Why do characters lie?

Fictional liars

The Unreliable Narrator is a character who tells the reader a story which cannot be entirely trusted, or taken at face value. The narrator might be deliberately deceptive, or they may be telling a perfectly reasonable story according to THEIR worldview, their reality, which may not be the reader’s. Perhaps they are working from a misconception because they are not privy to all the relevant information.

Basically, the unreliable narrator storytellers cannot be entirely trusted to tell YOUR truth.

Here’s a piece of homework – think of a story with an unreliable narrator. I’ll start you off. “Clockwork Orange”. “Life of Pi”. “Rebecca”. “Gone Girl”. Justine Larbalestier’s “Liar”. Quite possibly Alice, of Wonderland fame (I mean, she dreamed it ALL…) That’s a start. Cast your mind over books you have read. Add them to the list.

If you are creating your own unreliable narrator, there can be pure exhilaration in doing it, doing it well, and knowing that at some point the reader will gasp sharply when they realize that the things they have been led to believe are real and true… may not be. It is a very delicate web to weave, but when done properly it is an amazing dance between the writer and the reader, and these are books that are remembered for a long time after they are done.

There are a number of ways of doing this. The hardest one is the clue layering all the way in, right from the start, nudging the reader along inch by inch until you pull the curtain on the reveal. The dangers there are obvious. It is possible to give too many clues, leaving the character way too open to being unmasked too early in the game.

It is possible not to give enough clues so that the reveal comes out of left field and the reader feels ambushed by something that was never properly foreshadowed.

The writer can be subtle about this, giving out information through the reactions of other characters (indicating that something about the narrator’s thoughts or actions is considered ‘off’ in his context and circumstances), or simply by placing the narrator within a setting where it is clear that the perceptions being conveyed to the readers are filtered through a lens of a very different set of convictions or a worldview and the things the narrator perceives as being good or right… may not be entirely correctly perceived.

In this sense, the character does not exactly LIE to the reader, he or she simply presents their own version of the truth. This can be tougher than it looks, particularly when the author is not the narrator and does not necessarily share any views that the reader might find abhorrent. It is important not to confuse the voice of the narrator with that of the author. A good author can project an entirely different person with a remarkable degree of verisimilitude.

Facts are empirically provable, but truth is not so easily pinned down. Truth is perceived rather than proved. One person’s truth may not be another’s – a deeply religious person’s truth is that God is responsible for absolutely everything and is all-powerful, while an atheist prefers to trust this world rather than the next. You define yourself as a good person by doing what you perceive are good deeds. That is a fact. But whether you do those good deeds because you are hoping for a reward in Heaven, or because they are in themselves reward enough in this world and you have no expectations of ever seeing another, that is your truth, and your own truth governs how your perceive your life, your world, your experiences, and how you convey your ideas to someone else.

Person A might well consider Person B an unreliable narrator simply because the two of them do not necessarily inhabit the same truth sphere, even though they are both physically very present in the same world. Both persons are telling the truth – their OWN truth – and both persons might be perceived as bending that truth, or actively lying about important things, by the other. They are being perceived as unreliable narrators. And in some ways it is the reader who governs the unreliability of the narrator – simply by providing their own set of lenses through which they might view a particular story. Readers will always find in any story worth its salt far more than the author ever thought they put in there.

All fiction is by definition a lie. None of it “really happened”. But you as the reader get to decide which of the characters within any given story you actually trust to provide you with the inner scaffolding of meta-truth with exists within the narrative you are reading.

And if you’re the writer, you have to decide what aspect of your story is the ‘true’ one, the right one, and which you will present to your readers as subtly skewed… and then you have to trust those readers to perceive it. You get to shine the light of your choice on your story – and you hope that, in the minds of your readers, you get to cast the shadows you wanted.

Within your story, however, on a more granular level, you will sometimes make the choice of having a character tell a blatant untruth at some point.

Why do people lie?

There are people who are incapable of stopping – whose entire lives are built of lie upon lie, one making the next one necessary, and they are just placed one on another and mortared in place until there’s a wall of lies it is impossible to work your way free of even if you tried. There are people who might do this because they want to trap others behind that wall, and there are people who build it to protect some inner core of themselves. Either way, it’s an inevitability, in the end – it’s like pushing a snowball down a hill and watching it get bigger and bigger and bigger and obliterating everything in its path in the end – but that final result is not entirely your fault. All you did was push the snowball off the hill. Everything else it did by inertia, by itself. Unless the character in question is a certifiable sociopath, though, this is a tough row to hoe. Keeping a wall of lies straight is not the easiest thing to do. While some of them are solid they are also very vulnerable to the presence of the smallest inadvertent truth.

There are people who will lie out of compassion – the “it will be all right” lie, to someone who is mortally wounded or who is dying of an incurable disease, the “it’s better this way” lie when some unspeakable tragedy occurs and you’re trying to make it lighter by implying that a greater tragedy would have happened had events fallen out otherwise. That sort of thing.

