Recently, I have been thinking a lot about lies and liars. I am writing one story and editing another and find that my characters in both lie much more than I am used to.
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
Most of my published writing is romantic fiction. Lies and liars are not so valuable in that genre.
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
So here are my three characters who inspired these thoughts.
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.
Made me think, as your posts so often do. I do write lies and liars. But I’m not sure I work them out as well as I should, so you’ve given me food for thought there.
The answer to your question, for me, is yes, I can love a long-term liar provided the character has good reasons for the lies. And the definition of “good” is subjective, for me as a reader.
I don’t normally set out to write liars. Most of the time, the lies just arrive. Verity is an exception and I admit there are times when I struggle to sympathise with her. But then, she’s my character and I love her, so what can you do?
Lies and liars are more prevalent in the type of fiction I write – my bread and butter, in fact. And I would love to see The Captain’s Paradise…
Yes, of course, they must be. Once you’ve committed a crime, you’re pretty much bound to lie if you want to conceal it.
The Captain’s Paradise is just brilliant. Guinness is very nearly unrecognisable, as he so often is. And when the two women in his life start to change (effectively wanting to swap roles, though neither of them knows about the other) he is so determined to keep everything as it was. Quite painful but horribly recognisable and just about sweet-natured enough to keep it out of tragedy.
Liars aren’t always the villain in a love story. Pat Lynch, from my book Fly or Fall is probably my favourite ‘hero’. He is not a sneaky liar, he’s a blatant liar, easily unmasked. Why he does it is the question.
How interesting, Gilli. I’d never have dared to try that.
excellent post Jenny. I’ interested in liars too, for some reason. But the world is only just waking up to them. I feel for those women who are promised the earth and an engagement ring for a short term loan only to find the American army official they thought they were dealing with was nothing but a darn good liar. I’m just waiting for the world to wake up to similar in older people. My own elderly Scottish uncle was very difficult to visit. Communication was done mostly through his carer because uncle was so deaf and he always seemed to be away or it was ‘inconvenient’. So we went up anyway only to be chaperoned through our brief visit, ‘your uncle gets tired..’ we were told shortly after we arrived. Uncle wasn’t confused, but he was weak and frail, he had osteoporosis & broke a rib turning over in bed. Once he died I discovered through companies house he had sold the family business for £600,000+ yet only left £20,000 + the value of his house, a slightly bigger sum and his sole heir was, you guessed it, the carer. I got the health records acting as a litigant in person (the executor can withhold access) yet the barrier for proving lack of capacity is so high legal action was impossible. I did enjoy the court experience though, and my law student daughter & I had a great time in Glasgow!!
Good heavens, Lynne. How nasty. Congratulations on your philosophical reaction.
I generally trust people’s word until I have good reason not to – mostly because otherwise I’d go mad. The lonely American colonel, like the dictator’s heir to squllions is so intrinsically unlikely that it’s never given me trouble.
But I don’t know how good I’d be at smelling a rat if I met a fraudster in person. There is a good reason why fond mamas told young ladies to cold shoulder anyone to whom they hadn’t been introduced.
According to R4, this is an increasingly common occurrence. One man knew his money was being stolen but he needed the care more than his money. Very, very sad.
Oh that’s truly chilling, Liz.