crafting stunning character arcs: the lie your character believes

Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 2: The Lie Your Character Believes

People hate change. We may sit around and wish our lives were different, but when the rubber really starts streaking the tarmac, we usually find ourselves wishing we could just hang out here in our safe and familiar haunts.

Creating Character ArcsCharacters are no different. They resist change just as staunchly as any of us—which is a good thing. Out of resistance comes conflict; out of conflict comes plot. This is just the first of many ways in which plot and character arcs are inextricable from one another. As Stanley Williams so aptly explains it in his book The Moral Premise:

 A good way to conceive of movie stories, like Die Hard and Love, Actually, is to think of the visible story as the metaphor for the invisible story.

In other words, the plot is all about the character’s inner journey, whether the connection is immediately evident or not. Plot, in its simplest manifestation, is all about the protagonist’s thwarted goal. He wants something, and he can’t have it right away, so he keeps right on trying.

The Change Arc, at its simplest manifestation, is all about the protagonist’s changing priorities. He realizes the reason he’s not getting what he wants in the plot is because either a) he wants the wrong thing or b) his moral methods for achieving what he wants are all wrong. In Dramatica, Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley point out:

 One of the most common mistakes made by authors of every level of experience is to create a problem for their Main Character that has nothing to do with the story at large. The reasoning behind this is not to separate the two, but usually occurs because an author works out a story and then realizes that he has not made it personal enough.

The Lie the Character Believes

The Change Arc is all about the Lie Your Character Believes. His life may be horrible, or his life may seem pretty great. But, festering under the surface, is the Lie.

In order for your character to evolve in a positive way, he has to start out with something lacking in his life, some reason that makes the change necessary. He is incomplete in some way, but not because he is lacking something external. A person in a prison camp can still be entirely whole and balanced on the inside, while someone floating in a Malibu mansion’s swimming pool may be one miserable son of a gun.

Nope, your character is incomplete on the inside. He is harboring some deeply held misconception about either himself, the world, or, probably, both. As we’ll see in next week’s post, this misconception is going to prove a direct obstacle to his ability to fulfill his plot goal. In some instances, it may start out seeming to be a strength, but as the story progresses, it will become your character’s Achilles heel.

Your character may not even realize he has a problem. In the First Act, his understanding of his deficiencies will be vague at best. He may not feel handicapped or even in denial about the Lie, until the Inciting Event and/or the First Plot Point (at the 25% mark) rock his world and begin peeling away his defenses. The First Act gives writers the time and space to introduce the Lie and demonstrate the character’s entrenchment in it via his Normal World (which we’ll also address more in a future post).

What Is the Lie?

Your character’s Lie could take any number of forms. For example, maybe he believes:

The Lie is a specific belief, which you should be able to state in one short sentence. It may include some qualifiers, as does Jane Eyre’s. Her basic Lie is that she isn’t worthy to be loved, but it’s qualified by her additional belief that she can earn love if she is willing to enslave herself to others, physically and emotionally.

Symptoms of the Lie

How do you find the Lie? The first thing you’re going to want to do is examine your plot to see if the Lie might be evident in the conflict. (We’ll get into that more next week when we discuss the conflict between the Thing the Character Wants and the Thing the Character Needs.) The second thing you’re going to want to do is look at the character’s actions—and especially his reactions. See if you can spot any of the following:

  • Fear
  • Extreme hurt
  • Inability to forgive
  • Guilt
  • Horrible secrets
  • Shame over something done or suffered

None of these are the Lie, but they’re often products of the Lie. Your protagonist may be aware of the symptoms of the Lie in his life, even if he isn’t yet able to recognize the Lie itself. More than that, he may be totally willing to shed the negative symptom, but he can’t because he can’t get past his fundamental belief in the Lie. For example, in my historical novel Behold the Dawn, the protagonist Marcus Annan’s Lie is that some sins are too great to be forgiven. His symptoms are guilt, shame, secrets, and a destructive lifestyle. He wants to be forgiven and to find happiness and fulfillment, but he just can’t get past the Lie.

Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi do a great job of of offering possible Lie symptoms (as well as some great character arc discussions) in their book The Negative Trait Thesaurus. If you find you’re having trouble coming up with some good symptoms (or even a good Lie, for that matter), take a riffle through their book for some inspiration.

