Crafting the Lie Your Character Believes in 5 Tidy Little Steps
Everybody’s got a little liar, liar, pants on fire in them. It’s usually an accident; the falsehoods we tell are born from our trauma and life experience. It’s how our brain makes sense of the world and protects us from future danger.
We live through something, process our feelings and observations, and produce some sort of explanation so we know how to avoid the undesirable aspect of that experience going forward.
In other words, we compulsively create rules for living that we think are based on hard-earned wisdom but are actually under-informed, wildly inaccurate declarations from our nervous little brains. Lies, basically.
Fortunately, this is a blog on writing, so no one’s here to analyze your trauma-informed perspective. Instead, we’re going to talk about your characters because, as it turns out, they’re just like us. They’ve got their own accidental Lies and those Lies are the keys to a compelling story.
Keep reading and you’ll discover:
- What we mean when we talk about “the Lie” in character development
- Where the Lie comes from
- Five steps for crafting a compelling Lie
- How to work the Lie into your character’s arc
This is important stuff—no foolin’. So stick with me.
What is the Lie?
The Lie—also known as The Lie Your Character Believes (coined by K.M. Weiland)—is the flawed personal philosophy that guides a character’s decisions. It might be something like, “I can’t depend on anyone but myself” or “my worth depends on my usefulness to other people.”
You know, depressing stuff like that.
The Purpose of the Lie Within Your Story
Now, why do we write characters who lie to themselves?
For one thing, it’s what people do. We’re all running around with flawed theories about ourselves and everybody else. And, like our characters, we (hopefully) learn to challenge those beliefs and become better, wiser people over the course of our lives.
But aside from simply making a character more realistic, the Lie also plays a major role in your story. It does stuff like:
Generate conflict - For example, the protagonist who believes falling in love will only leave you burned meets someone they can’t resist. Things are going to get much worse before they get better.
Drive the character arc - Many characters go through an arc—a journey of change that involves discovering the Truth and releasing the Lie. Or abandoning the Truth for an appealing Lie. Or trading one Lie in for a worse Lie. It’s complicated. We’ll get into all that in a bit.
Highlight the theme - In most stories, the central theme is the Truth the protagonist finally embraces by the end. You can also use the Lies of side characters to shed more light on your theme.
Where the Lie Comes From
The tricky thing about the Lie is that the believer of the Lie feels protected by it. This is because the human brain is an anxious little goober determined to prevent past pain from ever happening again.
If you get attacked by a dog in your childhood, your brain will probably set off an alarm every time you see a dog. You’ll feel that prickly anxiety heat and instinctively back away, no matter how insistent the owner is that you pet the dog to see how sweet he is.
That’s your character with their own Lie. Their flawed worldview isn’t the result of poor reasoning. It’s a shield protecting them from a repeat of their most traumatic moment. That’s why they cling to it. They’re not stubborn. They’re not ignorant. They’re terrified.
So in order to craft a powerful Lie, you need to support it with a powerful backstory. What experience taught your character to believe what they believe?
That moment in your character’s history is known as the Ghost, and this thing haunts.
Let’s say a broken engagement left your protagonist believing that they’re not lovable enough for a lifetime commitment. Then they meet someone who seems to adore them. Every time they start to get comfortable in their budding romance, the Ghost starts rattling those chains.
Maybe the ex-fiancé announces their elopement on Instagram. Maybe the new love interest goes silent for a day and your protagonist starts spiraling. There’s the Ghost, whispering, “Remember how painful that was?” And the Lie is back in action.
How to Craft a Compelling Lie in Five Steps
First, I want to make it clear that your protagonist doesn’t need to be the only character who believes a Lie. We tend to talk about the protagonist’s Lie the most because it drives the central conflict of the story.
But you’ll want a few side characters to grapple with their own Lies. These subplots should still feel connected to the main storyline, either because they heighten the main conflict, contribute to the theme, or parallel the main character’s arc in a way that sheds light on the protagonist’s journey (see our article on foils for more on that).
It’s also possible for your main character to be the one person who knows the Truth while everyone around them is entrenched in a Lie. For example, maybe your protagonist is the only one who realizes their “utopian” society isn’t what it seems.
Now let’s dig into the five key steps for crafting a compelling Lie, whoever’s Lie it is.
1. Connect it to Your Character’s Sense of Safety or Self-Worth
As we discussed, your character should see the Lie as something that keeps them safe or secure in their self-worth. Make it crystal clear what the character believes they risk by setting down the Lie to dabble in the Truth.
Heartbreak? Abandonment? Value as a human being? Death?
2. Root it in a Powerful Backstory
The Ghost doesn’t have to be a single traumatic event in your character’s backstory. It can be a series of events, like multiple foster care placements that slowly chip away at your character’s belief that they’ll ever belong anywhere.
