The lie is a major tool in the writer’s workbox. Often it turns the plot a full one eighty degrees. Sometimes it drives the whole story. Think of de Maupassant’s The Necklace.
But for a lie to work in a novel, you have to have a convincing liar. By that I don’t mean someone who is habitually economical with the truth. I mean someone who has a good reason to lie and does so. And, even more important, someone whom another person, or even many people, will believe.
Lies and Liars in Romance
Well, they’re not unless you have a thorough-going villain in the mix. You know the type – a predatory sophisticate who convinces the heroine that the hero is already spoken for, or vice versa. That in turn gives rise to what my friend Editor Jacqui used to call the But-I-Thought-You-Loved-Carlotta Moment.
These days, thankfully, it’s not so common. Readers, and especially reviewers, are quite likely to dismiss the heroine as TSTL*. Then they chuck the book before they ever get to the big Reveal.
Of course, there’s also the Brain-Dead Heroine. In this case, the liar might be the protagonist or even the beloved and the lies arise from perfectly saintly (and usually idiotic) reasons, to spare a family member or save a business/mansion/delinquent cat from disaster. Very high-minded stuff.
No romantic hero or heroine ever lies to avoid paying their fare or to hide the fact that they were on a bender last night and can’t face coming into the office this morning. Nothing believable.
In that case, it’s not only the liar who is TSTL but the whole damn cast of characters who swallow the nonsensical stuff.
Lies and Liars in Real Life
I suspect that, over the last hundred years or so, we have become more used to encountering lies and liars in our everyday lives. Indeed, some people (insurance loss adjusters, Department for Work and Pension clerks) seem to expect to encounter lies and liars every day of their working lives. Indeed, one of their main objectives is to identify them and dismiss their claims.
Actually, in 2011 the Harvard Business Review published a fascinating article To Catch a Liar.
It focuses on business and workplace communication. But I commend it also to any author trying to get one of these slippery creatures onto the page.
But we are not only used to lies and liars. We have come to tolerate them, barely notice the lies even. In the UK we have a Prime Minister whose 30 year career of mendacity is well known and even documented. (He, and possibly we, blame impetuosity, boyish exaggeration and not doing his homework.) Nevertheless, he is the front runner to return to the job after the next election, apparently.
And then there are the lies and liars for whom it is almost a career choice. John le Carré wrote about his “conman, fantasist and occasional jailbird” father in his autobiography, The Pigeon Tunnel. (Incidentally, that is one of the two books whose title, now I’ve read it, makes me shudder every time I think of it. The other is The Silence of the Lambs. For the same reason, pretty much.)
Jeffrey Archer’s father went further, extending his lies to impersonation of a dead war veteran and prolonged bigamy. In some ways William Archer’s career reflects that of the Alec Guinness character in the comedy (!) The Captain’s Paradise. The objective is to get your own way, always, even when you want mutually exclusive things. Pathological!
My Own Lies and Liars
The first (reluctant) liar is a young woman caught up in a situation she doesn’t understand.
The second liar is a young aristocrat treading a dangerous path between family loyalty and being true to himself – in 1938 Germany.
And the third – she’s neither playful nor pathological but practised, certainly. Well, see what you think…
Really good liars are like weavers. They know the warp and weft must be true or the fabric is spoiled. They take just a single thread of falsehood and weave it through the mix, so that it becomes part of the pattern, indiscernible to anyone who doesn’t already know it’s there. Other people see the pattern. They may like it or not. But they never, never, detect the false thread at its heart. Not if the liar is good.
Verity Blake, who had not been born either Verity or Blake, was more than a good liar. She was the best. She had learned from a master.
So here’s my question: could you love a character who is not TSTL but is a long-term liar?
* TSTL term of art, meaning Too Stupid To Live.