Examples of the Lie the Character Believes

For this series, we’re going to take a look at one popular book and one popular movie (of varied genres), two apiece for each of the three different types of arc. For the Change Arc, we’ll be exploring the following:

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Ebenezer Scrooge’s infamous holiday transformation is rooted in his mistaken belief that a man’s worth can only be measured by the amount of money he has earned.

Cars directed by John Lasseter: My favorite of all the Pixar movies is powered by selfish racecar Lightning McQueen’s ingrained belief in the Lie that life is a one-man show.

Questions to Ask About the Lie the Character Believes

1. What misconception does your protagonist have about himself or the world?

2. What is he lacking mentally, emotionally, or spiritually, as a result?

3. How is the interior Lie reflected in the character’s exterior world?

4. Is the Lie making his life miserable when the story opens? If so, how?

5. If not, will the Inciting Event and/or the First Plot Point begin to make him uncomfortable as a result of his Lie?

6. Does your character’s Lie require any qualifiers to narrow its focus?

7. What are the symptoms of your character’s Lie?

The Lie Your Character Believes is the foundation for his character arc. This is what’s wrong in his world. Once you know what’s wrong, you then get to set about figuring out how to make it right.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about tying the Lie into the plot by figuring out the Thing Your Character Wants vs. Thing Your Character Needs.

Read Previous Posts in This Series: Part 1: Can You Structure Character?

Tell me your opinion: What is the Lie Your Character Believes?

Crafting Stunning Character Arcs: The Lie Your Character Believes

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. L. O. Fencer/Lora says:

    Hey, I’m here again. 🙂

    The Lie sustains my story; actually, it is all about the Lie and revealing it with the change of the MC’s point of view and above all her principles.

    Her Lie is that she has been taught that all noble acts or feelings are false (it as also the Lie of his father but he is aware of it as he tries to conceal his scars with the thought). Because of this, my MC lacks something, something she couldn’t define but this feeling of emptiness isn’t shown at the beginning, on the contrary, her life seems to be perfect. Only after the death of his father she starts to feel that the life they’ve been living is not worthy of a human being…

    I can’t wait for the next part! It is always a very interesting subject to observe what someone wants and needs.

    • This is a good example. The fact that you’ve essentially got two characters living the Lie, but in different ways, lets you bring added depth to the thematic principle.

  2. Leonard Kennard says:

    Thank you so much for these articles. They are a revelation to me. I am totally convinced that this education in creative writing will make a very significant difference to my writing.

    More please with gratitude. Leonard.

    • Writing is a journey of education. I don’t think there’s ever an end to what we can learn about writing, because, ultimately, no matter applicable it is, it’s still all “story theory.”

  3. Darby firmly believes that most of the men she dates want something from her related to her super-human abilities. She wants to think someone is out there for her, but time and again, she has her lie proven to her.

  4. Tristan runs scared when he discovers he’s been infected with the curse of a werewolf. He doesn’t know who has the true solution to his crisis: the pastor, his seasoned music teacher, or several of his friends. And he definitely doesn’t like the local sheriff’s solution! As the crisis escalates, he discovers that there are many lies about how to reverse the curse of the beast, but only one truth.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a great Lie for the sake of the plot, but I would encourage you to dig deeper to find the more fundamental Lie this turn of events exposes in the core of the character’s personality. What is his misconception about the world in general, his relationship with people, or his perception of his own strengths and weaknesses? This is almost always always going to be a Lie the character believes *before* the inciting event changes the world around him. The Lie at the heart of character arc is usually going to be something simple that’s universally relatable.

      • Thanks so much for your helpful observations. They helped me think more critically. Tristan’s parents are on the verge of divorce and he feels victimized as a musician since everyone else excels at sports. Bottom line: he feels like he’s a victim in his world and relationships and there is nothing he can do about it. Yet he learns through the course of the book that we aren’t just victims. We have choices and options, even though even some of them may still not be the best ones.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Bingo! This is a perfect example of the Lie and how it fuels the plot. As someone who gains power through his werewolf transformation, your character is perfectly set up to explore both sides of the victim Lie, since he can begin by using his power to bully his way out of his situation, instead of embracing the deeper Truth that being a victim has as much to do with our inner mindsets as it does our outer capabilities. Great example of how the Lie isn’t just background for the story, but is inherent to the plot and theme.

