating. That is, break the fourth wall. The narrator comes right out and tells you he's not going to tell you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

It's perfectly reasonable in video games. The narrator may say something like "you won't be told that until level 6" or some such. There is the "the cake is a lie" trope from a famous video game. And there are a huge variety of things where you don't get to look behind some barrier until you unlock a feature. Maybe the reward for bringing the king his "three bags of fine silk" is explicitly the answer to some nagging questions.

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    +1 good answer. Just because there is a narrator doesn't mean you have to get the entire story from the narrator.
    – jtb
    Mar 13, 2023 at 4:07
  • I like it, too. The omniscient narrator can relate the basic facts, but the dialog of the unreliable characters can drive the story.
    – Wastrel
    Mar 13, 2023 at 17:18
  • Don't be playing games with the pronouns in my answer. I said king and I meant king.
    – Boba Fit
    Mar 14, 2023 at 13:23
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    The edit history of your answer shows that no one else edited it, so I do not know what games you are referring to.
    – Obie 2.0
    Mar 15, 2023 at 8:10
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First of all, you are talking about omniscience (all-knowing), not omnipotence (all-powerful).

Now, how do we make an omniscient being unreliable? The way I see it, that can only be possible if the narrator is intentionally misrepresenting the story. Omniscient beings presumably can lie, and they can do so while telling a story. You just have to come up with a reason for the narrator to want to lie to the reader...

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    The omniscient point of view is typically not the point of view of an omniscient character in the story--but rather the author of the narrative telling the reader any information she likes regardless of the limitations of the knowledge and circumstances of the characters in the story. Mar 13, 2023 at 4:19
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    @JamesGrossmann: IMHO that's still workable. You can have the author intentionally misrepresenting or obfuscating the story, if the author is also a character in the story (or, more precisely, a character outside of the story). But that is too meta for some readers. See for example A Series of Unfortunate Events.
    – Kevin
    Mar 13, 2023 at 6:50
  • @Kevin: Yes, but if the reader doesn't have access to all of the things that the author knows, then the point of view is not omniscient. Mar 14, 2023 at 4:22
  • @JamesGrossmann: By that standard, no story has an omniscient point of view. Does the author need to tell you the material that the protagonist's shoes are made of? What about the color of the upholstery? Etc.
    – Kevin
    Mar 14, 2023 at 15:17
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    @JamesGrossmann: That's not what I was getting at. The omniscient point of view also does not imply the inclusion of details that are relevant to the story. It merely implies that the narrator is aware of those details. Whether the narrator chooses to share them is a matter of characterization (to the extent the author bothers characterizing such a narrator at all).
    – Kevin
    Mar 17, 2023 at 4:55
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The Narrator has Reasons

Using Unreliable Narrator makes the narrator a character. Like all characters, the narrator has bias, opinions, agency, etc. They choose (or are by nature, or are forced, or whatever) to be Unreliable because it is part of their character.

An omniscient narrator who is also unreliable is lying to the reader. The author needs to very clearly understand why this character is choosing to lie, and needs write a character consistent to that choice.

So, an Omniscient Narrator can be Unreliable, but you need to clearly answer: "Why are they Unreliable?"

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    "The Doctor lies" comes to mind... by virtue of omniscience the narrator may know they need to lie...
    – Michael
    Mar 14, 2023 at 16:07
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Most Unreliable narrators are 1st person narrators and thus are characters in the story. In written works, they usually leave out critical details in a story or overly rely on contradictory actions and narrations. For example, in "The Cask of Amontillado, the narrator, Montressor, is telling the reader the story of how he killed Fortunato by entombing him in a crypt. From the onset of the story, the narrator informs us about how we should know he is an honest man, even though we have no prior interactions with him. Generally, when meeting a new person, honesty is assumed until given reason to doubt. Thus, a stranger insisting to us that he is honest while introducing himself for the first time, it sets off red flags. As the story continues, the behavior of Fortunato does not match with Montressor's insitances, namely Montressor tells the reader that Fortunato's fate was done in revenge for a prior injury or humiliation Fortunato inflicted on Montressor. Not only does Montressor fail to go into specifics, but rather insists we take his word for it and if we did know we would agree he was in the right, but his interaction with Fortunato implies that Fortunato's slight was so minor that Fortunato was not aware of the implied imminent doom, despite the fact that someone who did something actually worthy of revenge murder would have misgivings about being alone in a tomb with someone who is proud of the family motto "Don't tread on me with impunity". Despite this, Fortunato acts like a man who is unaware of the intents of Montressor. While Montressor is never shown to be a liar, and is honest in that he planned to kill Fortunato, the fact that he insists he's honest to strangers, that he refuses to tell us of how bad Fortunato was, and that he can't even give Fortunato a portrayal that tracks with the back story leaves us to doubt everything that Montressor is telling us is completely true.

