It’s the first Wednesday of the month again, time for a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.
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:
“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.”
“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.”
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?