"Everybody lies." This phrase was the motto of the television series, House MD, but how true is it? More importantly for the fiction writer, how much truth should you incorporate inside your story? How much should your characters lie and engage in deception?
To come at this from another angle, how much should your characters trust each other? How much should they betray each other? Actions based on trust and treachery can play huge roles in moving your story forward. In this column we'll examine many of the relationships that can be mapped in the reading experience -- characters to other characters, narrator and author -- and see how lies and deception can be used to move your story forward.
If you're writing fiction, then in a sense your entire opus is a lie. There's a book on writing by Lawrence Block and Susan Grafton, called Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. I haven't read it, but I've learned a lot from Block's articles, so it probably contains useful information. However, the idea that all of fiction is a lie is a rather meta, bird's-eye approach to lies in fiction. Let's move on to the more practical issue of whether your characters should lie to each other within the story.
As lying is, alas, pretty common among humans, having a story in which no one lies would not be a particularly accurate portrayal of reality. Nevertheless, there are certain times when the author of fiction may want to avoid it. Lying may not be required by the story. If you're writing something short, you may not have time and space for lies. Some plots, for example in some romances, are based more on misunderstandings than on actual lies. Lies complicate and confuse, so fiction may contain fewer lies, in one sense, than real life (OK, I'm a cynic).
There are some fiction genres in which lying is rare. Stories for very young children and some religious-themed fiction may frown on having liars among the characters. Occasionally in these stories people do lie, but in these cases the lie may be a very big deal. In Rumer Godden's In this House of Brede, a nun who has lied is tormented by guilt.
Other genres practically require characters to lie. In nearly all detective stories, at least one of the characters will be dishonest. In other stories, lying is a more haphazard occurrence, based on what is required for the plot and consistent with characters.
Lies and liars can be studied on many levels, but in this little column I want to look at lies in terms of characters. Who lies to whom, and how can you use that in your story?
Character in Story Lies to Protagonist. This is often the most frequent or at least obvious type of lie that occurs in stories. The lie may not be obvious at first, because frequently the protagonist (and the reader, depending on the POV) may or may not realize that Dr. X is lying.
Authority Lies to Everyone. When the government lies, or lies through the media, it is called propaganda. Note that when the authorities -- and they could be educators, religious organizations, and corporations -- in your stories lie, you create a tense backdrop for your plot. When society, or the powers controlling society, are untrustworthy, even malevolent, then your protagonist will most likely be the underdog and will have an uphill fight. This sort of situation can be unpleasant, even dangerous, if you experience it in real life, but it can be thrilling to read.
Protagonist Lies to Others. When your protagonist starts lying to other characters in the story and scheming in a way that the readers can perceive, how your readers feel about the character may change. As mentioned earlier, in some genres a protagonist who lies may not be acceptable. In other genres it is not as forbidden but still can be risky. On the other hand it can be extremely entertaining.
Nevertheless, as lying is generally considered morally ambiguous, you probably want to ask why your hero is bending, or even breaking, the truth. Is it for survival? To protect others? For gain? Is the lie, perhaps, really the lesser of two evils or does it make your hero a bad person? Notice that Harry Potter, despite being the hero of that series, lies frequently, for many reasons.
Protagonist Lies to Self. Protagonists (and any other characters) may lie to themselves. These are generally considered rationalizations. They happen because the character may want to seem richer or more powerful or even more beautiful than she is. They may lie to themselves to justify actions that they know are bad at one level They may lie to themselves because the truth is simply too painful or has too many consequences. For example, a man may not want to admit that his much younger wife is cheating on him. A woman may be too horrified to admit that her husband is a gangster. Parents -- or children -- may refuse to know that their nearest and dearest are terrible criminals, such as embezzlers, or serial killers, or pedophiles.
Narrator Lies to Audience. Sometimes the narrator is lying and/or deliberately misleading. There are several famous instances of this, including an Agatha Christie novel in which the narrator turned out to be the murderer.
Author Lies to Audience. This is different from the narrator lying. When the narrator lies, it is generally done in first person in a voice belonging to the story, and the lies are generally discovered within the story -- or is otherwise made obvious to the readers, as may be the case in a first person story with a self-deluded narrator.
The author who lies to the audience often does so outside the story. There could be a deliberate falsehood in the Author's Note. Perhaps the author has gone on a talk show and claimed that the novel is based on a true story, even when it was not. This really annoys me; however, as novels allegedly based on true stories tend to sell better, I can understand why the authors are tempted to do it -- as was the case with James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. (When this happens, I make a point of not buying their works, but I seem to be in the minority.)
This is where it gets rather complicated: Who believes the lies being told, and who doesn't?
Let's start with the category in which most of the characters do NOT believe the lies. If others do not believe the lies, you may well wonder why they are being told at all. However, there are instances. A character could be giving a necessary compliment, such as, "Your Majesty, I hope you live forever!" when everyone knows that's impossible and the person saying it clearly hopes the opposite. The lie could be propaganda, not meant for those in authority or even those being repressed but for posterity. (Some of the hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt laud the victory of the king, but those victories keep taking place closer and closer to home, suspiciously similar to retreats and defeats.) The untruth could be a code, as when Spock says two days but means two hours in The Wrath of Khan.
Let's move on to another category: the protagonist doesn't believe the lie, but everyone around her does. If the protagonist is working hard to convince her friends that Lady W is a corrupt liar but no one believes her -- instead they believe Lady W -- the tension grows.
Let's consider the situation in which your protagonist believes the lie. Then you need to figure out if and when your protagonist learns the truth. How is the truth revealed? How does the character change or grow as a result?
The revelation of the truth is a turning point in many stories. Perhaps it is a terrible realization, as the character discovers that he has based dreadful actions on a lie, as in Shakespeare's Othello. Perhaps it is provides an opportunity, as when Mr. Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice, contradicts the lies told about him and so becomes a suitable suitor for Elizabeth Bennet. Perhaps it takes the narrator in an unexpected direction, as when the second Mrs. de Winter learns the truth about her husband's feelings for his first wife in Rebecca.
In this section we'll discuss the impact of the lies within your story on your readers. Note that I do not mean the lies that I discussed above, those told by authors to burnish their image and to beef up their sales, but the lies told within the text. Do you expect your readers to believe these lies or not?
I believe there are three categories. In the first, you expect and intend for nearly all of your readers to believe the Dr. Z's lies. I say nearly all, because some readers, depending on their experience of life and literature, will always be suspicious. In the second category you expect your readers to realize that Dr. Z is lying and will be increasing tension as they wait for the hero to discover it too. In the third category, you're going for the middle ground. You want some readers to get it and others not to get it -- this might be considered fair play in a detective story.
Note that there is another category of reader, the readers who know everything because they are not reading your story for the first time. They are seeing everything again! Perhaps you don't think it's worth considering them; you would be happy just to get someone to read your story once. But I think that if a story is worth reading once, it is worth reading twice. When I learn that someone is reading a novel of mine again, simply for the pleasure of it, I feel especially gratified, and I try to write in such a way that they will discover more if they make the journey through my imaginary a second time. Have you seen the movie The Sixth Sense? It is fascinating to re-watch, because you interpret everything differently.
The Greeks -- at least some of them -- admired liars so much that they made Hermes the god of them. Odysseus, who came up with the deceptive ruse (the horse) that enabled the Greeks to win the Trojan War, was lauded by the Greeks for his cleverness. Certainly his lie saved the Greeks more losses in war -- but of course the Trojans felt differently. But for our purpose we can state that lies have been a staple of entertainment for millennia.
Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at
Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such
publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her
hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring
mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or
contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.
Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.