September 6, 2012

Five Lies Your Character Can Tell

Lies, and How To Use Them


One of the Ten Commandments is “thou shalt not lie,” but I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. Imagine me, or any guy, telling their wife—

“Honey, you look terrible in that dress.”

Not only will a comment like that cost you a smack in the face, it will definitely cost you money, because guess where your wife is going as soon as she changes clothes. You got it—to the store to buy a new dress. And you know what, it will be a more expensive one than what she had on. So save yourself some physical pain, some heartache, and, some money. Look at her and say,

“Damn, you look good in that dress.” Then make a facial expression that hints at doing unmentionable things with her to further convince her how you felt.

But that’s lying

Yes, I know that’s lying, but lying is a fact of life. The truth is cute coming from kids, but at a certain age, and I’m not sure what that age is, truth moves from “cute” to “ill mannered.” When my eight-year old niece says, “Giacomo, you need to go on a diet,” it’s hilarious. I’m not sure how I’ll feel if she tells me that at 18, and I hope I won’t have to be told. Come to think of it, I just hope I’m still here to be told.

Animals don’t lie.

Our dog Mollie is the “tough girl” in our house. If another dog tries to sit on the sofa next to her, Mollie doesn’t smile and move over, offering to share while muttering under her breath about how Briella always takes her seat. No—Mollie bares her teeth and makes a sound that should be in a horror movie. Then Briella leaves and all is well. No hard feelings.

Humans can’t do that. We get feelings hurt, and egos bruised.

Why do humans lie so much? 

What motivates us to lie? Humans lie so much that we have come to expect a lie from almost everyone. Even our presidents.

“I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it. Okay, I did it…but I didn’t do what you think I did, and anyway, I’m sorry.”

Those last two words are the key. As a society, we get so thrilled when the guilty party finally tells the truth that we forgive them.

Let’s face it, we’re all liars. For better or worse, that’s the way humans are. Yes, there are people who don’t tell horrible lies. But even the nice lies are lies.

Just How Many Lies Are There?

One of Mark Twain’s famous quotes was, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Despite what Mr. Twain says, Wikipedia lists at least twenty different kinds, and a quick search on the internet will yield a few more. But for today I’m going to focus on five. I made up the names of these lies for simplicity.

Scenario 1—the White Lie

You come home from shopping and say to your wife, “I saw Charlotte at the mall today. She said to say hi, and to tell you she was asking for you.”

In reality you did see Charlotte but she said nothing at all about your wife.

 This is a white lie because:

  • It makes the other person feel good.
  • It doesn’t hurt anyone.
  • It doesn’t benefit you.

 How to use this in writing:

  • Build character in protag, get reader on character’s side. (Example—suppose you have a protag whose spouse is feeling lonely and your character says this to cheer her up.)

Scenario 2—the Beige Lie

This is when your spouse brings home a new dress, tries it on, and asks your opinion. Your honest opinion.

You stare at the dress, grit your teeth, silently ask for forgiveness, then say… “You look fantastic. That color makes your eyes shine.”

At first blush this might seem like a white lie, but it isn’t; it’s more of a beige lie.

Here’s why:

  • It makes the other person feel good.
  • It doesn’t hurt anyone.
  • Although you don’t benefit from it directly, it is a form of self preservation.

How to use this: 

  • Humor, or comic relief.
  • Could be sympathy for your character, or, for other character.

It’s easy to see how you could use this for humor or comic relief, but how else could you use a lie like this? Suppose this is a poor family and the wife only has one dress to go to an important interview. She’s worried about how she looks. You can have your character be loving and sincere and use all of his skills to convince her she looks great, building her confidence.

Scenario 3—the Green Lie

You’re on a diet. You have just wolfed down the fifth meatball when your wife walks into the room.

“Were you eating meatballs?” she asks.

You swallow quickly, risking a burn to the back of your throat, then you wipe sauce-covered hands on the back of your pants, and say, “What meatballs?”

Here’s the reasoning:

  • It makes no one feel good.
  • It doesn’t hurt anyone.
  • It only benefits you, both filling your gut and keeping you out of trouble.

How to use this:

(These examples were mostly for humor, but you can use examples like this, albeit more serious ones, to make strong points.)

  • Humor
  • Sympathy
  • Empathy

Instead of humor, you could turn this around, too. Imagine if the spouse was having a group of important people from work for dinner, and she had slaved over cooking this meal. She was worried that she might not have enough meatballs, and that would humiliate her. In a previous scene she tells her husband—warns him—not to dare touch them, and then she catches him.

Scenario 4—the Brown Lie

Your wife comes into the kitchen…

“Who spilled the sauce and didn’t clean it up?”

You put as much surprise in your voice as possible, and say, “What sauce? Did you make meatballs?” Then you form the best scowl you can, and say, “It must have been Chris. Damn him.”

In case you didn’t notice a lot of these lies have to do with food. So, in the spirit of this post, I’ll admit, YES, I will lie for food, and I’ll do damn near anything for spaghetti and meatballs.

Reasoning behind this:

  • It makes no one feel good.
  • It does hurt Chris (or will, once Mikki gets hold of him)
  • It benefits no one. (Except to keep you out of trouble)

My daughter pointed out to me sneaking food before the meal is served might not seem like a terrible offense to most people. Trust me, these are grave offenses in my house. And yes, the word “grave” was meant as a double entendre.

How to use this:

Like the first example with the Green Lie, this was used for humor, but you could take this anywhere you want to go. This might be the most versatile lie of all; you can elicit sympathy, disgust, humor…almost any emotion, with a lie like this.

I am not a crook.

Scenario 5—the Red Lie 

There have been lots of red lies in literature and movies, but to me the mother of all red lies was the one Fernand told in order to get Edmond Dantes arrested, and subsequently imprisoned, in The Count of Monte Cristo.

Why was this lie so bad?

  • It made no one feel good, except the one who told the lie.
  • It hurt many people, including Dantes and Mercédès, the very woman Fernand loved.
  • It benefitted only Fernand.

How to use this:

The Red Lie is a powerful tool for writers.

This is the lie to tell when you want your readers to despise, even loathe, the character. Be warned, once a character tells this lie, there’s no turning back. No redemption. So before you open your character’s mouth, so to speak, make sure that you want the readers to hate him/her. Telling one of these lies is like having your character kick the dog or cat, or a baby. There simply is no coming back after this.

There are many other lies to use, and some of the most powerful ones I left out. In another post I plan to address them. 

  • Lies of omission.
  • Noble lies.
  • Greedy lies.
  • Protective lies.

The Bottom Line:

Know when to make your characters lie—and when not to. A lie can make your character sympathetic, or despicable, depending on how you write it. A lie told for self-preservation can not only garner sympathy for your protag, it can also add humor to the scene.

“Noble” lies and “protective” lies can be some of the most powerful in storytelling, and lies of omission can seem worse than true lies. Think about these as you plot your story.

And when your antagonist plants his/her well-placed vicious lie to destroy someone, consider having them do it with a smile, not a sneer. It adds to the effect.


Ciao, and thanks for listening,






Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of Murder Takes Time, and A Bullet For Carlos. He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 41 loving “friends.”


Got any good lies from literature? I’d love to hear about them. And if you liked this post, please consider sharing it.


photo credit: La Tête Krançien via photo pin cc

photo credit: PIX-JOCKEY via photo pin cc

2 Responses to “Five Lies Your Character Can Tell”

  1. Love the explanation. Interesting piece

  2. Joyce, thanks for dropping by, and glad you liked the post. Have a great weekend.

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