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When Characters Lie: Eight Questions to Ask

Cheryl's Musings: When Characters Lie: Eight Questions to Ask

Cheryl's Musings

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road


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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At May 9, 2011 at 8:12 PM , Blogger Paulo Campos said...

The first character that came to mind when I read the question at the end of the post was Humbert Humbert. Then I paused, because Lolita's presented as a confession and Humbert's the narrator.

He's an incredibly deceptive character, at least throughout the narrative he tells. But the purpose of his confessing is to tell the truth. It raises a key question I think.

If a narrator's a consumate (but not pathological) liar and is confessing those lies, can the reader actually trust him/her?

It's a neat opportunity to force our readers to deal with an implicitly unreliable narrator.

Thanks for the interesting post! As interesting as lying characters can be, I often forget it's an option unless I create a character as a liar.

At May 10, 2011 at 4:11 AM , Blogger Mel Chesley said...

Trying to recall some good liars in books I have read... My brain refuses to cooperate. At any rate, I have a couple of characters who lie and do it well. They also manipulate people very well so that things will go there way more often than not. Funnily enough, the characters of mine you would expect to lie are the ones who are the most honest. I have a pirate, who pretty much tells the truth all the time as well as a thief who believes in honesty. Everyone is always expecting them to lie or be telling some tall tale and they are so focused on that, they don't listen. Makes for some fun writing. :D Excellent post!

At May 10, 2011 at 5:46 AM , Blogger Andrea Mack said...

Great post! I love all your questions to ask...I'll definitely use them the next time I write a character that lies.

At May 10, 2011 at 10:28 AM , Blogger Aron White said...

One expression I've heard before is "if you're going to lie at least try to be consistent."

One interesting thing to observe is whether or not fictional characters are able to keep track of their lies and ensure they're consistent. Neal is the type who remembers what he said and to whom, therefore if he has to continually lie, he makes sure the follow-up lie is consistent and builds on the original one, creating a credible facade.

At May 10, 2011 at 2:04 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

Very true Cheryl. We usually lose interest in consummate liars because we cannot identify with them any longer. It breaks the illusion for the audience and sometimes they really just get irritating.
Other times in instances like 'Burn Notice' or 'Supernatural' lying is a necessity of the plot but we overlook it because it serves purpose. The characters can 'fake it' to be officials, consultants even tech geeks but the minute it becomes a matter of lying to partners who the character has never lied to before, it strains our belief. (I know even in a show about monsters or spies)
It really is a matter of does is benefit the plot or is it out of character, out of place?

At May 11, 2011 at 1:14 AM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Paulo: Interesting question! I think that untrustworthy narrators are incredibly interesting to read--and incredibly difficult to write, imo.

Caledonia: I bet your pirate and thief are more interesting because they break the stereotype by *not* lying. Also, it seems that even among characters for whom dishonesty is part of the job, there's usually some sort of code...and that's interesting in its own right!

Andrea: Thanks for stopping by and leaving such a sweet comment! You make me smile :D

At May 11, 2011 at 1:27 AM , Blogger Cheryl Reif said...

Aron: Good point. I wonder if one of the reasons I don't mind Neal's lies is that he's clever about it. Not exactly something you'd want to see in real life, but in fictitious character, it's larger-than-life cool. Chuck's lies started to frustrate me because he *didn't* keep track of them all and would get into trouble with them time and again. I suppose this is because he's supposed to be an inherently honest person, but if so, there are times when he lies that I think he shouldn't.

Obviously, they need to hire us as plot consultants .

P.W.: Hmm...your first statement--we lose interest in consummate liars because we can no longer identify with them--makes me wonder. I think consummate liars can still be interesting characters, sometimes precisely *because* we don't identify with them. We might not like them, but we may still find them interesting. On the other hand, I think it's possible to create a character who is a consummate liar who the reader can still identify with. Although it's not a perfect example, consider Artemis Fowl. In the first book, he's arrogant, self-serving, and sets up a fairly nasty plan that could injure the innocent; all in all, he's not really a character you like. He's fascinating, though: rich, over-the-top smart, living in a world every kid loves to imagine. By the end of the book, he's both fascinating AND we identify with him, 1) because we get to see his soft spot, something in his life that hurts him just as it would any other little boy, and 2) because we see him grow and change and start to understand that he's not such a nice kid.

So we might not lose interest in a consummate liar--we might be fascinated with such a person, even as we're repelled by them, as we are by Humbert Humbert and Hannibal Lector. When we identify with the character, we start to root for him.

:-) Thanks for sparking this discussion!

At May 12, 2011 at 7:20 AM , Blogger Pam said...

Great post about using lies in your fiction. For me, the most important question is whether or not it serves the plot/characterization. And who's doing the lying? The MC or a secondary character? You gave us some important points to consider, and thanks for the picture of Matt Bomer. He's so adorable.


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