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What was the last lie you told? Who did you lie to? Why? Even though the truth can be difficult to discern these days, most of us tell the truth the majority of the time, and when we lie it’s usually to say “I’m fine” when we’re really not or “it was delicious!” when it really wasn’t. A University of Alabama study last year showed that most people tell 1-2 lies a day, and 90 percent of those are of the little white lie variety.

Yet what people lie about, who they lie to, and why they lie is one of the deepest and most revealing things about character. Lying, as Martha Beck points out in her book The Way of Integrity (Viking, 2021), is “the most important of all the vices, because without lying you can’t practice any other vice consistently.” Fiction is filled with famous liars, from Odysseus to Obi Wan Kenobi to any one of the main characters in more current best-sellers (remember the pathological liar(s) in Gone Girl?) There are lies that are actual untruths, lies that omit the full truth, and gray lies, the half-truths we all deal in more frequently than we’d like to admit. And the most interesting and most revealing lies are the lies we tell ourselves.

While we often think of integrity as being honest, what it really means is being whole. People with integrity tell the truth to themselves as well as to others; their inner lives and outer lives match. The ultimate betrayal after all, is not the betrayal that wounds a friend, a lover, a spouse, or even a child—it’s the betrayal of the part of ourselves that is honest, noble, and kind. For the vast majority of us, living with a lie is uncomfortable or even agonizing. It’s a difficult way to live, but it also is exactly the kind of difficult that adds layers of depth to fictional characters and makes for great reading. As you get to know the characters you’re creating in your WIP, think about the lies they tell. Consider:

What lies does your character tell and to whom? Think about a lie your character has told. What are they hiding with the lie? What are they afraid might happen if the person they’re lying to knew the truth? We lie for myriad reasons, from wanting to impress others to wanting to protect ourselves or someone else. Who we are lying to tells a lot about the motivation behind the lie.

How much does your character care about fitting in? Behavioral economist Dan Ariely conducted studies on cheating. He found that when people see someone in their “in group” cheat, they’re more comfortable with cheating and more likely to cheat. Is your character a basically honest person who might be willing to lie or bend the rules if their close friends were? How far would they go in lying or cheating before they decided there’s a line they won’t cross, even if it alienates someone close to them?

Who do they want to be? Deception expert Pamela Meyer, who wrote the book Liespotting (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011), says lying is an attempt to bridge the gap between our wishes and our fantasies about who we wish we were with who we really are. Who hasn’t shaved a few pounds off when talking about our weight, added a few inches when discussing height, or exaggerated the danger inherent in something we did to make ourselves sound bolder? Dan Ariely also found in his studies that when researchers reminded people of a moral code—say by asking them to swear on a Bible (even if they were atheists)—those people were less likely to be dishonest. How important is moral behavior in your character’s value system?

What do they hunger for? At the bottom of all deception is a hunger for something we desperately want and don’t have—love, admiration, success. Dig deep into the lies your character tells and you’ll find their deepest desire which is, as we all know, the secret to every great story.

What’s the biggest lie your character tells? What lies do they tell themselves? What does that reveal about who they are and what values they hold dear?

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About Kathleen McCleary

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.

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