In visual media where it's easy to show a character narrating and using words with definitions that match the visual elements, but not the connotations. For example, in "How I Met Your Mother" the narrator is an older version of the character Ted Mosbey who is explaining to his kids stories from his life before he met his wife and their mother and how they would lead to that outcome. He would often "sanitize" his stories from crass language or actions that he doesn't want his kids to do, even though he did them in the past. One example is that anytime he and his friends are smoking weed, Future Ted will insist that they were "eating Sandwiches" which in the present-day action, gets portrayed as the characters, holding big hoagie sandwiches while acting high. This became a recurring gag and at one point they make "Sandwich Brownies." Other time's the character would sub-innocuously similar words and remind the kids that he's avoiding the harsher language. In one example, he uses the word "kiss" for the f-word. Initially it fits the story (Ted makes up with a woman he was dating and Barney, in the background, starts chanting "Kiss her! Kiss Her!" only for the narrator to cut in to remind everyone that Barney wasn't actually using the word "kiss".).

In another Christmas episode, Ted calls a female friend "a Grinch" while the narrator states that he didn't say Grinch (it's implied to be the C word). The "grinch term is used in this context for much of the episode until Ted meets with a 5 year old girl who calls him "a grinch" at which point the narrator out that, in this instance, the girl was actually using the word Grinch... and then later the children all start chanting Grinch after Ted uses it in it's substituted context. And the narrator has to remind us they weren't really saying Grinch (the look of horror of the adults in this scene implied this already.).

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Have you considered the 'Oracle of Delphi' technique? The Oracle is omniscient, knowing the future, but always tells the precise truth in ambiguous and misleading terms so that the hero misunderstands. That can add interest over and above the simple 'the narrator lies' approach, through the clever way the misunderstanding is revealed and resolved. There is an 'Aha!' moment as the reader discovers that the Oracle was telling the truth after all, and often it was the influence of the misunderstood prophecy itself that led to it coming true.

How you justify that depends on the specific nature of your omniscient narrator. If they are non-human (divine, alien, AI, living in the void outside the universe, etc.), you can justify it by saying they don't think in human narrative terms. They don't pay attention to the same things to identify or describe events or people. They talk in terms of the things that are relevant to their alien worldview - taking people and events as symbolic of deeper causes and narratives, or how it relates to their own goals. An omniscient being would perceive details you wouldn't notice, and see deep significance in things you would ignore, and would likewise leave out details they don't consider important but you would. Or it may be there are things they are not allowed to tell you - there are laws, or cultural taboos, or (especially when telling the future) it breaks causality.

Another way to obfuscate a narrative is to have it expressed in allegories and sayings from an alternative history that you only gradually pick up the meanings of. Like "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" - a phrase from an episode of Star Trek where an alien race talks entirely in terms taken from their own myths and legends. If you don't know the legend, the allegory is completely opaque. When the story is later revealed, the reader mentally jumps back and connects the dots. Or you can use words picked up from alternate languages, like we use borrowed foreign words. The narrator speaks the truth, but of course coming from another culture, they use their own language to do it. We're all pretty good at picking up the meaning of language from context, we even get a dopamine hit from the learning process, but it can easily be used to delay understanding.

You need to be careful about maintaining the balance between making it interestingly mysterious and it becoming just incomprehensible and unreadable. You have to be careful not to flag the plot twist by the choice of what you hide. You should still take care to make the plot twists clever and significant for the moral or message of the story, and not just use it as a cheap fill-in-the-blanks-later exercise. And this sort of game appeals to highly intelligent puzzle-oriented readers, but might easily appear a pretentious or over-clever gimmick to a more mass-market audience. Know your readers.

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Unreliable narrators and omniscient point of view are incompatible. Narrators with limitations imposed by bias, circumstance, knowledge, or emotions are, by definition, not omniscient.

If you have an unreliable narrator, you can only write what that narrator knows, believes, perceives, feels, or understands.

Omniscient narrators used to be a lot more popular in fiction than they are now. One problem with omniscient narrators is that they make it difficult to surprise the reader. Nowadays, first person and third person limited point of view are more popular. The reader only gets to know what "I" or "he" or "she" knows.

Unreliable narration can be written in either first or third person.

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  • How is an omniscient narrator immune to bias or emotions? Mar 16, 2023 at 23:49
  • @Captain Delano: By dint of its having knowledge of all true things. Bias and emotions are things that can limit knowledge or prompt belief in falsehoods. An omniscient narrator has no such limitations. Mar 17, 2023 at 4:38
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Drink.