It can even be something that started out positive, but now they’re clinging too hard to it. Maybe they’re stubbornly following in their late mother’s footsteps, desperate to keep their idealized version of her alive and unwilling to admit she might not have been the perfect role model.
Whatever it is, sprinkle details throughout your novel that help your reader understand the emotional weight of the backstory. You can do this through flashbacks, character thoughts, dialogue… whatever gets the job done.
3. Link It to Your Character’s Goal
Your character’s goal should reflect the Lie. They’re running for president because they believe the power they hold determines their worth. Or they’re desperately trying to get out of their hometown because they’re convinced they can’t live a meaningful life in a small town.
4. Make Sure It Creates Conflict and Prevents Resolution
As your character pursues their goal, they should confront obstacles that challenge the Lie. Maybe the character running for president confronts tension at home as their increasingly corrupt tactics draw a wedge between them and their spouse.
5. Drive Home the Theme
The Lie should point to the theme. In Seven Days in June, Eva believes her chronic illness makes her “too much” for a romantic partner to deal with. This highlights the theme that love isn’t about “dealing with” another person, it’s about understanding and supporting them on their journey.
Character Arc: The Lie in Action
Once you’ve worked out the Ghost, the Lie, and how these deceptive little beasts serve your conflict and theme, it’s time to work the Lie into your character arc.
For an in-depth guide, you can check out our character arc template. For now, I’ll give you an overview of how to weave the Lie into your character’s particular journey.
See, you’ve got several different options when it comes to the type of arc your character has. Each version plays with the Lie a little differently.
Let’s look at these one by one.
This is the one we see the most. In a positive character arc, your protagonist initially believes a Lie. They pursue an objective that may be a perfectly reasonable goal—even a virtuous one—but it’s still motivated by a flawed belief system.
The Lie also influences the way your character pursues their goal. For example, if your character falsely believes they can’t depend on anyone but themselves, they’ll repeatedly reject help. Meanwhile, they’ll see little glimpses of the Truth, like when friends show up for them unbidden.
The Lie will eventually drive them to make a mistake big enough that they have to make a choice between continuing to cling to the Lie or boldly embracing a new Truth.
This is a positive arc, so they’ll choose the Truth.
A disillusionment arc resembles a positive arc in that the character begins with a Lie and gradually learns the Truth. The twist is that the Lie is a far more pleasant belief system than the Truth.
For example, let’s say your character is a bright-eyed intern who plans to go into nonprofit management, believing that human beings are naturally inclined to take care of one another. As their internship progresses, they discover vast corruption in the nonprofit world and come to accept the Truth* that human beings will always default to their own best interests.
(*It hurts to even call that a Truth. This is why I don’t write disillusionment arcs.)
In a fall arc, your character starts with a Lie, briefly entertains the Truth, but then rejects it in favor of an even more destructive Lie, usually because the Truth left them vulnerable.
Let’s say that intern is actually a jaded, directionless youth who believes everybody is just looking out for themselves. Then something about the nonprofit’s mission touches on a cause they really care about, despite their cynicism.
They start to feel a little inspired to do some good in the world, but then discover the organization’s corrupt underbelly. Now fully convinced that it’s a dog-eat-dog world, they decide to manipulate the system for their own gain.
In a corruption arc, the character knows the Truth at the beginning of the story but is ultimately seduced by the Lie.
In this case, your intern character knows most human beings want to make the world a better place. But when they discover the self-serving deeds of the folks who run the nonprofit, they see an opportunity to gain money and power. They readily embrace the Lie that it’s every person for themselves in this cutthroat world.
This type of arc works best when the Lie gives the character an opportunity to find relief from a vulnerability or wound. Perhaps the intern has always felt small or powerless or could use the money to take care of a sick loved one.
It always comes back to the Ghost.
In a flat arc, your character doesn’t change. This usually goes one of two ways.
One: there is no significant Lie. The character is just their delightful interesting self chapter after chapter, book after book. Joyce Meadowcroft (The Thursday Murder Club) is my favorite Lie-free, flat-arc character.
Two: the character lives by the Lie, is presented with the Truth, and decides to just stick with the Lie. You see this a lot in gritty mystery or thriller series where the protagonist is relentlessly cynical or can’t get their personal life in order.
You’ll always have a few side characters with flat arcs. If you want to give your protagonist a flat arc, make sure it’s appropriate for your genre.
Keeping Track of All Your Lies
You’ll likely have multiple characters with Lies to manage. This can get messy, especially as you make sure every subplot serves a purpose and progresses at the right pace.
If I may offer one bonus tip: use Dabble to keep all these falsehoods in order.
Not only does Dabble allow you to create a beautiful and comprehensive profile for every character, but it also provides an easy way to track their arcs in the Plot Grid. I mean, check this thing out:
Every card you create for each scene is right at your fingertips as you write your manuscript. It couldn’t be easier.
Want to try it for yourself? Click this link to start a free 14-day trial, no credit card required.
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