Wednesday, October 3, 2018

For Writers, The Lies Your Characters Tell

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer 

Characters lie. To each other, to the reader, to the writer, and most of all, to themselves.

Why? Because they have to, if they’re “real” characters.

When writers create characters, we base them on people we know, or on people we imagine we know. But predominately, we base them on ourselves. And, at some level, we all lie.

Please hang on a second before you start throwing tomatoes at me! Let me explain.

We are the sum of our experiences. Over our lifetime, things happen to us. Death of a loved one (even a dog or cat!), traumatic accidents, childhood wounds, failures, betrayals. These all leave scars which can cause us to lie to ourselves. Maybe a better term than lying is “a deeply-held misconception”. Regardless, we create an excellent coping mechanism for when reality seems too harsh.

  • If we have a baby, it will save our marriage.
  • My child (spouse, parents) are better off without me.
  • I can’t (fill in blank) because (fill in blank).
  • If I don’t try, I can’t fail.
These misconceptions are not just what real people believe. Believable characters hide behind them too.

In her blog on Creating Stunning Character Arcs (, K.M. Weiland describes how characters lie to themselves to make up for the deficiencies in their life, to explain why they can’t reach their goal. After all, if a character has a reachable goal at the beginning, the story is very short!

So, we give our characters hard goals, ones they really want, ones they have good reasons to achieve and ones they have to really fight for. (Do you see the Goal, Motivation, Conflict structure?) Why can’t they reach their goals? Because they believe a lie.

Other Examples
Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz believes that if she can only get away from Kansas, where her life sucks, she’ll be happy. She even explains it in the lovely song, Somewhere Over the Rainbow. But once she actually travels to Oz, she discovers “away” is not any better than “home”.

Dastan in The Prince of Persia was a street rat when the king found him and raised him to be a prince. But he doesn’t believe he’s good enough to be royal, so he does stupid things. Princess Tamina teaches him self-sacrifice, and he grows up to be the man she needs to save her and the world.

Eliza Bennett’s lie is that she can’t love a man who is too proud to accept her family, crazy as they are. Mr. Darcy’s lie is that respect is everything. So in this lovely little romance, Darcy learns that love of the right woman is more important than being respectable and Eliza learns that his pride is a cover to hide real emotion.

So, how do you create a character with a wound? A character who has, at some time in his or her past, suffered from a tragedy, will react in a way directly related to that tragedy. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s book, The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma, gives in-depth explanations of how a wound can affect a character, and cause the deeply-held misconception that creates the lie. They include lots of great information for writers to use as a springboard to expand and develop a believable character.

How about your writing? What is your character lying about?

For writers, the lies your characters tell - @SarahSallyHamer on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

When the characters we write believe a lie, it makes the story more truthful - @SarahSallyHamer on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in good stories. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over twelve years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. You can find her at or on Twitter @sarahsallyhamer.

I wish to express gratitude to the giants whose shoulders I stand on, from whom I learned the craft of writing. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. Outstanding post! Thank you, Sally!

  2. So we don't need to feel guilty when we make our characters lie - or do anything else dreadful - right?
    I like this, "So, we give our characters hard goals, ones they really want, ones they have good reasons to achieve and ones they have to really fight for. Why can’t they reach their goals? Because they believe a lie. (And maybe tell a few too.)
    I like my middle-grade characters to be really good and nice, but a young reader once told me that all the kids in the family are "too good." "Don't they ever argue or fight?" Yikes. I changed that right away!