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Trust me, I’m a narrator

Nov 08, 2019
For as long as he could remember, Henry Hill wanted to be a gangster. Ferris Bueller warned us that life moves pretty fast, and we could miss it if we didn’t stop and look around once in a while. And Raoul Duke was somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold. Film, literature and television are filled with ever-present narrators who guide us through the action. But are these figures always to be believed? Writers, film-makers and even advertisers use narrators to build and break trust with their audiences – to jaw-dropping, hit-making and brand-enhancing effect.

Often in literature, we’re lucky enough to be taken through the tale by a first-person narrator, who welcomes readers inside their head so we can really get to know them. In TV and film however, this isn’t as easy – being able to see the character inevitably leads to some level of detachment. Unless, the film-makers choose to break down the fourth wall. First established in the 19th Century – but made famous by the likes of Woody Allen in Annie Hall and the eponymous hero of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – this technique involves an actor breaking the convention that a wall exists between them and the audience, and most commonly, speaking directly to them. Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Fleabag is a show that’s utilised this to Emmy-award winning effect. Her nameless protagonist turns the audience into her confidantes, sharing her thoughts, feelings and the famous side eye in moments of shared understanding. In a rare interview. Waller Bridge told Tina Fey that the character invited the audience to be her friend, only to feel like they’d got too close – allowing the viewer to experience an entire co-dependent friendship across the two seasons. It’s undoubtedly this level of intimacy that’s made this show such a success – as millions of fans all feel like they’re tuning for a to catch up with their new BFF.
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There’s never any doubt in the trust friends of Fleabag have in her, but in many other cases, our protagonists aren’t quite so dependable. Defined as a storyteller who’s ‘credibility has been seriously compromised’, the unreliable narrator crops up in many a tale – predominantly twisty, turny, suspense-filled plots that audiences can’t get enough of. Fight Club and the Usual Suspects are two renowned examples – revealing the extent of the character’s unreliability in the final shocking moments of the film – while the girls of Gone Girl and Girl on the Train both lure readers down unsuspecting paths. And most recently, Mr Robot’s Elliot and the Joker’s Arthur Fleck prove they’re not to be trusted by withholding key information about their past, or showing viewers scenes that existed only in their head.

These examples all represent the most common unreliable narrator: an individual with a compromised mental state. Yet sometimes, their unreliability comes from a different angle. Emma Donoghue’s prize winning Room is written through the eyes of a child who’s spent his entire life held captive in a room with his mother. With no comprehension of the world that lies outside, his view of the horrific situation is misleadingly positive – a sentiment that dominates in the book. In the film however, we see more of his mother’s experience, revealing the trauma that she does her utmost to shield her son from. While both stories are told from the child’s perspective, the film undoubtedly offers a more realistic narration – making for an entirely different experience of the story.
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Writers and directors have a licence to trick their audience – it’s all part of the fun of reading or watching the story unfold. Marketers however, don’t have this luxury. A consumer needs to have absolute trust in a brand to invest in their product or service – so when advertisers employ a narrator, they need to make sure it’s a figure audiences can have faith in. It could be a micro-influencer who really believes in the product they’re promoting (see Audible’s partnership with photographer Jesse Driftwood); real-life city dwellers encouraging travellers to experience their town like a local (i.e. Air BnB’s ‘Live There’ Instagram campaign), or even a voice artist with the credible, trustworthy and believable tones to suit a brand. With the right individual, your brand can become as beloved by a consumer as the most treasured narrators of our time.