  5. Steve Mathisen says:

    This article is well timed to help me deepen the story I am working on. My protag finds out that her whole life has been a lie, a necessary lie, but a lie nonetheless. She is going to spend a lot of time coming to grips with the fact that her thoughtless action caused the unraveling of that lie in a way that endangers her whole family.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This raises a good point in that Lies don’t necessarily have to be rooted in bad motivations (on either the protagonist’s part or those who are influential in his life). Some “Lies” are necessary for a certain period of time in our lives, but we eventually have to grow out of them if we’re going to continue growing as human beings.

  6. A well-timed post. I’ve been working on a rewrite of my story and I couldn’t get at the heart of what my MC’s problem was. Yes, he feels responsible for his father’s accident that left his father paralyzed but underneath it all, is the lie that he’s not worthy of his father sacrificing so much to save him. He’s been taught not to value his worth through his mother’s callus attitude toward him. I thought it was all about him wanting to walk away but I think it’s more that he’s afraid to do anything–stay or go–because neither action will bring about the love he seeks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This sounds spot on to me. You’ve gotten down past the symptoms to the very heart of your character’s destructive belief (as well as identified the reason he believes the Lie, which is something we’ll be talking about in a couple weeks).

  7. My character believes that he is powerless. His politically powerful father and his manipulative mother and his inability to help his best friend from college through a crisis all leave him wallowing in secrets–his own and his parents’.

  8. (Excellent post, by the way!) Not sure I made it clear that his parents and the crisis of his best friend leave him feeling powerless to deal with the secrets swirling around him.

  9. Ron Estrada says:

    This lesson is worth teaching every week. It may be the closest thing to a “magic formula” for story success that I know.

    The character in my current WIP believes that putting himself at risk for others will always lead to betrayal. At plot point 1, the woman who he believes has betrayed him saves him from certain capture, but also leaves him (literally) holding the gun in the murder of a federal agent. So his big lie is in question now. Did she set him up or did she save him? Dr. Williams is an inspiration to me as well. His book should be an essential in every writer’s library.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nice. I love it when the Lie is able to raise all kinds of interesting moral questions throughout the story. The term “Lie” makes it sound as if this belief must be one that’s incorrect in all situations, but sometimes it can be highly specialized and lead us into all kinds of interesting gray area.

  10. There are multiple main lies fueling my plot, but only one that the main character really cares about. (And the others that the surrounding characters care about, relating to the main character.) I’m worried I may have over-complicated matters.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Complex doesn’t have to be complicated. One thing to consider is if and how the small lies support the overall theme the big Lie is presenting.

  11. This post was the perfect “nudging” for me – I’ve been wondering what’s missing in my WIP. I needed to identify what the lie was. I’ve just sat here and figured it out, thanks to your post. 🙂

    Philip thinks that he can survive life on his own – he doesn’t need any kind of religion or “good luck” or family support or love. He has supreme confidence in his own skills and determination and ingenuity. The lie is all the more convincing because so far his life seems to prove the lie; his father has practically disowned him, his brother (who used to be his best friend) no longer keeps in contact, he has forsaken all religion, no one around him loves him, and yet Philip’s own skill and courage has blazed his way into a very successful life at the young age of 19. When he is unjustly accused and all his riches and fame literally disappear overnight, the only way to escape life imprisonment is to humble himself and go looking for help from his hometown. The lie creates the conflict because he knows, in his brain, what he must do to escape a lifetime of slavery, but his emotions are screaming The Lie into his ear, so he hates what he must do, and is constantly trying to find a way out without asking for help. He is his own worst enemy. …..And in the midst of it all, Love shows up, and the biggest challenge of all arrives as Truth overcomes the Lie and convinces Philip that someone loves him and that Philip needs that love.

