"Why do you write unreliable narrators?"
This is a question I get asked a lot — both in interviews and at events. And it's understandable because unreliable narrators have become very popular, and because both the narrators of my two novels, In a Dark, Dark Wood
and The Woman in Cabin 10
, are people grappling with the truth in different ways.
In a Dark, Dark Wood
's Nora Shaw is waking up from a head injury and trying to recall the catastrophic events of the past 48 hours, and piece together her part in them. In The Woman in Cabin 10
, Lo Blacklock has witnessed what could be a murder… but what she saw in the middle of the night just doesn't square with the cold hard facts she has to face the following morning.
Neither of my narrators is unreliable in the Gone Girl
mode. They aren't setting out to deceive. Instead they're wrestling with perception and memory and interpretation — and their own doubts.
At first, when questioned, I used to talk about how much I, personally, enjoy unreliable narrators — both to write and to read. To write, of course, because it becomes a fascinating juggling act, matching up the events that you know happened with the perception of your narrator and their own agenda. And as a reader, I love playing that game in reverse with the author — trying to pick around the facts and the falsehoods, whether intentional or not, and pierce the layers of deception the author is putting in place.
However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that was only part of the reason. Now, when I'm asked, I talk about the fun of unreliability, of course, but I also give a rather different answer. I write unreliable narrators because — paradoxically — they're the most honest, true-to-life kind there is. It's just that it's taken us a while to realize that.
For a long time, in 19th-century literature in particular, the omniscient narrator ruled supreme. Like God, they knew everything, from the shade of blue of the sky, to what was in the hearts and minds of the characters that populated their narrative. If the omniscient narrator said that the sky was blue, or that Emma Woodhouse was handsome, rich, and clever, you could pretty much take that as fact.
The omniscient narrator fell out of fashion in the 20th century. So-called “head-hopping” became a creative writing crime, and writers were encouraged to pick a narrative viewpoint and stick to it, at least for a scene or two. Yet unreliable narrators — with a few exceptions — remained rare. In general, if these narrators told you a fact was so, it was so, however long ago or complex.
But why is this, when memory is such a slippery thing? I'm sure we've all had that experience — of hearing a friend or a family member tell an anecdote, only to have someone else chip in and dispute a central part of it. "That didn't happen at the supermarket, it happened at the library." "You weren't wearing a dress, it was jeans; that's why grandma was cross." "You never told me that, I would have remembered. I don't care what you think you said — you never told me that."
We are all at the center of our own narrative, but it's a narrative that changes every time we retell it. That well-worn anecdote, where every time you tweak it slightly to make it just that little bit sharper, and funnier. Your best friend's boyfriend who you never liked. You always had a feeling about him.
I write unreliable narrators because — paradoxically — they're the most honest, true-to-life kind there is.
It's not that we are trying to deceive ourselves, but we are human — we are built to see patterns, to want the world to be shaped a certain way. We see what we want to see, and we see what we fear to see, even when it's not there. We hold zealously onto the attributes that make us who we are, rehearsing that version of ourselves again and again. We dwell obsessively on the sins we've committed, so that they loom down on us at 3 a.m., until we are the worst person who ever walked the face of the earth. None of this is the truth exactly — but it's our truth, in that moment.
All of this, my narrators do. They're not telling the truth, because they can't. They're telling their truth, the truth as they see it, as they remember it. Which is, in the end, what we all do. And often, they are horribly conscious of the limitations of their account, but there's nothing they can do to escape it.
There's a scene in In a Dark, Dark Wood
where Nora talks about the slipperiness of memories. She remembers a photograph of herself on the mantelpiece at home, riding a donkey. She recalls the feel of the blanket between her legs, the wind in her face. Except there's just one problem — it's not her in the photo. She found out, when she was 15, that it was her cousin. She was never there. The memory is not a memory at all — but an illusion.
It was long after I wrote that scene that I read a book called The Memory Illusion
by Dr. Julia Shaw, but when I did, I had a strange prickle of recognition. In her book, which is an account of the unreliability and plasticity of memory, Shaw discusses with almost spooky similarity exactly that phenomenon. Indeed Dr. Shaw, who is a research scientist, goes further than simply discussing false memories. In one experiment she manufactures them, showing participants Photoshopped childhood pictures of themselves in hot air balloons, and inviting them to go away and try to recall this early “memory.” The vast majority of her subjects come back not shrugging their shoulders and admitting defeat, nor with just a vague false recollection of the image in the photograph, but with richly textured accounts that include sights, smells, sensations of the ride, and a host of detail. I was five. I was seven. I had eaten candy floss and felt sick. My hair was tangled. I felt the ground dropping away.
We all do this, even when we're not at the center of a memory experiment. Every day we choose what to remember, what anecdotes to retell. And every day our mind pushes flashbacks on us when we don't want them, and forgets the name of the boy we met in the bar.
We leap to conclusions and remember those conclusions as fact. We react on our own prejudices but don't always recognize them as such. We “remember” a donkey ride that never happened. We forget the face of an attacker.
We are unreliable narrators — all of us. And for all those reasons, I can't imagine writing anything else.
÷ ÷ ÷
grew up in Sussex, on the south coast of England. After graduating from Manchester University she moved to Paris, before returning to the U.K. She has worked as a waitress, a bookseller, a teacher of English as a foreign language, and a press officer. She now lives in London with her husband and two small children. Ware is the author of In a Dark, Dark Wood
and The Woman in Cabin 10