Unreliable Narrator

In literature, stories can be told by characters who are part of the story or an omniscient narrator who knows everything. Characters are not only agents and actors of plot, but witnesses to plot. If the witness account, however, is unreliable, then the author can deceive the reader. Typically the unreliable narrator is the account of a character telling the story in first-person. A famous example of this is the narrator Humbert Humbert in Lolita. But it can also be achieved in third person narration when only a limited point of view is used.

Third person limited means that despite third person use, the narrator limits himself to only revealing what a certain character knows, a point of view. This already enables the author to hide certain information. But that alone does not make the witness unreliable, just uninformed. As a reader you know as much as the character does and with time both your knowledge increases. This only works with the premisse that the third person limited at least gives an objective account of all the possible information that is available to them in that moment, even if the character has a subjective reaction to it. When even the third person limited account is not objective anymore, then we have a third person unreliable narrator.

Epic Fantasy usually follows the adventures and accounts of several third person limited point of views. The reader can then amass all available information together of each point of view, and knows more than each separate narrator. The reader becomes omniscient. But George has made almost every point of view an unreliable narrator in some way or another.

Unreliable narrators in literature can be classified as:

  • The Picarro: the bragger or narrator who exaggerates, like Baron von Munchhausen
  • The Madman: the narrator suffers from a disorder that includes having dillusions, hallucinations or paranoia, but also temporary dissociation because of trauma. Example: Patrick Bateman of American Psycho or the narrator in Fight Club.
  • The Clown: the narrator is not serious and consciously plays with expectations, truth and conventions
  • The Naïf: the character is immature or mentally impaired, like Forrest Gump or Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird
  • The Liar: a character of sound mind deliberately misrepresents himself to obscure unethical or criminal conduct, like Humbert Humbert of Lolita

With some of the unreliable viewpoints in aSoIaF, some narrators can display more than just of the above. Theon for example starts as a bragger, then becomes a liar (see for example the passage of Farlen’s execution in aCoK), but eventually becomes a madman who has memory lapses in Winterfell. Bran, Arya and Sansa all fall in the naïf category, but Sansa also has some of the unconscious liar in that she alters her memory of events. Cersei’s narcissism and paranoia make her a liar and madman.

As a reader it is important to be aware of the extent of the unreliability of the viewpoint, because if you accept that narrator as telling the truth or his or her information at face value, George will succeed in deceiving you, the reader. He is a mistery writer and he does not hand you the truth on a platter.