    ….Sorry. Don’t mean to bore you with random notes about a story that only I am interested in at the moment. But this is helping me figure some things out and get focused again. Thanks for the nudge! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is great! It’s lovely when a Lie can start out seeming to be a Truth – only to have it become obvious that its external benefits are really killing the protagonist.

  12. Hi Katie
    Another great post, thanks.
    This one was heartening to read because it ties in nicely with my WIP. The driver behind almost everything that happens is the guilt the protagonist feels for the death of someone he perceives as his fault. He’s spent much of his life since trying to make up for it. I’m into the third book of the trilogy and he’s finally coming to realise that what he’s doing isn’t going to bring the person back, or change the past. Combined with forgiveness from an unexpected source, this will trigger his final release from the guilt and allow him to free himself. And defeat the evil zombies as well 🙂
    cheers
    Mike

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Guilt is always a sure sign of a Lie. It’s a tremendously powerful obstacle between the character and the Truth.

  13. My character believes that if she doesn’t have a selkie seal skin she’s a deformed selkie and therefore no one will accept or love her. By the end of the story, she realizes that others will accept and love her selkie skin or not. Great list of questions. I’m going to use them to help me stay on track and hone the inner and outer conflicts.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Everyone is coming with great (and diverse) examples! This is a particularly good example of how a Lie that’s very specific to the story can still be relatable on a larger stage.

  14. You have nailed it! I love this post.

  15. I enjoy this article, and I’m starting to think of movies in a different way.

    One of my favorite films, Wreck-It Ralph believes the lie that getting a medal will earn him respect.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great example. He’s seeking respect outwardly instead of the Truth that respect has to be earned.

  16. Dramatica teaches that characters can either change or remain steadfast. If a character remains steadfast, then is it all about the lie he is tempted to believe (or fall back into) or is it more about his resolve to stand by what he thinks he believes is truth (even under extreme trial)? Just curious about how you view this since I know you have studied Dramatica.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The steadfast character is one who’s following a Flat Arc (which we’ll get to in a couple weeks). This is a character who already knows the truth and is either going to be challenged in his belief in it (and hold steadfast) or change the world around him with the truth.

  17. I have learned a lot from reading your posts. I’ve also learned about a lot of flaws in my writing, lol.

    My MC’s dad has a brain condition that is like amnesia due to a failed assassination. She doesn’t know much about his past, since he never told her. She tries everything she can to help him remember, but nothing works. She is sent to spend to the summer with her paternal aunt, and in doing so, learns of her father’s and aunts past through an unconventional method. Later on, she tells her dad of her adventures and it does spark a memory. I just don’t know what Lie to give my MC. Any advice?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Ghost would definitely seem to be the father’s injury. So think about how that injury would have affected the protagonist? Maybe she blames herself for it (if she were old enough when it happened). Or maybe she carries scars from some childhood unfulfillment in her relationship with him. Or maybe she grew up believing the world was a scary place because of what it did to her dad. Consider also how she’s going to change over the book. If you can figure out how she’s going to change, you’re halfway to solving the problem of *why* she needs to change.

  18. This is the absolute most helpful bit of advice I’ve ever read. If a writer works this out right at the concept stage, before outlining, before plotting, before listing scenes, it can really help bring all the rest of the story into focus.

    I’m a Truby-phile (John Truby, The Anatomy of Story) as I mentioned another time. You called him a genius once, but you, dear lady, are not far behind!
    I find his method very helpful, but I think it’s is missing this crucial step. At least, this explicitly. It’s implied in his chapters covering your characters “weakness and need,” but it’s not nearly as clear as your points here. This was the missing piece for me. This blog helped me snap everything into focus. You’re going to get an acknowledgement in my work for this little gem, lady. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      So glad the post was useful to you! The Lie is truly integral to the positive change arc. Everything hinges upon it. If we can explicitly identify it early on in our process, it makes all the difference in crafting the rest of the arc. It’s like a spotlight in a dark tunnel: everything else suddenly becomes clear.

  19. “In some instances, it may start out seeming to be a strength, but as the story progresses, it will become your character’s Achilles heel.”

    This sentence has really made me think about my protagonist, her Lie, and about how I can show this strength-to-weakness development over the course of a number of scenes.

    This is a fantastic series on arcs and is helping me a lot with my revision.

    Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Always fun when the evolution of strengths to weaknesses and weaknesses to strengths can be so integral to the story that even readers have a hard time telling the difference until it because obvious to the character himself.

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  21. This is SO helpful to me as I start on a new draft of my WIP. I had never thought about this before!

    My first main character’s Lie is that he can escape being a victim through heroism. What he WANTS is to do something important for the world. What he NEEDS is to learn that the greatest hero sacrifices everything.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Lots of interesting possibilities in that Lie – especially since “sacrificing everything” can easily become a victim-driven mindset, if the character isn’t seeing things through the right veil. I like, too, that the Thing He Wants (being a hero) seems to have him running completely away from his Lie (being a victim), which will presumably lead him to think he’s got everything under control in the first part of the story.

  22. Hello, K.M., I’m a little late to the party here but glad I stumbled on this series. I’m just starting to drill down into my protagonist’s deeper motivations and am working through all of your excellent posts to help flesh him out.

    I am not quite sure how to approach questions 3 and 6, above. I’ve been puzzling it out myself and wondering if I’m on the right track.

    #3 – How is the interior Lie reflected in the character’s exterior world?

    Specifically, are you referring to the character’s actions/behavior/perspective in relation to his exterior world?

    Here’s how I might answer this question with regard to Scrooge (his lie: a man’s worth can only be measured by the amount of money he has earned)…. In one scene, the Ghost of Christmas Present shows him two children that represent Ignorance and Poverty. Both are realities of the exterior world Scrooge lives in, but Scrooge’s response also reveals his relationship to that world and reflects his interior Lie. (Incidentally, at this point in the story, his mind and heart are starting to change.) He asks the ghost whether the children have any refuge. The ghost replies by mocking Scrooge’s own words: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

    #6 – Does your Lie require any qualifiers to narrow its focus?

    I’m not quite sure how to answer this one for my protagonist… if I’m understanding correctly (and I may not be), the lies we tell ourselves are often contextual, rooted in some triggering event… e.g., “I was always teased as a kid, therefore, I think of myself as a nobody.”

    So, by “qualifier” do you mean something like a “triggering event” or a set of circumstances that cause the character to tell the Lie about himself?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re on the right track with #3. But, specifically, I’m talking about using the world to *reinforce* the Lie. So Scrooge’s world repeatedly tells him his Lie is true: that money *is* the only thing of any true worth. This is mostly borne out in his backstory, particularly his loveless childhood.

      By qualifier, I’m talking about a proviso that the character has placed on the Lie. He believes the Lie is true, but *only* under certain circumstances. Jane Eyre is a great example of this. She believes she isn’t worthy to be loved, but her proviso is that she can *earn* love if she is willing to become a servant and a “good girl.”

  23. Will have to read the book. Since, I do have some of the lies in my pocket, but there are way too many inconsistencies in that. (Same goes for my current plot, but making a story out of that mess is actually what is called writing)
    But, I thinks I will thumb through that book (if I find it in my library, that is)

  24. Understanding that there is a lie that the character believes, which underlies that character’s weakness is a real eye-opener for me. However, I am having a very hard time coming up with a lie that I feel works for the story I want to write.
    I do know that the symptom of this lie is an overall sense of powerlessness or disempowerment which compels the character to seek out self-empowerment in very dysfunctional ways (such as the power-highs from sex, drug and the occult).
    But I am finding a lack of understanding of human psychology to be a barrier. I ordered the Thesaurus you referenced, so tat should help, I hope.
    Do you have any thoughts on the lies a person believes that would compel them to seek out ways to feel powerful?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The first place to look in search of the Lie is always the character’s Ghost. This will be the event in his past that has caused the Lie. If you can figure out why he feels disempowered, you’ll have found the Lie.

      • Thank you! I haven’t gotten the ghost yet, but I think I actually figured out the lie, or part of it anyway. My main character not only feels he is incomplete without a woman’s love and attention, he believes he *deserves* it. The trick is going to be to not have this make him unlikeable. Would establishing a ghost help build empathy, in that the audience can understand why he is like this?

  25. I have a character who believe the lie that “Human life shouldn’t be treasured”

    The series is a 7 book series.

