In a very early draft of my first novel, A Dream of Death, one of my beta readers said of my protagonist, Kate: “The problem is, she asks questions and people tell her what she wants to know. Where’s the conflict?”
Ouch. I should have known better. In real life, people don’t always tell the truth. They lie. They spin the facts. And they misremember.
LIES AND DAMN LIES
Most of us understand lying. The bad guy isn’t going to admit his misdeeds simply because someone asks. He’s going to deny his involvement, concoct an alibi, and point the protagonist in the wrong direction. Other characters lie, too—not necessarily to cover their guilt but to conceal a secret they don’t want others to know. They were somewhere they shouldn’t have been, with someone they shouldn’t have known, doing something that, if it were revealed, would damage their reputations or disrupt their lives in serious ways. Lies are useful tools writers can use to add plot complexity, plant red herrings, and prevent readers from guessing the truth too early.
There’s another tool writers can use as well, one that may not spring automatically to mind—faulty or incomplete memories. In a crime novel, let’s say, the sleuth interviews an innocent suspect who tells the truth as he or she remembers it. But that’s the problem. Memory is at best a partial version of the truth, and no two people ever remember the exact same things. Police professionals tell us, in fact, that if every witness to a crime tells the same story, they’ve probably worked it out in advance. Memories of past events are recorded in our brains with varying degrees of fidelity.
People misremember, and that can be incredibly useful to the writer of fiction as a tool to ramp up conflict, reveal character, and set the stage for plot twists and satisfying resolutions.
Here are four ways writers can use the psychology of memory to ramp up a killer plot:
- Setting Up Misdirection and Delay
Lies aren’t the only method for sending a sleuth in the wrong direction. People’s memories are selective—we tend to remember what we’re paying attention to at the time. And those memories can fade or distort over time. Psychologists tell us the very act of remembering affects how that memory is subsequently filed away. Like the old telephone game, every time a memory is retrieved, there’s the possibility of added distortion. Distorted memories make the job of your protagonist harder—which is what you want, right? Intensify the conflict. Send him in the wrong direction. Make her believe something that isn’t true. Give your POV character—and the reader—a false impression that must be later overturned. In other words, use the misremembering of your secondary characters to create ways for your main character to initially fail.
- Revealing Character
People tend to remember details that are personally significant to them—especially those that are emotionally significant. What a character remembers about an event is a good way of revealing that character’s inner truth, especially the parts they’ve worked hard to conceal. On the other hand, what a character doesn’t remember can be even more significant than what he does. People are often self-deluded, constructing personal mythologies in an attempt to shape their lives as they would like them to be rather than as they really are. Repressed memories exact an emotional toll. Use the emotional underpinnings of memory to create characters that are fully rounded human beings with fears, flaws, faults, and failings,
- Equipping Your Antagonist
False memories are as powerful as real ones—maybe more so—and false memories can be implanted for nefarious purposes. We’ve all heard of gaslighting, convincing someone they’re wrong about something when they’re not, or, when taken to the extreme, psychologically manipulating someone into questioning their own sanity. Related to gaslighting is the implanting of false memories—causing people to “remember” something that never happened. Vivid dreams can be stored as actual memories. False memories can also be created by hearing a story so often that you picture it in your mind. What you “remember” isn’t the event but the image you created. We’ve all had that experience. But what if your antagonist intentionally implants a false memory in someone for an evil purpose? Now that’s wicked.
- Creating that Aha Moment
Every story has a conclusion, even if it’s only partial. Red herrings are seen for what they are, the facts click into place, and (in most crime fiction anyway) justice is restored. The aha moment is that time when connections are made, when the fog of confusion lifts and your protagonist perceives the truth at last. Think of Hercule Poirot just before he gathers all the suspects together for the big reveal.
Two aspects of memory can help writers create a believable aha moment. One is déjà vu, a French phrase meaning “already seen,” the sense we all have from time to time that what we’re seeing or experiencing at the moment has already happened. Psychologists differ on the precise mechanism of déjà vu, but most believe that something in the present experience reminds us on a deep, unconscious level of a previous experience we can’t immediately identify. For writers, an experience of déjà vu on the part of a character can be the catalyst that ushers in the final scenes—the aha moment in which the protagonist makes the mental connection that solves the conflict. The trigger can be as subtle as a familiar scent.
A related mechanism for bringing a story to a conclusion is the “flashbulb memory,” the unexpected triggering of an emotionally intense experience by seemingly innocuous or random events. Something stored in the deep recesses of a character’s memory springs to her conscious mind in a way that clarifies everything. Aha!
The Shadow of Memory
In The Shadow of Memory, the fourth book in the Kate Hamilton Mysteries, events that took place fifty-eight years earlier are the key to solving a modern crime—if Kate can wade through the evidence that remains, the lies and the misrememberings, to find the shocking truth. The epigraph sets the stage:
“Memory was a slippery thing—slick moss on an unstable slope—and it wasever so easy to lose one’s footing and fall.”Kelly Barnhill, The Girl Who Drank the Moon
How can you use the psychology of memory to add conflict, reveal character, equip your antagonist, and create that final aha moment?
Have you read a book recently that used the psychology of memory?
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These are all really good examples. There’s nothing better than having a character wade through their own and other people’s memories to get to the truth. Which might not even be the truth…Great post!
What great insights, Connie. Thank you!
Thanks for outlining this so clearly, Connie. Memories are tricky. And the truth is also slippery. Often wife and I see the same thing but we focus on different aspects of it so when we discuss it later it’s almost like we were looking at two different scenes.
Enjoyed this, Connie, esp the diabolical antagonist!
I just finished Cara Hunter’s newest Oxford/DI Adam Fawley police procedural Hope to Die, where a character has used lying as such an effective survival device throughout her life that she’s blurred truth lines and can no longer distinguish what’s real and what’s “her” truth. A fascinating look at character.