There are people who lie in the heat of the moment and then have to live by that lie. There are people who will lie to protect themselves. There are people who will lie to protect others to the point of damning themselves.

There are people who will lie for personal gain, who will sell second-hand lemon cars or bad mortgages or shady investments to gullible or vulnerable people. There are people who will not so much lie as simply not speak of something to a third party (who may or may not have a right to know).

There are people who will lie because they don’t like their truth and they simply speak of it in terms that they can live with even if those terms are not real or true. Self deceiving is all too easy because you are lying to yourself and you have no outside way to verify that information..

There are people who will lie for gain, or for pity, or for love, or for incandescent hate, or for indifference. There are people who will lie for the joy of hearing themselves do it.

The first lie told begins a story. The rest of the story… is a search for truth. Not, necessarily, the facts. Just the truth.

 

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Quote of the Day

Building Castles poster

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‘Children of a Different Sky’: Stories of war and exile
A crowd-funded anthology from great authors. Any money collected beyond the costs of publication will be donated to help the dispossessed human tides of our era. Give what you can at the crowd-funding website HERE

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HELP ME BUILD NEW WORLDS: As publishing changes, most authors need new sources of income. If you would like to help me continue writing about wizards and Weres, Jin-shei sisters, and girls who rise from the gutter to Empress, consider pitching in with a small monthly pledge. For the cost of a latte or two you too can become a patron of the arts. Details HERE

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Women you should be reading

NETHERLANDS-LITERATURE-TARTTDonna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Goldfinch, Time writes, adding that it was no surprise since the novel made the New York Times best-seller list during its first week on the shelves.

Tartt takes a notoriously long time to write her novels: The Goldfinch took 11 years, and she says that we may have to wait just as long for her next book. So Time offers some current female authors who you may have missed and want to add to your reading list. For example:

Chimamanda AdichieChimamanda Adichie, Eamonn McCormack—WireImage/Getty Images

Chimamanda Adichie

Adichie, who is from Nigeria, is credited with heralding a new generation of African authors with her bestselling Half of a Yellow Sun. Her latest novel, Americanah, was named one of the 10 best books of 2013 by the New York Times. Oh, and she’s also a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant recipient.

21 women you should read

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How Much Of A Book Addict Are You?

I took this quiz by Buzzfeed and when I checked my score, they informed me tartly that I have a problem.

How about you?

Book addict?

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A History of Love (of Bookstores)

I have a long string of past loves, but they’re all bookstores, Janet Potter reports at The Millions.

Loves books

 

Depending on what you count, I’ve worked at 8-10 bookstores in the last 13 years. I mark time by which bookstore I was working in the way some people do by where they lived or who they were with… Each one attracted me for different reasons, affected my life in different ways, and taught me different things.

 

A love of books(tores)

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The sound and style of a city through the eyes of Elmore Leonard

Elmore LeonardThe Dickens of Detroit

Detroit is the city where Leonard grew up, Michael Weinreb tells us in a beautiful essay at Grantland, and it’s the city where he raised his family, and it’s the city where he died.

And now that he’s gone, it’s the city where his legacy can and should forever be anchored. Without his books, the city would still have suffered the same hellish decline. But because of him, that suffering was rendered into an art form all its own.

Elmore Leonard

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Daphne du Maurier: literary genius hated by the critics?

The BBC’s adaptation of Jamaica Inn is set to bring the Gothic imagination of Daphne du Maurier to a wider audience as critics continue to debate her literary merit, Padraic Flanagan reports for The Telegaph

Her dark, macabre tales of Gothic romance and revenge have enthralled millions of readers and remain in print decades after her death.

But for Daphne du Maurier, the wealth and worldwide fame she earned from novels such as Rebecca and Jamaica Inn were a poor substitute for the acclaim she craved from literary critics who dismissed her as a second rank “romantic novelist”.

Daphne du Mauriier

Daphne du Maurier’s most well known works include ‘Rebecca’, ‘Jamaica Inn’ and ‘The Birds’ Photo: REX

Daphne du Maurier

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Idaho students to get copies of banned novel

Sherman AlexieHundreds of Meridian, Idaho, high school students signed a protest petition when their local school board banned Sherman Alexie’s young adult novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian’ from their 10th-grade curriculum, Joel Connelly wrote in The Seattle PI.

Photo by Mike Urban)

But a private fund-raising drive, organized by two Washington women, has now raised enough money to buy a copy of the novel for every one of the 350 students who protested the curriculum ban.

 Students given banned books

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Daily Routines

“In the right-hands, daily routines can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of limited resources… a solid routine foster a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies…” Mason Currey, author of the inspiring book Daily Rituals Thomas MannCreated by RJ Andrews, infowetrust.com

Creative routines

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Quote of the Day

If a writer does not entertain his readers, all he is producing is paper dirty on one side.” ~ Robert A Heinlein

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Alma Alexander

Check out my books

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Comments welcome. What do you think?

