Thirteen Reasons Why; unreliable narration, constant progression, and mental illness in fiction.

You can’t discuss 13 Reasons Why, the book, or the hit show, without nodding to the discourse that surrounds it – this much is a given.

Everyone from the guardian to Tumblr users has said something about it, and it generally goes something like this;

  • It’s a revenge fantasy
  • It legitimatises suicide
  • It lays the blame at the feet of others unfairly
  • It glamorises the reality of it.

And all but one of these points are bar one, bullshit in my opinion. 13 Reasons Why is a revenge fantasy, but that has much to do with the type of character Hannah Baker is; she’s a dramatic, hurt, intelligent, sensitive, and very ill young woman, but (this is key) I don’t think she was mentally ill, not in the clinical, irreversible sense.

Anyone who has watched the suicide scene would be hard pushed to say it glamorises suicide, and if they do they’re talking shit. It’s unpleasant to watch, it hurts, it’s definitely trauma porn; it hooks you by being too awful to bear, and if 13 Reasons Why has a real Achilles heel it’s that it exploits the romantic-tragedy view that modern society already holds regarding depression and suicide.

13 Reasons Why is not pleasant, it’s not fun, and it’s ugly; that’s the way it should be. The theme, for those in the know, might as well be “there but for the Grace of God go I”. 

There but for the grace of God would have gone I (if that makes sense). When the support mechanisms aren’t in place when people are lonely and desperate when trauma is heaped on cruelty suicide can often be the result, and as a person, I’m sick of seeing people who lose their fight with bad situation classed as selfish, weak, or attention-seeking. There but for the grace of God… that’s what anyone who has been depressed thinks when they see this, what anyone who has loved someone who is severely depressed thinks when they see that scene.

As a person I want to tell you all that when you read articles saying that this shunts blame from the victim to others, that its glamorising, is this; watch it. This is a narrative about a young girl who loses her struggle not because she is weak, and not because of small cruelties, but because all of the small unkindness’s were compacted by the fact that she witnessed and then experienced herself, the reality of rape. Sometimes people are to blame for suicide, and very often it’s not only the person who holds the blade.


As a writer, this isn’t what I’m here to talk about (I could have fooled you, right?). I’m here to talk about the two things that were undeniably spot on in this story; the structure, and the use of an unreliable narrator.


Constant Progression

Narrative progression is key, in fact, it makes the story, but you’d be surprised how many would be writers don’t realise this. Even academic writers (sometimes especially) have a tendency to forget how key pacing is; some stories can daunder, but most must be swift and relentless to keep the reader. Jay Asher, author of 13 Reasons Why got this so right that it brings a tear of happiness to my eye just thinking about it. They key is in constant progression throughout all elements of the plot. By this, I mean that when Hannah’s story slows, Clay’s picks up the slack, and vice versa; the past and present move so well together in this book (and in the series) that they push and pull almost imperceptibly. There is no harshness to the sudden leaps forward, and the transitions to the past are more often than not seamless, but they move the story forward.

I could rant for hours on how poor use of flashbacks ruins perfectly acceptable fiction beyond repair, but instead, I’ll say this; this is how you do it. If the reader must move back in time, the contents of the flashback should move the story forward. The only acceptable flashbacks are those which add to the story. Sadly for lovers of Austin the trend today is for lean, efficient writing that cuts to the bone of matters even when it sounds flowery ( a la Kevin Powers) so if you are writing to be published you may want to at least grasp the basics of this style before wandering away from it. Here’s how it works;

  • Gap in knowledge
  • Flashback fills the gap
  • Clay reacts
  • Gap in knowledge

And so on. Even when you move backward in time, you must progress in the narrative if you want to create a story that keeps the readers’ full interest. From an editorial standpoint you should be asking only one question to get this effect; “does this scene fill a gap?”

If it doesn’t, if the scene repeats knowledge, if you lose nothing by losing the scene, cut it out entirely.


The Unreliable Narrator

I can tell you that Hannah Baker is a subtle, but quintessential unreliable narrator, and this is only exacerbated by the fact that she is deceased during the entirety of the narrative, but first I want to rewind.

“Do you think it [13 Reasons] shows mental illness well?” 

A friend asked me this after we discussed the show; she had watched the show, I had read the book and we switched.

No, I don’t think it does, but not due to a fault in the writers’ execution. This may be controversial, but I’ll repeat it; I don’t think Hannah Baker, as a character, was mentally ill, and I don’t think Clay Jensen’s mental deterioration was caused by his implied pre-existing illness.

They were children, even at 17 and 18, who were dealing with things they never should have had to, and this affected their mental health. But I don’t believe that this book represents mental illness well, because what it represents is the justified distress and trauma that shitty people doing shitty things can cause to young people who are still finding their way

What this book does represent well is the myriad of ways in which mental health can be affected by things like loneliness, guilt, fear, shame, and bullying. Even a “sane” person will become paranoid in certain circumstances if they are exceptional.

