Monday, August 24, 2020

8 Basic Lies Our Fiction Characters Believe

by Ane Mulligan @AneMulligan

In July, I talked about Core Motivations and how they work with the lie your character believes. Several years ago, my writing was transformed when I learned about the lies our characters believe. Fellow author Amy Wallace studied psychology in college and passed on the informatin to me. Most people believe a lie. It stems in our childhoods and are embedded within us, before we can reason it away.

Let's say your character is a girl. Her father wanted a boy and let her know it. When she was little, he tried to make her play sports, but all she wanted was to play with her dolls. She begged to take ballet lessons instead of playing soccer. Daily, her daddy told how disappointed he was in her. And she believed him. As she grew, this lie colored her worldview. Now, she's tentative/fearful about trying anything new, because she'll disappoint people. 

Whichever lie the character's backstory reveals, that helps dictate their motivation. You can use the lie to help plot, since a character's motivation will affect their worldview and everything they do. 

Let's say your character's lie is I'm not good enough. He will spend his life either trying to prove it wrong, or he'll fall victim to the lie. This is a great lie for first responders, FBI agents, police, etc. If our hero is one who tries to prove this lie is wrong, he will be the first one to enter a burning building to rescue a pet. He's the first one to charge through enemy lines. Do you see how you can plot by the motivation?

With these lies, there are characteristics you will see in people. Here is the list of the 8 basic lies and their characteristics. You can vary somewhat if you need to fit one into your story. Then tie those into last month's Core Motivations (June 22nd) and you'll have three-dimensional characters your readers will love.

Adult characteristics of the Lie:

1. I’m a disappointment: 
S/he wouldn’t be very open to trying new things. After all, they disappoint themselves and others. S/he tends to get stuck in a rut that is familiar. This could be great conflict if they were suddenly thrust into a situation where they had to do something new.

2. Not good enough: 
This is a very strong lie, often used for men and strong female leads. S/he either lives their life trying to always prove they are good enough. Or, s/he falls victim to their lie and give up. It the latter, this character wouldn’t be the one vying for a promotion or volunteering to go on a dangerous mission.

3. I’m not enough or defective: 
Her/his actions might be similar to the one who’s a disappointment but from a different angle. Depending on their backstory, s/he feel very unworthy. S/he might have been much loved, but if s/he has other siblings, s/he may compare themselves with them. If s/he’s a middle child, this is a good lie, because when #3 child came along, if it were during those first 5 years, s/he would believe s/he wasn’t enough for their parents. They had to try for another. The first-born could easily feel this too. 

4. Too much to handle and will get rejected: 
this lie plays out a lot in romances. Someone who believes this lie won’t let themselves get close in a romantic situation. If they begin to feel love, they break up to avoid getting rejected. The hurt isn’t worth the risk. 

5. It’s all my fault: 
S/he usually strives for respect and validation. They carry a lot of guilt for things they perceive are their fault. They always believe if they had done this or done something differently, the end result would not have been the disaster it is.  

6. Helpless - powerless to fix things: 
This lie leads to a fear of being controlled. S/he avoids confrontation & problems. S/he wants to be in control of life and all that surrounds her. S/he can be bossy & attempt to wrestle control from others. S/he fears being controlled & this provides super conflict for both inner and outer journeys. S/he’s afraid God’s will is exactly the opposite of what they want. S/he fights against what s/he perceives as someone else wanting to control her/his life, whether it’s the opposite sex or God.

7. Unwanted/unloved: 
This character might seek love in “all the wrong places” from all the wrong people. Or they might shy away from a romantic situation because they know they’re unlovable. This would affect their relationship with God, too. This character, while having some of the “not good enough” symptoms, isn’t as strong a character as one with that lie. This character might always stay in the background. For instance, if they were part of a community theater, they’d be the one to work backstage, sew costumes, but never try out for a part. They avoid center stage.

8. I’m bad: 
Which could possibly be used as a symptom or excuse for another lie. This lie is seen often in YA books for a character who will make a 180 degree turn around. They project their self-image to the world as protection for their hearts. Remembering that the lie is embedded in early childhood, they’re hurt and don’t want to be hurt again. So they put up a wall of “badness” to keep people away and keep their vulnerability hidden.

What lie does your character believe? How has knowing that helped move your story forward?


Ane Mulligan has been a voracious reader ever since her mom instilled within her a love of reading at age three, escaping into worlds otherwise unknown. But when Ane saw Mary Martin in PETER PAN, she was struck with a fever from which she never recovered—stage fever. She submerged herself in drama through high school and college. Years later, her two loves collided, and a bestselling, award-winning novelist emerged. She resides in Sugar Hill, GA, with her artist husband and a rascally Rottweiler. Find Ane on her websiteAmazon Author pageFacebookTwitterInstagramPinterest and The Write Conversation. 


  1. Thanks Ane for this amazing follow up to the character motivation post.
    Here are 8 great lies with lots of story possibilities.

    1. You're so very welcome, Ingmar. I've found them to be invaluable in character development.

  2. In my YA mystery, my main character just discovered who her father is. From past experience, she believes people only like her if she doesn't cause them any problems. So she's on her best behavior with her father. When she runs into serious trouble, she tries to solve it by herself because she thinks he won't love her if she asks him to help her.

    1. It sounds like her lie could be one of two. Either It's all my fault or I'm unlovable. The unlovable one plays well with a child whose father didn't acknowledge her. Even if he never knew about her, she might feel that way anyway. It's weird what kids believe, even when facts show otherwise.

  3. Ane, you have just given me a treasure trove of helpful information for my next book. Thanks!

  4. An excellent explanation. Thank you.