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Remember When...?

Image: Sometime in the 1960s.

The unreliable narrator is a common trope in fiction. While it can be done very well, I often see it used by writers as a lazy way to hide facts from their readers that would give away information the writer wants to hide. When I am narrating from a character's point of view (and I almost always construct narrative from individual character's points of view rather than an omniscient point of view) I'm very careful to be honest about what they know, and if they don't know something, I must have a plausible reason for it. Perhaps they blacked out from drinking too much or were asleep when something important happened in their childhood.

Truthfully, however, we are all unreliable narrators. How many people have been convicted of a crime based on 'eyewitness' testimony only to have that conviction overturned later because physical evidence proved the accused was innocent?

I was 2 1/2 years old when JFK was assassinated; my older brother was 5. Later, when I was 7 or 8, he told me that our grandparents had taken him to see the Grand Canyon --this was plausible, they had taken him on trips alone-- and while they were coming home, they witnessed the assassination. My brother also spoke with a fake German accent for a while because our grandfather had emigrated from Germany. My brother was a liar, not an unreliable narrator.

When I was five, my dog, Copper, got hit by a car. The vet told my parents to put her in a box in the basement and she would either recover or die. I prayed very hard for Copper to recover. That night my great-grandmother died, and Copper recovered. For years I believed I had killed my great-Grandmother because I prayed for Copper. It put me off praying for decades. I am, however, an unreliable narrator. I did a search on the website Find a Grave only to discover Fanny Smith died in 1969 when I was eight. Am I wrong about when Copper was hit by the car or did the two events not happen at the same time? Or did someone else die the same night Copper was hit by the car? I'll never know for sure. That's what is powerful about an unreliable narrator, not a fake German accent.

The unreliability of our memories can also be impacted by how aware we were at the time of the world around us. We're always told that 'we never forget where we were and what we were doing' when certain historical events happen, like the Challenger tragedy or 9/11. But even that's not true. I have very vivid memories of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon (we gathered at my grandmother's house to watch it on TV) and the National Guard shooting at Kent State of anti-war protestors (my parents said we would never be allowed to go to college), but no memories of Bobby Kennedy or MLK.

Interestingly, I do have a strong memory when I was six, almost seven, of having to cancel a trip to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (which has dinosaur skeletons) because of 'riots.' We went to Amish country instead, the absolutely whitest thing we could have ever done. It was only a couple of years ago, when I was participating in a Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation racial healing circle discussing the prompt "talk about a time from your childhood when you felt like your race set you apart'' that I realized the riots that disrupted my childhood trip to the museum would have been because of Martin Luther King Jr's murder. That was a devastating realization of privilege and naivete.

The key to devastating writing is not hiding things from your readers, it is hiding things from your characters.

Win a free Kindle edition of Love: a novel of grief and desire: I work with Reader's Favorite on the Kindle book giveaway. If you go to you can sign up for the monthly giveaway. You can scroll through the list of giveaways (over 500 each month) or sort the list by title or author to find Love: a novel of grief and desire and put your name in for this month's drawing. Good luck!

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