Last week I told some people the story of when my wife was in high school and she divorced her husband because he refused to buy her a dishwasher. I enjoy watching people react to that leading line, and the best part is, my statement is completely true.
However, as in life, characters in stories don’t have to be truthful. They can be deceitful and manipulative and try and influence people to do what they want, or react in a certain way, as I had intended by my high school divorce statement. In fact, a story is often better when it includes that kind of behavior because telling lies mirrors real life. Unfortunately, this aspect of storytelling is too often overlooked.
I don’t remember where I first heard or read the advice to have your character lie, but it is something I have to remind myself of from time to time as it is easy to forget. When you are narrating a story, you as the narrator generally are truthful in all of your statements. You have to be to keep the reader from getting frustrated and assuming the story is full of inconsistencies. As a result, when you switch to talking with the voice of a character, it is natural to continue the truthfulness. It can take conscious thought to remember that people lie to each other as well as themselves. For example, how many of us have thought something along the lines of: It’s his own damn fault; he should never have said that. I didn’t start it. Probably even more often, people stretch the truth. “You should have seen it; there must have been fifty people at that party. No, really, I was there and…”
The critical thing is to stay true to the personality of the character. You may be writing a flamboyant character who invents stories all the time about when she jumped a train and then stowed away on a tall ship that crossed the ocean. Or you might be writing a serious man who cannot see the truth through his skewed perception and tells himself only what he wants to hear. But those are more obvious examples. Another could be a person who realizes they messed up, but is afraid to admit it to others, so they cover the truth with a lie. This is something I would say everyone has done at least once in their life.
Balance the show and tell
The trick is keeping clarity for the reader as the characters tell convincing lies. As an author, you need to make sure the reader understands what is a lie or an exaggeration to avoid the appearance of inconsistent writing. If the reader cannot tell the difference, then when they read something contradictory, it can halt the flow of the story as the reader puzzles out why something does not make sense and tries to determine it if was intentional or if the author is incompetent.
On the other side, the author cannot explain every lie either, as that could be viewed as insulting the reader’s intelligence. A reader will enjoy spotting the lies and going “yeah, I know what is going on here.” The balance is peppering the hints and clues, or having another character call out the lie, without destroying the sense of discovery (back to the ever important show, don’t tell rule of writing).
So, you might be wondering about the truthfulness of my wife’s high school divorce. Well, as I said, it is true. She had an arranged marriage; the Social Studies teacher paired her up with another student for a class assignment. Everyone had to keep a budget and negotiate things like a married couple would. Different couples had different salaries and levels of expenses. She wanted a dishwasher (which I will add is a perfectly reasonable request). When he refused, she petitioned the teacher for a divorce, which the teacher granted.
In case anyone is wondering, we have a dishwasher in the house.