Your Character is Lying

In my own process, I have character development tools that I use before I start to draft. What is my character’s age, history, family life? Where does she live? How intelligent is he? Was she educated in school, or did she learn through experience? There are many fantastic worksheets and story creation tools available, and I use several to begin to form my characters in my mind.

I have a separate process for characterization after my first draft is complete and I’m into revisions. During the drafting process, I feel like I am creating the character; at the revision stage, I feel like I am discovering the character.

Part of that discovery process is learning what my characters lie about.

In some ways, uncovering your characters’ lies is similar to uncovering their secrets, which I wrote about here.

Everyone lies sometimes. Here are some examples:

We might lie to ourselves if the truth is too painful. For example, an addict might continuously tell herself that she is just “experimenting.” A student who cheats to become Valedictorian might lie to himself that everyone else cheats, too, so his cheating did no harm.

We might lie to our friends to cope with rivalry or jealousy. A person who feels outdone by a friend’s career success might lie about being offered a promotion at work.

We might lie to someone in authority to stay out of trouble. If a sixteen year old girl comes home after curfew, she might lie about a detour or an unexpected traffic back-up.

It might be true that everyone lies, but not everyone lies in the same way. Some only tell “white lies.” Some only commit “lies of omission,” (meaning they don’t correct a person who’s mistaken, especially if the mistake works to their benefit.) Others don’t think twice about weaving an elaborate tale if it makes them look good (a trait found in The Unreliable Narrator, which I wrote about here.) If we understand what a person lies about we can understand what they value, what they’re trying to protect, and what they fear.

Think of a person you know in life. It could be your boss or your best friend or your step-mother, but it should be someone with whom you interact frequently.

Think about the way that person sees himself. Think about how he feels about his life. Whether he is successful or struggling, whether she is content or full of angst, chances are that person is telling lies. Can you identify those lies from what you know about that person?

Now think about your characters. How do they see themselves? How do they feel about their lives?

For each of your main characters, dig deep to discover their lies. Here are some questions that may help:

  • Does she lie to herself? Does she lie about the present, the past, or both? Are there painful memories that she has “rewritten” to get rid of some of the pain?
  • Does he lie to his friends? Which friends? Are they big lies or white lies? What purpose do they serve?
  • Does she lie to her parents or other authority figures? Does she get away with it? What will happen if the lies come out?

There are countless more questions that could be asked, depending on your setting, time period, age of your characters, etc. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list, but a starting place. The answers you discover to some of these questions will likely lead you to ask new questions.

One of my favorite characters in fiction is a grand and well-accomplished liar—Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby. One of the many things that makes Fitzgerald’s masterpiece so intriguing is the shadowy line between Gatsby’s truth and his lies.

What do you think? Do you believe all characters lie? Do you search for lies when you create your own characters? Please add your thoughts in the comments.


12 Responses to Your Character is Lying

  1. Susan Dennard Jun 10 2014 at 11:43 am #

    Oh my gosh, I LOVE THIS idea, Julie!! I’ve NEVER thought of it before!! I too like to look at my characters and ask about who they are, but I’ve never, never considered asking what he/she lies about. This is so clever because it reveals SO much about who the character *really* is versus what he/she shows to the world.

    Brilliance. Sheer brilliance.

    • Julie Jun 10 2014 at 12:01 pm #

      Hi Susan! I’m so glad you got so much out of this post! I first started thinking about this when one of my characters told a blatant lie (the reader knows it’s a lie because it references something that happens in a prior scene.) I even used the dialogue tag, “I lied.” This got me thinking about how he felt about the person he was lying to, how he felt about himself… It really threw open the door. So glad you found it helpful! 🙂

  2. HAmed Jun 10 2014 at 1:58 pm #

    I always wanted to write a story with an unreliable narrator who lies not only to us but also to himself. but every time I tried I hit the wall (is it the correct expression?) I think the most important consideration when you are crafting a lying character is the ratio between lies and truths he’s saying. Needless to say I don’t know how to do it. So… would you help with it?
    One more thing. I think there is another kind of liar which I love: a pathologic liar.
    How rude of me! I almost forgot. Thanks for the article. I think I’m one step closer to write a good lying bastard.

    P.S: “I leave a lot out when I tell the truth. The same when I write a story”
    Amy Hempel’s short story “Harvest”

    • Julie Jun 10 2014 at 2:38 pm #

      Hi Hamed! I’m so glad you liked the post! (And yes, “hit the wall” or “ran into a wall” is the right expression. :D)
      I agree that the balance of truth and lies is important, especially for a character who is lying to himself. I think maybe the key is how much you let the reader know. I love a story that makes me think that the narrator is telling the truth and then little by little reveals that he is lying. Thanks so much for commenting!

      • Stacey Campbell Jun 10 2014 at 5:29 pm #

        Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn uses the unreliable narrator so very well. Thanks for an excellent article, what a SUPERB way of understanding an extra layer of who our characters are after the first draft. I’m going to use this to assess whether my characters hidden lies align with who I want my characters to be! Thanks so much! 🙂

  3. Jon Jun 10 2014 at 2:36 pm #

    I’ve found that one of the easiest ways to seed problems/issues to be resolved later in a story is to have characters lie – not straight up “I’m evil and this is a lie to cause problems” but lies because of shame, lies to “protect” others and their feelings, etc. A random decision to throw in a “harmless” lie early on can yield great dividends later when you’re stuck and searching for some new issue for your characters to overcome.

    • Julie Jun 10 2014 at 2:42 pm #

      Hi Jon! I agree with you – the “smaller” lies that we think are for the best can really add issues and obstacles. I love your idea of a “harmless” lie early in the story coming back to cause problems later. (After all, that’s how it often goes in real life!) Thanks for your input!

  4. PJ Braley Jun 10 2014 at 3:19 pm #

    “You are a very bad liar,” she said.

    “No, actually I am a very good liar,” he answered. Or you wouldn’t be here, he thought.

    Fear is his primary motivation for lying. Fear of losing her if he tells her the truth of who he is and the fear of having to change his life if she believes him. These are not small fears. In this particular scenario, they are death sentence level fears.

    • Julie Jun 10 2014 at 3:29 pm #

      PJ, you bring up a great point – Fears and lies are often intertwined. I think the exchange you quote shows how hard it can be for one character to recognize the lies of another. Thanks for the comment!

      • PJ Braley Jun 10 2014 at 3:40 pm #

        Thank you…it is a great question that you pose. We already have in our heads so much about our characters, but learning what they are willing to lie about – and for – gives us a deeper insight that, I think, can lead into more interesting plot development. Thank you for a very enlightening post.

  5. Stacey Campbell Jun 10 2014 at 5:33 pm #

    Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn crafts the unreliable narrator so very well. Thanks for an excellent article, what a SUPERB way of understanding another layer of who our characters are. I’m going to use this as a tool to assess whether my characters lies align with who I want them to be! Thanks so much! 🙂

    • Julie Jun 10 2014 at 6:03 pm #

      Hi Stacey! I’m so glad you liked the post. And YES – Gone Girl – Great example! I hope you can put these ideas to good use in your story! Thanks for joining the discussion. 🙂

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