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Can you believe these titles?

20 books that that really exist

And one of them was a best seller. Can you guess which one?

Knitting dog hairSpare time moneyP.s. Your cat is dead

Unbelievable books

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“…a genuine overlooked treasure”

In The Green Man Review, Michael M. Jones concludes that my newest novel, ‘Midnight at Spanish Gardens‘, is “intriguing, frustrating, magical, literary, and slippery when you try to wrap your mind around it.

 Spanish Gardens The novel’s story set up is simple, if a bit… unusual. Five friends meeting up twenty years after college, are individually issued a strange invitation by a mysterious bartender — to live an alternate life, and then have to choose which life to stay with.

 “In these five stories which intertwine with one another against a thought-provoking framing sequence,” Michael Jones writes, “Alma Alexander plays a complicated game of possibilities and potentials. She explores gender and sexuality, family and legacy, metaphysics and philosophy. Character-driven and atmospheric, Midnight at Spanish Gardens is as fascinating as it is tricky to pin down.”

 

He concludes that, “While it may not be for everyone, it’s an excellent tale that defies easy classification, and a genuine overlooked treasure.”

Read his full review

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No One Knew What This Unknown Woman Did Until She Died

But you’ll find it hard to forget her.

 But You didn't

The simple poem below was written by an unknown woman but has now been brought to life through the art of a Chinese cartoonist. All that’s really known about the poem is the title; “But You Didn’t”, it’s a real tear jerker of a story.

Check out the poem and cartoon here below:

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12 Books That End Mid-Sentence

“Way back before The Sopranos made people angry/confused for cutting to black out of nowhere,” Gabe Habash writes in Publihers Weekly, “books were messing with the heads of readers by daring to not use a period as the last typeset keystroke on the very last page. Here are 12 books that have no need for the standard last punctuation mark. Habash regrets the lack of books by female authors, but says he couldn’t find one “in hours and hours of searching.”

 Sentimental JourneyA Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, by Laurence Sterne (1768)

The Ending:

     –But the Fille de Chambre hearing there were words between us, and fearing that hostilities would ensue in course, had crept silently out of her closet, and it being totally dark, had stolen so close to our beds, that she had got herself into the narrow passage which separated them, and had advanced so far up as to be in a line betwixt her mistress and me–

    So that when I stretch’d out my hand, I caught hold of the Fille de Chambre’s–

 Why:

At the end of his rambling journey, Yorick finally ends up at a roadside inn. Because there is only one bedroom, he shares it with a lady and her chambermaid, under the condition that he not speak. Of course, he breaks this rule and gets the chambermaid heading toward him. It’s possible, grammatically, to read that Yorick stretches out his hand and catches hold of the chambermaid’s hand. But, given that this is Sterne, the dirtier option is a lot more enjoyable.

Ending mid-sentence

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Which Country Reads the Most?

 The answer may surprise you.

 And guess where the U.S. ranks?

 Jason English compiles a list for Mental Floss.

Reading around the world

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10 Compelling Unnamed Protagonists in Literature

Ralph Ellison was perhaps most famous for his 1952 existentialist novel, Invisible Man, which touched upon issues facing African-Americans, as told through one man’s search for his identity in New York City during the 1930s. Ellison’s use of the nameless protagonist echoes themes of social blindness throughout the novel. 

 Alison Nastasi tells us in Flavorwire about similar voices in literature.

rebeccaRebecca, Daphne du Maurier

 We never learn the “lovely and unusual name” of English author Daphne du Maurier’s narrator — the second wife of wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter. The De Winter home is dominated by the memory of his late wife Rebecca, whose presence is preserved by the family’s sinister servant — a taunting housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. The new Mrs. De Winter remains symbolically nameless, she herself as much of a ghost as the specter of Rebecca who “haunts” the Manderley estate.

Nameless characters

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Stunning photos of a 5-year-old in the manner of the Old Masters

 Bill-Gekas-24Bill Gekas

Bill-Gekas-10Bill Gekas

Artists around the world have long been inspired by the works of Old Masters like Rembrandt, Raphael and Vermeer, Ritesh Saini writes for Light Stalking. When Australian photographer Bill Gekas wanted to recreate the style through his photographs, Saini says, he chose to feature his five-year-old daughter Athena as the subject.

 I think that they are all utterly magnificent works of art. But some are full of whimsy; chess with Bugs Bunny is a purely Alice-in-Wonderland shot.

 The Old Masters

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Quote of the Day

Never make the mistake of assuming the audience is any less intelligent than you are. ~ Rod Serling

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Alma Alexander

Check out my books

Email me 

Comments welcome. What do you think?