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False Memories in Fiction: How Emotional Scenes Can Create Unreliable Narrators

Ever noticed how most books portray characters’ memories as perfect? That really isn’t the case in reality. Here’s how to make your fiction more lifelike, original and infinitely more interesting with an unreliable narrator.

Characters’ eyes aren’t cameras. Don’t believe everything they say they saw.

At the best of times, memory isn’t all that accurate. Some details fade, some become distorted by later events, and some are so completely wrong that others wonder if you saw the same thing they did at all. Human memory is fallible—so why do our characters’ often end up perfect?

Sometimes it’s necessary for the plot to have a character remember a scene well, but how much more interesting could your story become if you allowed your character’s recollections to be imprecise or just plain wrong? What kind of mischief could you cause? What kind of conflict could you stir up? What kind of plot twists could you pull off, all because your character’s memory isn’t perfect?

In the last Psychology & Storycraft post, we looked at the psychological effects of emotion on memory, so let’s take that a step further today and explore how we can use those effects to our story’s advantage. Time to sink our teeth into the mystery that is the unreliable narrator!

Emotion and Memory

Positive Emotion

As we saw in the last post, positive emotion following the accomplishment of a goal—like feeling good after seeing your favourite team win at a sport—can lead to attention and memory broadening. In other words, you’re more likely to take in and remember the details that are a core part of the scene—like the players as they’re battling it out for sports supremacy—and the background details—like the setting in which this heroic battle is taking place.

So how can you apply that to writing?

When you sit down to write a scene, think about what emotion your point-of-view character is feeling. If she’s positive and she’s just completed a goal, then include both the central and background features of the scene in your descriptions (as long as they’re relevant, of course). Because emotion affects attention (present) and memory (past), your happy character could be taking in the central and background details in her current scene or remembering both types of details of a past scene.

Feeling positive emotions after achieving a goal has a drawback, though: it’s more likely to give you false memories. Research suggests that this broadening of attention and memory leads you to misremember details, often replacing memories of what actually happened with incorrect details or ‘memories’ of what typically happens in that situation.

If you’re writing a scene in which your character is feeling good, then her recollection of that scene might be distorted in the future. If, for example, she enters a restaurant and is given a menu on the way in, when later recalling the event, she may ‘remember’ being given the menu while sitting at her table, because that’s what usually happens in a restaurant. It’s a small thing, but could easily be escalated for a story.

If you’re feeling positive emotions while seeking a goal, things are a little bit different. Attention and memory tend to be more narrowed down to the central, important details of a scene, and so the background details are ignored. That means your memory for the core features of an event may be enhanced and more accurate, but your memory for the setting or any actions going on in the background may be impaired.

Applying that to writing, imagine that your character is a sports player whose side is winning. She’s striving towards a goal—winning the game—and she’s feeling good because she’s almost there. When she recalls the event later, her memory for the central features of the scene, like the ball as it moves toward her, may be sharper and more accurate than her memory for the background features, like the fans watching her. Because her memory for background details isn’t that great, she’s more likely to misremember those details as well.

Negative Emotion

As with feeling positive emotion when pursuing a goal, negative emotion can narrow attention and memory to the core features of a scene. And it makes sense—if something causes you a negative emotion, like fear or anger, it’s likely a threat, and so you zoom in on the thing making you feel that way. The stuff around it is less important and so you’re less likely to remember it.

This is particularly fun to apply to writing. Imagine your character’s been caught up in the middle of a bank robbery. Is she going to pay attention to the glossiness of the marble floor or the armed thief a few feet away? Unless the glossy floor factors into a plan she’s devising or provides a sharp contrast (e.g., if there’s blood on it), she’s unlikely to remember it—or she may misremember it.

Here’s where the fun starts. For small details, like how the floor looks, misremembering isn’t so much of a problem. It’s when correct recollection of those background details is important that an incorrect memory can cause your character a lot of trouble.

Imagine now that the robbers got away and your character is reporting the event to the police. They ask how tall the thieves were, about any distinguishing features. Your character wants to help so tries desperately to remember, but because they were background features, she doesn’t remember them clearly. She thinks the thieves looked a certain way, but she could actually be reporting false memories.

The likelihood of her reporting false memories increases if she’s influenced following the event. A single word is enough to do that. “Did you see the bag they put the money in?” the police officer asks. And because he used ‘the bag’ instead of ‘a bag,’ your character’s memory may now be affected. She may believe that there was a bag, when in fact it was a brief case. Her memory has been distorted.


Ever noticed how books portray memories as perfect? Make your fiction more realistic with an unreliable narrator.

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Unreliable Narrators

Now that we’ve established how fallible your character’s memory can be, let’s look at how you can use that to stir up trouble in your story. Being an unreliable narrator is one way.

Genuine Belief

In your character’s mind, her memories are sound. She probably doesn’t even realise they’re distorted or inaccurate, and so she could whole-heartedly believe in them—and because she believes them, your readers are likely to also. That provides you with several opportunities to mislead, misdirect and misinform your readers, perfect for a mystery or a plot twist.

A Perplexing Puzzle

False memories are also an ideal opportunity to create a puzzle for your readers and your characters to solve. What if several of your characters saw the same event, but, for whatever reasons, they each remember it slightly (or very) differently. Who’s correct? What really happened? What caused each person to remember things in a different way and what does that show you about those characters?

Showing Personality

Use the distortion of memories to good effect and illustrate elements of your character’s personality. If she’s a pessimistic person, she may remember events in a negative light, whereas a more optimistic person may remember the same event differently. If your character is high in suggestibility or readily believes what people with status tell her, it won’t take that much to distort her memories. Compare that to a character who is more strong-willed—attempts to influence her memories will be more difficult.

Distorted or Distorter?

What if, instead of your character’s memories of an event being distorted, she was the one attempting to manipulate other people’s memories? The phrasing of any questions she asks after the event could sway other characters’ memories, and the emotions she portrays or the confidence with which she tells her side of the story could make other characters doubt their memories of the event. Just think of the devious things your character could get up to with the power of memory distortion.


Point-of-View

The narrative perspective you write in may affect how you portray unreliable narrators. Using distorted memories to create an unreliable narrator is particularly effective in first-person and third-person subjective POV stories. Both of these narrative modes show the subjective experience of the character: first-person tells the stories through her eyes, third-person subjective (also known as deep point-of-view) keeps the narrative focused in on what the one character is experiencing, often integrating her thoughts and emotions into the narrative itself.

If the thought of contending with potential memory distortions is a bit overwhelming, third-person omniscient, which tells the story from a more objective stance, may be more appropriate for your story. Also, if you want to make it clear to your reader that your character’s memories are biased, then it may be easier to do using third-person omniscient. If you favour a more subtle approach, however, try first- or third-person subjective perspectives.

Interested in the science behind memory and forgetting? Then you’ll enjoy What Are the Different Types of Amnesia? (Wait... There’s More Than One?)