4. THE SIN OF CREDIBILITY PROBLEMS
First there’s the simple problem of lack of continuity, as they say in the movie business—one scene contradicting another. If you have a mother with three kids in one scene and the same mother has seven kids in the next scene and it’s only six months later, there’s a credibility problem (or she’s done some mighty fast adopting). On a less obvious level, lack of credibility can occur in situations such as when children are preternaturally wise or always smarter than their parents, like those TV sitcom kids who talk with the ironic smarts of little Jon Stewarts or David Lettermans.
Lack of credibility is a real problem in memoirs or personal essays in which the first-person narrator, a stand-in for the author, fails to move us or fails to make readers trust and believe emotions or even facts. We’ve heard plenty about the controversies over falsified memoirs, such as James Frey’s or JT Leroy’s, but readers can find a narrator lacking in credibility due to an attitude of self-pity or self-aggrandizing; if the narrator is always the victim of others’ wrongs or always wins the day, the reader is eventually going to feel resentful and distrustful. To be credible, a memoir narrator writing from an adult perspective must be self-aware.
Granted, in fiction we have the device of the unreliable narrator, as in Eudora Welty’s famous story “Why I Live at the P.O.,” and there are those memoirists, such as Lauren Slater, who have made a career out of unreliability, as in her book Lying. But these are cases in which the author
deliberately invites you to mistrust the narrator. In most novels and memoirs, trust between reader and narrator is essential. Don’t risk losing that trust by making your narrator either too self-regarding or too villainous to believe in your scenes.