Lies propel the truth. Do they?

It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
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Recently, I’ve written several stories where my protagonists lied. They didn’t lie for their own monetary gains or power, but they did lie to achieve their goals or to protect someone they loved or to get out of a tough situation. In all the stories, lies were instrumental. Without them, the characters could’ve been in deep shit. Their lies held them afloat, kept them acting rather than sinking.

Then I thought: what does it say about me as a person, that my characters lie so often? I’m not a habitual liar myself, but occasionally I do lie. Everyone does, I think. Nevertheless, it made me uneasy with my choices as an author.

By strange serendipity, I have been re-reading novels by one of my favorite romance writers, Jayne Ann Krentz, and in one of her books, White Lies, I came across the long quote below. The protagonist, Clare, has an unusual paranormal ability: she can detect human lies. Here is her conversation with a friend on the subject:
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“When you look at it objectively it seems obvious that the ability to lie is part of everyone’s kit of survival tools, a side effect of possessing language skills. There are a lot of situations in which the ability to lie is extremely useful. There are times when you might have to lie to protect yourself or someone else, for example.”
“Okay, I get that kind of lying,” he said.
“You might lie to an enemy in order to win a battle or a war. Or you might have to lie just to defend your personal privacy. People lie all the time to diffuse a tense social situation or to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or to calm someone who is frightened.”
“True.”
“The way I see it, if people couldn’t lie, they probably wouldn’t be able to live together in groups, at least not for very long or with any degree of sociability. And there you have the bottom line.”
“What bottom line?”
She spread her hands. “If humans couldn’t lie, civilization as we know it would cease to exist.”

And a little bit later:

“The ability to lie is a very powerful tool. In and of itself, I consider it to be value-neutral, sort of like fire.”
“But like fire it can be turned into a weapon, is that it?”
“Exactly.” She folded her arms. “You can cook a meal with fire or burn down a house. In the hands of a person with evil intent, lying can be used to cause enormous damage.”

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I couldn’t have said it better myself. My characters usually lie because otherwise they can’t help the good guys or defeat the bad ones. They lie to reinforce the forces of light, so to speak, and to drive the story forward. They lie to tell the bigger truth.

As I pondered it some more, I realized that lying has been a literary plot device for centuries, often on the side of the heroes, but sometimes on the side of the villains. A lie is a time-honored technique in fiction. There is even the charming little liar Pinocchio (Buratino in the Russian literary canon), the protagonist of the famous children’s book. Obviously, children know a great deal about lies.

Do your characters lie? Do you lie as an author or as a person? When does it work for you, and when doesn’t it? Want to talk about it?

 

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17 Responses to Lies propel the truth. Do they?

  1. cheriereich says:

    My characters do lie, but they usually do the lie of omission. I like those quotes about lying.

  2. I have a character lying right now but she’s tortured about it. She’ll have to make a big decision about lying at some point. I agree with you that lying is okay in fiction.

  3. Mine lie some. Or rather they just omit the truth or don’t confess it, which amounts to the same thing.

  4. Hello, Olga. That’s an interesting question. My protagonists are mostly truthful. Perhaps I should try working in some well-motivated fibbing.

  5. My characters lie the same way normal people lie; sometimes for gain, sometimes for evil, sometimes for survival or manipulation; sometimes just to be nice. I agree that a lie isn’t as important as the intent. Its the reactions and consequences that make a lie good/evil, productive/disasterous.

  6. It’s interesting, too, when you think about how characters lie to themselves, how they try to convince themselves that what they suspect is not the truth. (A wife pretends the lipstick on her husband’s shirt is hers even though she doesn’t wear that shade….)

  7. Nicki Elson says:

    Huh, I haven’t really thought about whether my characters lie, but I bet if examine my novels they’re probably riddled with little white lies.

  8. I can understand why a character may need to lie if they are doing it to protect someone from the bad guys. I can see a character lying to themselves. I don’t think it reflects on you when writing. You could even been writing about a really evil person that is lying up a storm but it is fiction after all. I usually like to have some redeeming qualities in my writing, good wins over evil. I do wonder if a writer is always writing about bad guys doing bad things if it is like promoting people doing bad.

  9. ChrysFey says:

    I haven’t ever thought about my characters lying, but I know they have, just like they’ve kept things from each other that come out later. We all lie, so it’s natural that our characters will lie, too.

  10. Erika Beebe says:

    What a thought provoking post. I haven’t actively thought about my characters and their lies but I do believe in my newly finished manuscript my main character does lie because the truth doesn’t get her the answer she wants. She wants an answer and so does the other party and they are not meeting anywhere in the middle so she says exactly what the other wants to hear and does the opposite 🙂 I think it feels real that way.

  11. cleemckenzie says:

    I love that one line about lying making it possible for people to live together in groups. What laugh that gave me because it struck a chord of TRUTH. Then we should go on to discuss the degrees of truth and the morality of lies. Such a great topic to explore. Thanks.

  12. My characters and I are excellent liars because we chose our lies carefully and never overuse them. I think if we were all honest 100% of the time, things would get pretty chaotic. Then again, that too is an excellent plot device. I love watching Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar.

  13. Mine have a tendency to omit the truth rather than actually “lie” about it. I had a friend tell me once that I must be a liar because I write fiction … really? (actually worse words went through my head at that point but I omitted them) I had never even thought about storytelling in fiction writing the same way as people think of “storytelling” to lie about something. When I read a fiction book, I’m not expecting a truthful story as much as a truth inside the story – a truth of relationships or about life embedded in the story.
    And, people lie in real life, so to keep to reality, some of our fictional characters must, in some form or fashion, do the same if we are to keep the essence of truths inside our fiction writing.

  14. Diane Burton says:

    What a great post! All my characters lie in some way. Mostly, they don’t tell all, even when they should. Or they let another character assume something that isn’t true. Or they lie to protect someone. Love the quote from White Lies. JAK is one of my fav authors.

  15. Loni Townsend says:

    My main character accidentally made a promise never to lie before he discovered he was bound by his promises. So no, he doesn’t lie, but he’s also not honest at times. Like when he tells his daughter (who grew up without him there, therefore doesn’t know who he is) “Your father is a manipulative scumbag.” She thinks he’s talking about someone other than himself, so he purposely misleads her with what he perceives is the truth. 🙂

  16. yvettecarol says:

    What a goldmine you’ve discovered here. It’s such a rich vein of potential content. I think everyone likes to think they don’t lie and yet, when you really look at your life, lies run through every part. 🙂

  17. emaginette says:

    My stories are about murder, so there are lies everywhere. I, however, will refuse to answer before I’d ever lie. Trust is earned. 🙂

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