Liars are everywhere in stories. In fact, stories themselves can be considered giant lies. Since it is conventional for children’s books to at least end on a hopeful note — and very often the entire book is far more idealised than any real-world analogue could be — surely this is a form of lying to children about the real world?
Entire genres are about finding out the truth:
- Detective Crime is all about deciding whose version of a story is the truth. Our crime fighting heroes always care deeply about the truth.
- Mystery asks “How can we come to know the truth?” (By definition, a mystery is simply something that defies our usual understanding of the world.)
- Anti-Westerns critique the story given by classical Westerns and ask us to consider the truth about The Wild West (that it was a brutal, unjust, hellish place)
- In magical realism characters—especially the narrator—might not know what is happening any more than the reader, so they are discovering the truth of their reality as they go along.
- In a thriller, the perpetrator is known, but his guilt is not absolutely certain—or the hero wishes not to accept the truth of his guilt. (The uncertainty enhances the suspense.)
- Superhero stories are wish fulfilment fantasies in which everyone eventually ‘learns the wonderful truth about me’ (I am amazing when you unwrap my everyday clothes and put me in lycra).
- In many comedies a hero will be wearing some kind of ‘mask’ but eventually, after some sort of spiritual crisis, this mask will be ripped off and the other characters will learn who this hero really is.
- A parable illustrates a simple truth for teaching purposes.
- Absurdist stories focus on the experiences of characters in situations where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life, most often represented by ultimately meaningless actions and events that call into question the certainty of existential concepts such as truth or value
- Drama is often about the difference between a character’s public persona and what’s really going on underneath. We watch drama to learn about the lives we never find out about in our real-world acquaintances.
The cinema cannot show the truth, or reveal it, because the truth is not out there in the real world, waiting to be photographed. What the cinema can do is produce meanings and meanings can only be plotted, not in relation to some abstract yardstick or criterion of truth, but in relation to other meanings.
Of course we can say this about truth as explored in any kind of story, be it film, novel, narrative poetry or television commercial.
THE DIFFERENCE IN TRUTH BETWEEN FICTION AND REALITY
Fictional stories are make believe on the surface but true underneath. Real life, on the other hand, may be believable on the surface but is often unbelievable underneath. … In movies, screenplays and novels, we need to know the inner truths of the characters. Your characters’ actions in response to whatever incredible situation you’ve created must be reasonable, justified and believable.
— Michael Hauge, Story Mastery website
The most dangerous untruths are truths slightly distorted.
~ G.C. Lightenberg
TRUTH AND STORY STRUCTURE
Within a story structure, the truth will be revealed at the ‘self-revelation’ stage. (After the Battle, before New Equilibrium.)
Sometimes the audience is let in on the truth of the situation at the beginning of a story. For instance, in some crime stories the reader knows who the villain is from the get-go. This type of detective story is no longer a whodunnit but a whydunnit.
TRUTH TROPES IN STORYTELLING
LIAR TROPE 1: NOBODY BELIEVES THE HERO
COMMON CHARACTER ARC: The underdog hero must take matters into their own hands, saving the day somehow. Only by proving themselves truthful will be finally be accepted by their community.
This is basically the plot of every episode of Courage The Cowardly Dog. It works. Frankly, how quick would you be to trust someone who said there was a flying saucer in the field next door? This initial disbelief is almost mandatory — a type of lampshading for the audience who would otherwise think, “Now who would believe that?”
Nobody believes Lucy when she walks through the back of the wardrobe. Honestly, wouldn’t you believe Edmond?
Edmund’s lie of omission, failing to tell his siblings about his encounter with the White Witch, drives much of the drama in the first Narnia story. Interestingly, though, he is probably judged more harshly by contemporary readers than Lewis intended. It is almost impossible, now, to imagine the feelings a child – used to the privations of wartime Britain – might experience on being offered some Turkish Delight. This is one of those occasions where some of the context is lost in the passage of history. If you had grown up with rationing, been shipped out to the country for protection, and found yourself in a magical land where you were offered extraordinary, rarefied sweet things, wouldn’t you lie too?
In 1965, Susan Sontag wrote five steps in one kind of typical science fiction story. Her first two steps demonstrate this lampshading:
- The arrival of the thing. (Emergence of the monsters, landing of the alien space-ship, etc.) This is usually witnessed, or suspected, by just one person, who is a young scientist on a field trip. Nobody, neither his neighbors nor his colleagues, will believe him for some time. The hero is not married, but has a sympathetic though also incredulous girlfriend.
- Confirmation of the hero’s report by a host of witnesses to a great act of destruction. (If the invaders are beings from another planet, a fruitless attempt to parley with them and get them to leave peacefully.) The local police are summoned to deal with the situation and massacred.
When it comes to heroines, however, writers often add a little extra. Like mental instability. The 2012 film Gone, stars Amanda Seyfried as a damaged young woman who takes on the role of a vigilante cop after the actual cops think she’s fabricated a former abduction from which she managed to escape. Even the movie poster announces that ‘no one believes her’.
LIAR TROPE 2: HERO LIES TO THEMSELVES
COMMON CHARACTER ARC: Over the course of events the character is liberated by accepting the truth of their circumstances.
In Strays Like Us by Richard Peck, the main character has been abandoned by her mother — a drug addict criminal who will never step up to the plate for her adolescent daughter. Over the course of one year in a settled environment with a new female role model, Molly Moberly must come to terms with this. Finally she gives away the notebook she has been using to create a fictional narrative about her mother.
