Dana's Dojo: Calling Your Characters Liars

Today in the Dojo: How showing your characters up as big fat liars can be a good thing.

Anyone who claims to be good at lying is obviously bad at lying. Thus – as a writer myself – I cannot comment on whether or not writers are exceptionally good liars, because whatever I said would actually mean its complete opposite.
-Chuck Klosterman

(Originally Written: Mexico, October 15th, 2005)

Yes, I am this devoted to you guys: I’m writing by moonlight in Mexico, listening to the sprinklers, surf and conversations between friends, writing a column that will be posted during NaNo madness in November.

I would be a liar if I told you I’m not pausing the words here and there to join in with said conversation.

On the drive down here, I started exploring topics I have yet to cover.  (Take it from me: taking notes on a bumpy highway by intermittent moonlight is no simple task.)  As we passed through Ajo, the memory of one of my favorite Connie Willis novels struck me.  Connie remains The Master at calling her characters liars.  And I figured it was high time I introduced you guys to this very shifty tool of the writers’ trade, if you haven’t already discovered it for yourselves.

Yes, I know.  We spend so much time trying to make our characters believable.  We fight to sustain the readers’ willing suspension of disbelief.  Why the hell would we jeopardize that by calling our own carefully realized story people bald-faced liars?

Because it’s a perfect technique to make the characters all the more believable, my darlings.  Believe it or not.

Think about it.  How often do people lie to us in the course of a day?  How often do we lie to ourselves?  How often do we see our friends believing something we know to be untrue (“The Space Aliens will come down and bring universal peace and harmony if I just buy these special communicators!”)?  Okay, that’s a bit over-the-top, but think of the more subtle situations, like our friends believing they’re boring conversationalists when they’re actually the most interesting people at the party.  Lies and self-deception are a part of life, and therefore will end up a part of your writing: you will at some point call your characters liars because all humans lie  The question before us is, what kind of liars are they?  And how should we call them on it?

We know the obvious ways: “Joe knew Brenda was lying.  She couldn’t have been abducted by aliens unless Harrah’s Casino had opened a spaceship franchise.”  That’s straight telling, and it’s quick and easy.  If we trust Joe, we’ll believe what he said about Brenda without the author showing us how he knew.  What I want to aim us at, however, is a more subtle approach.

Before we do that, we should take a moment to identify sundry species of lies and the liars who tell them:

Villains, Crooks and Petty Con Artists: Yeah, we’re starting with the obvious.  These people lie for fun and profit, and know they’re lying.  They make their living at it.  This category includes your classic wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing and other sundry unsavories.

The Clueless Crowd: They don’t know the truth.  They might not want the truth.  They might not be able to handle the truth.  They certainly can’t recognize it.  These are the folks suckered in by get-rich-quick schemes, the latest fads, campaign promises, cults, the villain, and on and on.

The Self-Delusive: Close kin to the Clueless.  They talk themselves into believing things that aren’t true about themselves and others: they’re fine, they’re flawed, too fat/thin, smart/stupid, funny/humorless, knowledgeable/uninformed… the list continues into infinity.  Take your pick.  This also covers the type of liar who thinks that lies are more fun than truth, who create a whole alternate self to seem more interesting, and end up believing their own schtick.

The Sparing Liar: White Lies R Us.  We all use them at times.  And you’re a liar if you say you don’t….  (ba-dum-dum).  However, there are some people who use them all the time, in excess, and without ever being able to tell people what they’re really thinking because they don’t want to hurt them.  You can decide on degree here and create either a Situational Sparing Liar (most of us) or a Chronic or Habitual Sparing Liar.

The Noble Liar: Lying for a Good Cause.  The lies can be big or small, told by leaders or followers, as long as the lie is told in service to what that person considers to be a good cause.  And sometimes they’re right: the truth would have been a bad thing to tell and would have caused more harm than good.  Separated from white lies by the scope and purpose of the lie: it’s not a little pep-me-up lie, the consequences of the truth outing are bigger, and not told to save feelings, but lives or institutions.

The types of lies follow the list of types of liars pretty closely.  Besides, I probably don’t need to define what a falsehood is.  The truth is relative in fiction, anyway: the truth is anything that’s true in your story, and anything that goes against that truth might very well be a lie.  I trust you guys to figure it out.

So once you’ve identified the lie and its liar(s), you have to decide how to reveal it.  Remember: we’re being subtle here.  Maybe we want only the Reader to know, in which case we can’t have the characters reveal it directly – a problem in fiction limited to revealing what the characters know.  Maybe a few characters are In the Know, but we want the readers to work it out for themselves.  Maybe we want to hoodwink the reader and characters both, but have to lay a foundation so that when we reveal the lies they’ll scream “I should have seen that coming!” instead of “Hey, that came out of nowhere!  No fair!”

There are many useful techniques for doing all of the above, probably far more than I’m aware of.  I’ll reveal to you as many as I can.

What I Say, What I Do.  This technique is the easiest: you simply contrast what the character says against what they actually do.  Say there’s just been a scene where the character is telling a friend about their deep love for animals and how they’ve been a member of PETA for years.  The we see this character kick a starving stray off the porch and give the miserable creature no further thought.  We know then that this character isn’t as compassionate toward animals as he/she would like others to believe.  If this action was taken in front of another character who knows about the earlier statements, that character is clued in as well.

