Writers are liars. We spend hours trying to make imaginary people and places seem realistic enough that the line between fact and fiction blurs inside readers’ heads. We want the sensory details to be so tangible that they can see, hear, and feel everything the characters experience. But readers aren’t the only parties we need to convince. Our characters should be tangled up in the deception too.
With the exception of flat arcs, every story revolves around a character living out the consequences of a falsehood until he embraces the truth that will set him free. Without a lie, your character will lack an internal struggle that pushes him toward growth. Without an internal struggle, the outer struggle loses its meaning. And without meaning, what’s the point of writing fiction?
That’s a sobering question. Even if you’re a pantser who tosses outlining into a pit of lava, you need to know your character’s lie intimately to be able to impact your audience. If the lie isn’t both complex and relatable, you’ll end up flinging more than story structure into that bubbling crater.
So how do you craft a lie your character can’t resist believing and readers can’t resist watching unfold? With four preparatory tactics.
1. State the Lie in Clear Terms
Back when I first started writing, I had enough smarts to saddle my protagonist with a lie. My problem? I never defined it. I had a general sense of what was influencing him, but like the pantser that I am, that’s all I based his development on: an amorphous blob of intuition.
Whether you’re a pantser, plotter, or plantser, you need to understand your character beyond a shadow of a doubt. Until you do, he’ll wander aimlessly from one lie to the next.
So grab a slip of paper (or your smartphone) and describe your character’s lie in the plainest language possible. Don’t fret about sounding profound or eloquent. This is for your eyes alone. Focus on clarity and jot down every possible form the lie could take. Which one fits best? Could you shorten or simplify it?
If you’re completely in the dark about your character’s beliefs, list all of the lies he could be listening to and ask yourself which one is really behind his issues. You might discover that your original assumptions about him are inaccurate. For example, my protagonist abandons his lifework after his partner (and only friend) dies. You might jump to the conclusion that he can’t bear to carry on the project without his friend. But, in actuality, ridicule from others has been eating away at him for years, and his friend’s passing is merely an excuse to give up.
Once you’ve identified your character’s lie, set it in front of you every time you write to ensure that his voice and actions align with it. Readers may not witness all of your behind-the-scenes scribbling, but they’ll appreciate the clear picture it enables you to portray.
2. Make the Lie Unique
I realize that I encouraged you to streamline your character’s lie if possible, but don’t exchange specificity for monotony. The lie should be distinct, drawing from your character’s past and personality. No other character would buy into it except him.
Let’s say your protagonist is a thirty-year-old man named Joel who believes people can’t be trusted. That’s too generic. Instead, you could have him believe that pastors can’t be trusted. That’s a touch better. Now explain why he has these misgivings. For instance: he suspects that pastors hide destructive behavior under the veneer of public righteousness and authority.
You’ve now designed a specific lie for a specific character. However, that’s still not enough. You need to determine where the character’s misconceptions are coming from (hint: backstory). A character who embodies a lie for no reason is entirely unacceptable and thoroughly unrealistic. His perceptions must be connected to some sort of rationale, whether how he was raised, a situation that scarred him emotionally, or his recent interactions with certain people.
Joel might not have always been paranoid about pastors. But maybe a few years ago a pastor abused his wife to keep her quiet about information that would have required him to resign as the head of a profitable and prestigious ministry. Digging into the where and when unearths the seed that sprouted Joel’s lie.
If you’re having trouble narrowing down your character’s lie, mull over the following questions:
- Has the character always believed the lie? If not, for how long?
- Do any of the other characters believe the lie? If so, how do they externalize it?
- What/who caused the character to believe in the lie?
- How does the character’s personality affect the lie? What about his religion and values?
- Why does the lie appeal to this particular character?
3. Create Sub-Lies
In the first few drafts of my work-in-progress, my protagonist tended to bounce between two lies. Which meant the story bounced between two messages. And that made me bounce between confusion and anguish. Now, a character can believe in multiple lies, and a story can convey multiple themes. But one theme and one lie should be more prominent than the others and tinge all of the story’s events. Without this axis, you’ll obscure your intent.
After I decided which lie to keep in my WIP, I realized that the other one was a result of it. Oftentimes the main lie will give birth to smaller lies. For example, Joel’s belief that pastors are evil causes him to view all Christians as hypocrites and church services as dangerous. His lie might also make him wary of deacons, evangelists, and others in the ministry field.
Interestingly enough, these sub-lies are highly beneficial because they demonstrate the pervasiveness of your character’s main lie. A few baby lies have probably shown up in your manuscript already, but don’t stop there. Brainstorm as many as you can. You don’t have to use all of the ideas (nor should you), and several will probably be different manifestations of the main lie. The purpose of this exercise is to sketch out all the angles and offshoots of your character’s main lie so that you can then select the ones that best accentuate it.
4. Become Familiar with the Lie
You can’t flesh out a lie until you’re thoroughly acquainted with it. Flip it inside and out until you feel the force of it to the same degree your character does. How does it color his world? By darkening it, or turning it rosy? Does the lie make him love or hate his life? Most importantly, how does it leak into his everyday activities, habits, and conversations?
Maybe the character thinks of himself as incompetent, so in social settings he babbles on about mundane topics to distract people from his clumsiness. In the case of Joel, he might carry a tattered pocket Bible that he squeezes whenever he’s stressed. Or perhaps he’s forever getting into arguments with his Presbyterian brother about religion being a waste of time. If you want to study character habits further, I recommend picking up a copy of Brandilyn Collins’ book Getting into Character.
Before completing this last step, jot down yet another list that includes all of the side effects and emotions associated with your character’s lie. That’ll supply you with material for his arc like this: Joel’s cynicism drives him to seek advice from his atheist friends instead of Christians, which leads from poor choices to feelings of emptiness that make him irritable and prevent him from forming friendships.
Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire
A character’s lie is crucial to your story, so don’t neglect it. All this note-taking may seem like an unnecessary hassle—after all, readers won’t see it. But if a patch of fog covers your character’s lie, they will notice that you didn’t clear your head before writing the story.
So, whether you apply these tips or find another method that suits you better, go out and concoct the strongest lie you can.
Just don’t let your characters catch you at it.
Mariposa Aristeo is a writer of quirky characters and fantastical adventures filled with heart, humor, hope, and, very often, dinosaurs. If you can’t find her in one of her own imaginary worlds, try combing the pages of a great middle-grade fantasy novel.
At Story Embers, igniting (and sometimes imploding) ideas is her favorite pastime, so she often uses her creativity to make graphics for articles and writing quotes, as well as implement new strategies for SE’s social media channels. Explosions aside, she loves getting to know each and every writer here at SE by running the popular #embersgram hashtag on Instagram and responding to your questions and emails.
Besides being a co-owner of Story Embers, Mariposa is an ACFW First Impressions contest finalist, a children’s book illustrator, and the host of the IGTV series #middlegrademagicwithmari. You can check out her book recommendations (and shenanigans) on her Instagram page or her character sketches on her art account.