Jacqueline Wilson also writes of a girl lying to herself about her mother in Starring Tracy Beaker.
The mother of these orphan girls with imaginative narratives about their hopeless mothers is perhaps The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson.
In Big Little Lies, Celeste (Nicole Kidman) lies to herself about the nature of her relationship with her husband. All of the supporting characters are keeping their own secrets.
LIAR TROPE 3: HERO LEARNS WHEN NOT TO LIE
COMMON CHARACTER ARC: The hero has learned not to lie as a child but as she enters adolescence she realises the world is not black and white, so she learns when to keep quiet in order to protect someone else.
Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk is an excellent example of this storyline in a children’s book.
LIAR TROPE 4: FAKE ALLY LIES TO HERO
COMMON CHARACTER ARC: In children’s books it is often the adult lying to the child ‘in order to protect’ them.
In Strays Like Us even sympathetic adult Aunt Fay lies to Molly by omitting the fact that her mother has checked herself out of rehab and has gone AWOL. Because Peck wants to keep Aunt Fay as a sympathetic character, he has Aunt Fay apologise to Molly for not telling her earlier.
Also in school stories there will often be a ‘bitchy teen girl’ trope who is ‘nasty nice’. Tina Fey’s Mean Girls is well-known for introducing this dynamic to the public consciousness.
Eventually the hero works out what the truth of the situation is, and this contributes to their character arc. Or, like Lindsay Lohan’s character on Mean Girls, she might be a trickster archetype who lies back to her opponent in order to exact revenge.
LIAR TROPE 5: THE FAKE OPPONENT BENEFACTOR
It comes from Jane Austen:
The obvious liar in Pride and Prejudice is Wickham, but the more interesting from a plot perspective is Darcy. Because Darcy does something immensely noble, which if she knew about it would make Elizabeth deeply grateful to him, but doesn’t tell her. Lies about it. She only finds out indirectly. It’s a heart-stirring and deeply effective device, so much so that it has spread, meme-style, through countless other stories ever since. There’s a legend in Bookworld that when Helen Fielding was considering turning her Bridget Jones columns into a book, she saw the Colin Firth-starring TV adaptation and decided to lift the plot from Pride and Prejudice. Virtually every romantic novel ever since has done the same, including Twilight.
FURTHER READING ON LIARS AND LYING
3. Amanda Knox: What’s in a face? from The Guardian
4. How To Be More Paranoid from The Hairpin, in which Pamela Meyer tells you how to spot liars.
5. Twelve Completely Foolproof And Not-At-All-Crazy Ways To Make Sure He’s Not Lying from Jezebel: Relationships
6. On Bullshit by Henry Frankfurt
7. How And Why Do We Deceive Ourselves from Freethought Blogs
8. Do People Really Want You To Be Honest? from HBR
9. Why We Don’t Always Tell The Truth, also from HBR
10. 12 Lies To Stop Telling Yourself from Marc And Angel Hack Life
11. Trust Me I’m Lying, interview with Ryan Holiday, who wrote a book about the media and ‘faux-troversies’.
12. Anatomy Of Lying, a book by Sam Harris
13. The ‘Pinnochio Effect’ Confirmed from Science Daily
14. Lying Is Common Age 2, Becomes Norm By 3, from BPS Research Digest
15. How Money Makes You Lie And Cheat from Time
16. Suppression of Incriminating Memories Can Beat Lie-Detector Tests. (I’ve always wondered that.) from Psych Central
17. The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves from Farnam Street
18. 10 Lies You Were Tricked Into Believing from Marc and Angel
19. The Lie Detector Paradox from Mindhacks
20. Dan Ariely on the Truth About Dishonesty, Animated from Brainpickings
21. Jeff Hancock and the Future of Lying from GMP
23. How we teach our kids that women are liars, from Role Reboot. (And then I read this unrelated passage in a popular science book: Human females, unlike most of their primate relatives, do not tell the truth about when they are fertile. Female chimpanzees flaunt swollen backsides and genitals for the several days in each cycle when an egg is ready to be fertilised… Women, unlike chimpanzees, advertise their potential for copulation at all times, fertile or otherwise. Perhaps a false statement of fecundity means that a male will choose to stick with a particular mate in order to keep others at bay, rather than tomake a switch to a third party while his partner is unable to conceive.’ -page 151-152 of The Serpent’s Promise by Steve Jones. #CasualSexism
24. Intricacies of Lying: False Descriptions Easier to Remember Than False Denials from Science Daily
She stabbed the butter lightly before spreading it on a scrap of French bread — ‘why, when I first met you and you told me about yourself, did your story end when you left your wife and went and lived in a flat somewhere? Why was that the end of the story when it wasn’t the end at all?’
‘How do you mean?’ He had stopped eating, though, she noticed that. ‘I did go and live in a flat when I left my wife.’
‘Indeed you did. But there was more to it, wasn’t there? You left your wife and you went and lived in a flat. Then you met someone else and got married again and went and lived in a large house somewhere else entirely.’
‘Oh that,’ he said. ‘Well, perhaps we got interrupted at that point. Perhaps I just forgot to tell you the rest and you never asked.’
– from The Lonely Margins Of The Sea by Shonagh Koea
25. Here’s What You Need To Know About Liars from Business Insider talks about two different kinds of liars: polite, everyday liars and ‘prolific’ liars. Given the dominant cultural narrative about how women lie (about being raped, about liking computer games, about liking sex etc.), I’d like to point out that men are statistically more likely to be prolific liars.