This technique can be inverted however you like: the character doesn’t have to say sweet things and do nasty.  It could be the opposite: “I hate animals!” and then the stealthy feeding of the stray.  Or, “I love adventure!” but the character’s a file clerk who never leaves the house.

Listen Very Carefully to What I’m Saying.  Much more subtle and fun.  As Nikki has pointed out in the sadly deceased Death Thread, a person’s word choice says more about them than their surface meaning.  Bob may tell you, “I firmly believe women are equals to men.”  But if you then hear him describe women in terms that subordinate them or perpetuate myths, like “I enjoy girls in the boardroom, they’re more intuitive than men,” you realize that maybe Bob isn’t the believer in Women’s Lib that he thinks he is.  Even if he says something more subtle, like “I firmly believe the ladies are equal to men,” you can give the reader a hint that he’s a womanizer.

Also remember the power of the character protesting too much.  Cops know that if someone’s putting up too much information, something’s wrong.  Readers know it, too.  If a fellow character asks Bob his opinion on Women’s Lib and gets a dissertation on women’s equality to men, the reader knows that this guy could easily be blowing smoke, unless of course he’s a fanatic.  They’ll be paying closer attention to his actions to see if they match his speech.  Just be careful not to overdo the dialogue if you go this route.

What’s the Buzz?  A further takeoff on the Dialogue Method of Calling People Liars.  What are the characters saying about the character in question?  That can reveal them in a whole new light.  This technique can be as obvious as, “Bob is a lying wretch.  He talks about women’s rights, but I know for a fact he keeps his wife barefoot and pregnant.”  But we were aiming for subtlety, so let’s have the secretary respond to a colleague’s statement about dearest Bob’s enlightened views: “I’m so happy I work for a man who supports women in the workplace!  Excuse me, I have to go pick up his dry cleaning.  I wish he’d pay me for all the extra things he has me do for him.”

You can also use the Mysterious Monosyllable method here: the secretary just responds with, “Uh-huh” or “Great.  Yeah.”  Never forget the power of the properly placed mysterious monosyllable.

Public vs. Private Face.  You can have much fun with this.  The person who’s the coolest head in the corporate crisis melts down into a puddle of indecision when it comes time to decide what to pop in the microwave.  The flashily dressed nightclub Romeo goes home to a hovel and can’t even get his dog to pay attention to him. 

Think of the masks we wear.  Think of who’s revealed when, safely alone, we take them off.  And private life can extend into dreams, fantasies and other manifestations of the subconscious.

Snoop Through the Stuff.  The things we choose to represent us, the things we are drawn to, what we wear and what we eat says a lot about us.  So show the reader what your character treasures, what they covet, and what they linger over that tells us they’re lying.  The woman who claims she never wants to be married window-shops for wedding dresses.  The man who portrays himself as macho sets his table with perfectly matched china.  The person who hates her mother wi

ll not throw away those hideous knickknacks she keeps getting from Mom.

It also helps to show whether this stuff’s in plain sight or hidden.  That tells us the degree of the importance of the lie to that character.  Mr. Macho may go to great lengths to never let slip to his football buddies the existence of that Wedgwood dinnerware set, and that says a lot about how he views what “macho” is and what it means to him.

Where Do I Belong?  Any organization your character belongs to from political groups to the local gym can be revealing.  Whom do they associate with?  Whom do they support?  Why?  If the organizations a character belongs to or supports clash with other info, we know we’ve got a liar on our hands.

Remember that organizations don’t have to be formal.  They can be little hobby groups or just a particular circle of friends.  The important thing to show is that the ideals or interests these folks hold in common do not match the ideals or interests the character has proclaimed to be their own.  And if they’re trying to conceal that association from others, they’re aware of their lie.

The Author’s Tone.  This could be the most overlooked and deviously subtle technique of all.  If you take a particular tone – bitter, sarcastic, admiring, etc. – that contrasts with all the other clues, the reader will pick up on that.  The words you choose to surround your character with may be the most telling clues of all.

You can take that tone immediately or introduce it more gradually, and support it with a few other anomalies here and there to make sure the reader doesn’t decide that you’re the lying bastard here.

In all of the above, the temptation to comment will be overwhelming at times.  We know what we want the reader to believe, and we want to make sure they “get it”.  Resist the urge to follow up a wonderful, subtle sentence like, “I hate people who obsess over material things, Bob thought as he polished his Rolex” with “He was just as obsessed with material goods as anyone else.”  Leave it at the Rolex.  Let the reader figure it out.

All of this seems like stuff you’d mostly use in third person POV, but many of the above techniques will work equally well in the first person.  But how do you tell the reader something about the character that the character doesn’t know himself if it’s first person?  It can be done.  I leave it to you to read Chapter One of Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog to find out how.  I’m not going to spoil the surprise by telling you the trick.  I’ll just say this: when I “got it” before the narrator did, I laughed out loud from the thrill.

That’s what you want to give your reader: the delight of knowing something others don’t, and the satisfaction of catching people in a lie.

Dana's Dojo: Calling Your Characters Liars