Hannah Baker’s circumstances were exceptional, and so they destabilised her. Through the narrative, we see glimpses of her unreliability; the claim that Zach threw away her letter when he, in fact, had it in his wallet all along, for one. Asher deserves a medal, in my opinion, because Hannah is the perfect unreliable narrator for a few reasons. She was young, she was pretty, she’s dead, and, by all accounts, she was badly treated. We want to believe everything she says, even when some of her closest friends note her tendency to be over-dramatic; Tony Padilla, guardian of the tapes, so to speak, notes that if she was to be believed he was the only boy at their school who had not groped her or stared at her breasts.

Poor Tony, I could write a whole article on how he represents the ever safe “Gay Best Friend” whose female friends use him as a safety blanket… but I won’t. Let’s skip that with the statement that I believe he’s the real hero of this story.


And yet, Tony also states that the tapes, the reasons, were “her truth”, and this is the kernel of genius in Ashers character building; Hannah is unapologetic about every dramatic thought, every “why me” moment, and though many are 100% legitimate (the circulation of her picture, Courtney’s betrayal, Bryce’s rapes, yes plural), some are petty, but she explains why they are important to her. These reasons are her truth, but they gloss over the vindictive nature of what she has done, or she does. Because as far as unreliable narrators go, Hannah Baker is a perfect specimen.


Mental health, deterioration, and the Scapegoat

What has she done?

She’s scapegoated, of course, she’s given up a sacrificial lamb, but the magic is this; it’s not anyone on the list. Each person on that list did wrong her in some way, mull it over and I’m sure you’ll agree, even if it was in some minor way. The lesson, overtly, is that small action matter so much more than you think, especially to someone who is already struggling.

The scapegoat isn’t her counselor, either. After all, he’s on the list; he was overwhelmed, yes, but he picked up on the seriousness of her situation. It’s not even Clay, who’s only slight (SPOILER) was to walk away when she asked him.


The scapegoat is Tony. Poor, beleaguered Tony who arrived at the scene, who was tasked with keeping her secrets and executing her Machiavellian plan. When critics tell you that this narrative unfairly blames others for suicide and frames it as a reasonable choice you can tell them that they’re almost right; all the people on the list failed Hannah, but Hannah failed Tony by letting him take the blame and burden on himself because she knew he would.

She did not knock on his door, but left the tapes and walked away, she left him to care for her parents, her plan, and to grieve her because she knew that he would do it all to the detriment of his mental health. That’s why Clay was on the list, too; she knew the story would hurt and unhinge the boy who loved her so much that he would have to act. You can see the deterioration in both boys, in different ways; Tony grinds down slowly, breaking only when Hannah’s mother presents him with her mind-map (SPOILER; this is a scrap of paper where she lays out all the people she feels have wronged her before recording the tapes. Those circled have a tape, those crossed out are off the metaphorical hook, and Tony is in the margins with a question mark by his name).


This brings Tony down because he has finally run into something that he has no explanation for; she planned for everything, but not this. The question of how she could have even considered him for the list breaks him down, and he talks to his boyfriend eventually. For Clay, the constant pressure of wondering how he hurt Hannah, and the knowledge that other people know when he does not, pushes him close to a mental break down.


Hannah Baker is the hero of her own story, but if you look at it from Tony’s side of the tracks, or even Clay’s, she can become a borderline villain. From their view her actions, by this I mean the tapes, not the suicide, seem selfish, vindictive, and unreasonable. She wants the people who drove her to suicide to feel the weight of their actions, but she doesn’t care that the entirety of the burden falls almost wholly on the one friend who never failed her. This is why she’s compelling. She’s real, she’s flawed and complex and not always nice; Asher’s characterisation is flawless and heartbreaking because every character in this story could have been different.

The only true Villain, note the capital, is Bryce, and even he shows no signs of Evil Cackling; he’s an entitled, aggressive, privileged white athlete in a culture which idolises such people. Some might say that he never fully understood his crimes, but I beg to differ; he just didn’t think they mattered. 

“Do you think it shows mental illness well?”

No, but I think it shows the minutia of mental health, how it can be torn down and messed up so easily in our teenage years. I think it displays stunningly real, horrifyingly believable, characterisation, and I think it’s the finest example of timeline jumping I’ve seen.

Yet I don’t like this story. I didn’t enjoy 13 Reasons Why, neither the book nor the series, and I think that’s a good thing. It may just be my own personal demons, but I don’t think anyone should enjoy this kind of story because it’s there to hold a mirror to us all, and I do mean all. It’s not just about the bullies and the thoughtless, it’s aimed at the Hannah’s of the world too because depression is, through no fault of the sufferer, a self-centered state of being, and that can be the hardest thing of all to face. Contact and inclusion is often the start of the solution, and this is what 13 Reasons illustrates beyond any doubt; Hannah’s decline is not an inevitable plummet to a preordained end, but a series of shortfalls as each handhold, each connection is severed for one reason or another.

This narrative is well structured, well-written, engaging, and thought-provoking, but if it were a plant it would be a cactus.

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Writer, proofreader, and owner of Merry Writing UK.

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