Can We Trust Her?

It always pleases me how often normal, everyday life can inform our writing, if we keep ourselves open and alert to the possibilities. You might think the following incident has little or nothing to do with writing, but bear with me.

Take last week. My mother in law (MiL), living with us and suffering from advanced dementia, decided to take herself off for an unchaperoned walk. Obviously she didn’t let anyone know where she was going but in the course of this local perambulation she fell and injured herself slightly. A Good Samaritan phoned for an ambulance and she was carted off to Emergency. It took my partner and I over five hours to locate her.
So what has this to do with writing? Well, when we eventually found her, MiL was regaling the nice young A&E doctor with tales about how she lived alone in her own apartment, in a nice market town in a completely different part of the country, and no, there wasn’t anyone they needed to contact. She wasn’t badly hurt; she spoke well, had quite a commanding presence and was entirely plausible. She had the nursing staff eating out of her hand; the fact that almost every word she uttered was complete nonsense was neither here nor there. The doctor and nurse believed every word. But she was an unreliable narrator.
This gave me an idea: to create a character, flawed by age, upbringing, circumstance or illness, but who was also completely credible. A child might seem to be an honest narrator, but their age and relative innocence acts against them. When you factor in their lack of understanding of how the world works, their friends and the resultant peer pressure to say and do the right thing, they suddenly become unreliable.
A story written from the perspective of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s would be tricky, but not impossible. As I have seen, most observers are taken in; they would have no reason to disbelieve the character unless they are in possession of all the facts. I would have to lay subtle clues about her untrustworthiness and decide whether or not to reveal the true extent of her unreliability.
I’ll try this out in the short form first, but this might have a new project for the future…


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