That'll do it, wouldnt it?

Ok, im being a smartass, and deserved to be ignored. But in all seriousness, an unreliable writer could write in the omniscient voice and the reader wouldnt be able to count on the accuracy in universe of what they wrote.

And of course, omniscience doesnt imply honesty, an effective ability to communicate, or even persistence. So one could write an omniscient narrator who gets interrupted, one who's narrative is incomplete, one whos motivated to mislead the reader, or one who's just plain bad at saying things without confusing his audience.

Imagine, for example, a contemporary sci fi writer telling a story involving relativistic time distortion to an ancient greek, or melded post-singularity uni-mind explaining events to a person without the names of individuals, because personal names are totally pointless to it.

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A possible way around this would be to use a narrator who gave an imprecise narrative that was open to interpretation that could mean different things to different people, or in different circumstances. Or which left room for loopholes or out of the box thinking.

For example, the narrator could describe an advisory as being "unstoppable by the hand of man and all of the implements that he may devise".

This could be interpreted as meaning that they're un-killable, thus undefeatable.

But the hero could outsmart them and get them to use their own weapons against themselves. Or they could simply talks to the advisory and stops them with a well thought out argument.

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  • Or the narrator is not who you they seem to be at first
    – Kevin
    Mar 15, 2023 at 18:14
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First, I'm going to give a reminder of something important about using an unreliable narrator that several answerers seem to forget.

For a story with an unreliable narrator to work, the reader needs to know the narrator wasn't telling them the truth. Otherwise, you don't have an unreliable narrator, you have a story that happened exactly as your narrator claims. (It's fiction. No real events to check against. The story stands as told.)

So you absolutely can't have your unreliable narrator pull off a successful lie from the beginning to end. Either they need to be caught by the reader, with enough clues to figure out what's really going on, or they have to admit themself at some point that what they said before wasn't really right, or you invite multiple narrators who will correct or at least contradict each other.

Generally speaking, a narrator can be unreliable in several different ways.

  • The narrator is mistaken or misinformed;
  • the narrator is lying;
  • the narrator is leaving out a key fact, but all they actually say is true;
  • the narrator is truthful about the facts, but their value judgment is off.

What I mean by the last is best shown by Monty Python:

Brave Sir Robin ran away,
bravely ran away, away.
When danger reared its ugly head,
he bravely turned his tail and fled.

Clearly, a narrator being misinformed is not compatible with omniscience, but the other three are possible.

Omniscience doesn't necessarily mean ability to make up a plausible lie. The narrator can end up contradicting themself, correcting themself repeatedly and unconvincingly, even eventually give up. And maybe they're being made to lie, and they definitely want to appear to be trying, but at the same time hint at the actual truth. Omniscience also doesn't necessarily rule out making weird value judgments, either because your narrator operates on a blue-and-orange morality worldview, or because they just say what Brave Sir Robin, who's paying them, wants to hear.

Omitting a key fact in order to mislead the audience until said key fact is revealed later and the reader has to reevaluate everything they thought they knew is an old, well tested method. Your narrator can hold on to that fact for dramatic impact, or you can work with the setup that it's something that's known to their intended audience without any need to mention, but your reader isn't who the narrator is telling the story to. Just remember - if you don't straightup tell, you need to give hints so that the reader catches up at some point.

In the former cases, you'll probably need to flesh the narrator out as a full character with personality and motivation. If you go the way of simply omitting a fact and revealing it later, then you can even do it with the ghost without personality that's the more traditional kind of an omniscient narrator.

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I have two answers, depending on the type of narrator utilized.

First, you may be referring to an omniscient narrator as in, a character in the story who is omniscient. Either that, or you are referring to a third person omniscient perspective, which makes use of multiple unique perspectives from different characters in the story, each bound by their own knowledge and perceptions.

If you are using an omniscient narrator from within the boundaries of your story, then making the narrator unreliable is really simple. For whatever reason, make the narrator not tell the whole truth, even though he is cognizant of it. If he is truly omniscient, then he will be aware of the entirety of any situation within your story, and if he is to be an unreliable narrator, that means that he has to speak in half-truths, intentionally obscuring information for a reason that you as the writer can create.

If you are using a third person omniscient perspective, that is entirely different. Basically, this is the equivalent of an omniscient narrator outside of the story, showing the reader what is happening through the third-person lenses of multiple characters. Basically, the 'outside narrator' knows everything going on in the story but the characters inside the story do not. This perspective is quite versatile because then you can reveal select parts of the story to your reader without having the hidden agenda of an inside omniscient narrator.

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