They should be.
Maybe not in the sense that their life is one big lie, or that they manipulate the people around them in order to achieve their goals. Although that is an option, I’m talking more specifically about the character lying to themselves.
One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever come across was from K.M. Weiland’s book, Creating Character Arcs. The key to a compelling character arc, she claims, is establishing “The Lie Your Character Believes” It must be a big Lie, something that both informs their worldview and at the same time destabilizes it. In order for it to work, the Lie should be plainly obvious at the beginning of the novel, story, or film, and by the end, they should learn the Truth.
This isn’t something that necessarily needs to be verbalized by the character. In most cases, it’s probably much more interesting to hide the Lie behind action or subtext.
An easy example to understand is Woody from Toy Story. Now, Woody never outright says, “Being Andy’s favorite toy is all that matters.” That wouldn’t be very believable or compelling. So how do we know he believes this grand Lie?
From the beginning, Woody is given the most prominence among Andy’s toys. Andy makes Woody the “hero” of his playtime adventures. When Woody is hanging out with the other toys when Andy’s not around, he’s the ringleader. The other toys respect him and look to him for guidance. His self-worth, in his mind, is entirely defined by his social status among the other toys. This is the world Woody lives in, and it gives him no real reason to challenge his Lie. After all, everybody treats him like the favorite, so why wouldn’t it be the defining factor of his pride?
In order for the character’s Lie to be challenged, his world has to be destroyed. Everything that reinforces the Lie needs to fall apart. Usually this takes the form of the “inciting incident,” or what kicks the story into gear. In many novels and movies, this may manifest itself literally, with a world-ending threat or event. Sometimes, the stakes aren’t as grand. In the case of Woody, this destruction comes in the form of Buzz Lightyear.
Buzz is the coolest toy ever. As Bo Peep so eloquently puts it, “He’s got more gadgets on him than a Swiss Army knife.” The other toys envy him. Andy literally smacks Woody off of his bed and replaces him with Buzz. He covers the walls of his room with Buzz posters. When it comes to changing the status quo, it doesn’t get much clearer than that. Woody isn’t the favorite anymore.
This is Woody’s Lie being challenged. The Lie is used as an obstacle throughout the second act that the character must face. For Woody, this means arguing with Buzz, trying to sabotage him, and becoming an outcast among his peers. Eventually, the biggest challenge of all comes around: Woody and Buzz are left at a gas station, and they have to work together to get back home. Woody’s perception of Buzz, and therefore his perception of himself, have to change before they can get back to Andy. They need each other, whether they like it or not.
A character who adamantly believes in their Lie will actively resist the challenge at every turn during the second act. That is, of course, until their hand is forced and they must make a choice leading into the climax. The Lie technique is fairly simple to buy into when you realize that most well-developed characters have to learn something – the Truth – in order for their arc to be resolved. Something in their world is wrong, and your goal as a writer is to place obstacles in their path and push them to learn the Truth.
Woody makes that choice during the third act. During the climax, the Truth becomes clear to Woody: “I can accept love even when another toy is Andy’s favorite.” Woody is finally willing to work together with Buzz, looking past his Lie for the sake of achieving a common goal. He learns through his trials and tribulations with Buzz that his friends are more important than being the favorite. He accepts the Truth, delegates the leadership to Buzz, and trusts him to “fall with style” in order to get back to Andy.
If you really pick them apart, most great characters are lying to themselves somehow. Take a long, hard look at your characters – especially the main ones – and try to identify and summarize the Lie in one or two sentences. It could be inherently trivial like Woody’s, or it could have galactic consequences. If you’re struggling to figure out where your character needs to go next, maybe their Lie needs to be established better. Or maybe you just need to duct tape a rocket to their back and light the fuse.
– Gordie Pickering