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When Characters Lie: Eight Questions to Ask

The Rich Writer: When Characters Lie: Eight Questions to Ask

The Rich Writer

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road

Monday, May 9, 2011

When Characters Lie: Eight Questions to Ask

Do your characters lie? Lies can lead to additional untruths, misunderstandings, problems that grow bigger each time the character tries to solve things—in other words, lies are a terrific way to build story conflict.

Having your character lie is a terrific plot device—but one that can backfire if you aren’t careful.


Here’s what I mean. In the TV series White Collar, con-man and FBI “consultant” Neal Caffrey tells the occasional untruth. You’d expect as much from a con-man, but the funny thing is that he’s more likely to get what he wants through charm and wit than by lying; and when he has something to hide, he’s more likely to do so by keeping his mouth shut than by concocting an explanation. When he does lie, it’s always for a good reason: to protect someone, to accomplish a purpose that can’t be accomplished otherwise, to hide information from someone he doesn’t trust.

The result? Neal may be a con-man, forger, thief, and professional smooth-talker, but he makes a decent, loyal, and (mostly) trustworthy friend.

Chuck-season3-WIDE In another of my favorite TV series, Chuck, our hero is loveable in oh-so-many ways…but as an unlikely spy, he ends up in the position of lying to friends and family on more than one occasion. Sometimes it works. Sometimes his lies create great conflict and amusing situations. But sometimes, (sorry, fellow Chuck fans) I want to give him a good shake—not because he lies, but because he lies when he doesn’t have to do so, to the people he should be honest with.

The first time he does this, the viewer thinks he’s making a bad choice. The second time, we wonder what he’s thinking. The third…well, I stopped watching the series at that point.

Lies are an important storytelling tool, but make sure to use them in a way that doesn’t annoy your reader or make them dislike your character. Next time your character wants to embellish the truth, consider these questions to keep your story on track:

  1. Does your character lie often? Dishonesty doesn’t just make other characters distrust your hero—it can make the reader distrust (or worse, dislike) your hero as well.
  2. Does the lie have a purpose? On the other hand, if your character lies to protect someone else, to keep an important secret, or because he thinks it’s the best thing to do, this can spark terrific inner conflict.
  3. Does the lie have a purpose for plot or character? Like every story event, a lie needs to forward the plot or reveal something about character—or, even better, do both. What does the lie do for your story?
  4. Has your character lied in this sort of situation before? If so, did it make things better? If a lie (or theft or cheating or…you get the idea) works once—if it gives the character a short cut solution to her problem without repercussions—then she’ll be tempted to try it again.
  5. …or did the lie make things worse? Don’t insult your reader’s intelligence by letting your character make the same mistake over and over—if a lie doesn’t work the first time, he better think twice before setting the same type of situation in motion again. He may decide to lie again, but he’ll remember his previous failure and perhaps try a different approach.
  6. Does the lie lead to more lies? We’ve all seen it happen: one “little” lie leads to another, which leads to another, and so on, until the character is mired in a web of untruths. This can be a great way to complicate life for your character.
  7. What are the consequences for discovery? Creating clear consequences for the lie raises the story’s stakes. Discovery might mean failing a class, losing a friendship, losing respect, getting kicked off the soccer team, losing a job.
  8. What would bring your character to ‘fess up? Dishonesty may make your character less likeable, but if your heroine realizes the error of her ways—or decides to do the right thing, or decides her lie is hurting someone—and decides to tell the truth, she wins our respect. A moment of truth can be a great place for your character to show strength and growth.

What characters have you seen lie? Did it work or did it flop?

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