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.