Why? Because we all do.
Everybody lies at some point in their life. So should your characters.
Maybe you have a character who lies all the time and doesn’t even know they’re doing it, like one of the world’s great pathological liars, Blanche DuBois, of Tennessee Williams‘, A Streetcar Named Desire. She’s desperately tortured and flawed, and there is no richer loam for creating life-like beings who tantalize us and endure, to say nothing of making for classic roles pursued by the best actors.
There are also levels of using lying as well as types of liars. Some characters might do nothing but lie to advance a specific goal, something you usually find in plot-driven genres such as Thrillers and Mysteries. Lies can drive a plot or can be used for creating a second act reversal in a screenplay or plot twist in a novel.
Some characters lie on the deepest levels – to themselves – which initiates painful inner dissonance and thereby creates the inner drama that great writing requires. I’m thinking more literary fiction and scripted dramas here, which certainly includes our dear Blanche. Literary fiction also loans itself to the flip side of the lie, when a character is challenged by what they feel is true and it is the world that lies to them, such as Carissa Dalloway in Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs. Dalloway.
See where I’m going with this? Knowing what kind of liar your protagonist is and their relationship to falsehoods spun adds muscle and connective tissue to the skeleton of your character.
Some characters might lie for intellectual speculation and entertainment, such as the billionaire manipulator, Maurice Conchis, in The Magus by John Fowles. That character went to great lengths to sustain a string of lies; no illusion too costly or elaborate, and for no reason other than to satisfy his insatiable curiosity about human behavior. The lies of Conchis become a frustrating maze for the narrator/protagonist whose adult life has been shaped by a deep and persistent pattern of lying to himself. In The Magus, lies reflect character motive and arc while driving the plot entirely. This method of weaving a tale made the truth revealed at the end all the more dramatic.
Maybe you have a character who is like most of us: not above bending the truth to save someone’s feelings, avoid judgment or to elude anticipated punishment should the truth be revealed, yet who essentially believes in candor and strives for honesty with others. In this case, can a white lie lead to real trouble?
Conversely, a character may set high stock on always being honest, wherein the act of lying has a deeper trigger and meaning and must be foresworn, even at great cost. In this sense, there is opportunity to put that character into a situation where they MUST lie, for whatever loaded reason, or suffer unbearable consequences. For a resolutely honest character, a lie can be an arc, inciting incident and/or plot twist.
So, the next time you’re building a character, doing back story to help you know them better, ask yourself: what kind of liar is this character? Is it a big deal if they lie? Or does it roll out of them second nature, like a con artist? Are they emotionally invested in their lies? Do they consciously choose to lie, or is it pathological? What are they protecting or advancing when they lie? Are they good or bad at it? Will their lies backfire? How do their lies affect the secondary characters? And so on. This is a revealing thread to pull…
If your story is populated with mostly honest people but you want to write gripping dialogue (and who doesn’t?), ask yourself what each character really wants during the scene, and how they will lie or withhold information about that to the other/s. This will help you avoid any “on the nose” dialogue (where people say exactly what they want and mean), which can come across as wooden and (ironically) false.
I’m not saying that you need to create an entire premise based on lies alone, although playwright David Mamet would say it’s been done, as would author John Le Carre and screenwriter/director Chris McQuarrie, to name only a few.
Defining how your characters’ lies shape them and how you can use the act of lying to develop your plot might seem counter-intuitive, given how we seek to strike notes of honesty, to write from our guts, but this exercise will open entirely new perspectives AND DEPTH in your work.
Would I lie to you? 😉