    Now you say when creating a character arc that unfolds throughout a series, its good to have him/her find truth in smaller lies in each book that lead up to the bigger lie.

    I’m assuming the bigger lie is “Human life shouldn’t be treasured”

    But what is considered smaller lies for each book for this character?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Obviously, that’s going to depend on many smaller factors within your story. But, just as an example, smaller lies might be something like, “Life is short. Live hard” or “Don’t get too attached to people.”

  26. Hello K.M. Excellent blog, very helpful and insightful. And great title pictures!
    I am working on my first novel, and though this “Character’s Lie” rule seems essential, I am struggling to find my MC’s big lie.
    My hero is a fifteen year old, good natured kid from a close Christian family. He’s got a good head on his shoulders, no big traumas growing up.
    But in the first chapter his family gets kicked out of their utopian city and sent to live in the war damaged ruins. And his soldier-father is MIA from his mission overseas.
    So the MC takes it on himself to support his family in the wasteland. He learns many lessons, like how hard it is to make a living, especially in the futuristic war zone. But most of his lessons are affirmations of what his father and mother taught him, not new revelations.
    Does this “coming of age” scenario set up an exception to the “Character’s Lie” rule? Do many little lies/naiveties add up to a big lie, and fuel an adequate character arc?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds to me like your protagonist is actually following a flat arc, in which he already knows the Truth and is reaffirmed in it and uses it to help others overcome the Lie.

  27. Dublinjake says:

    Thanks for the article, very helpful in helping me define my characters.

    Well, mine’s as convoluted (and late) as it gets. My character is a king appointed against all hereditary laws by his predecessor after a key battle in a costly war. As such he faces a struggle to keep control of his kingdom from both the successors of the previous king and the outsiders who killed him.

    His Lie at first is that the world is a good and just place, and that “an eye for an eye” resolves conflicts. He is idealistic and largely naïve, stemming from past years serving as an officer in the equivalent of this world’s Crimean War. Where the only real concern was “Is the enemy dying as well? Good. Do more of that then.” However, as a result of this he has developed a variable lack of regard for human life that makes itself apparent to himself and his many comrades throughout the story.

    As he and his allies re drawn into a large international conflict he develops paranoia, with his Lie becoming “the nation needs to be preserved, and I am the nation”. He even begins to take action against even those he says are among his closest friends at the start.

    Eventually he realises the corner he backs himself into and cancels all of his many assassination contracts, keeping just one. This one he turns on himself, ending his life.

    Any thoughts? 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds really good! It’s morally complicated and offers the potential to create some really interesting story scenarios. Both your proposed Lies here are inherent to your story, but I would argue that the second Lie (“the nation needs to be preserved”) is probably the overarching Lie. As a soldier who’s more or less mindlessly fighting for his country, that would seem to be a Lie he would believe from the start and which would influence all his actions, both before and after he becomes king.

  28. Garrett says:

    Hi! Thanks a million for posting these, they’re a great help! They really make me rethink this whole character business, even though I used to think I was able to nail it down. It seems like there’s always something new to learn. 🙂

    Luke believes that he needs to prove himself to everyone he meets in order to earn their respect. Yet for him, he feels like he’ll never be able to and feels inferior to everyone around him. It’s no help that he’s been sent to the most prestigious university in the country (that ends up being a training camp for the CIA), where he seems to be the only one without a talent.

    This is mostly because of his mother’s death, and with his father throwing himself into work to cope with depression, leaving Luke to shelter his younger brother. He feels responsible for his mother’s death, and failure for taking care of his family, and this is what’s lead to his lie: that you need to prove yourself or nobody’ll take you seriously.

    It’s dealt with over and over again in the story, with him being the worst CIA recruit, with him leaving his younger brother to fend for himself, and eventually he finds out the CIA only used him as bait to drive out a mole in the university- it only seems to fuel the fact his Lie is true.

    In the end, he manages to help find the mole, but he feels like it isn’t good enough.

    But the principal’s daughter- the top student in the whole university- decides that it is.

    Is that how it should work? With the Lie being torn down by the time the story’s done?

    Thanks again!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, sounds good! You’ll want to systematically change the character’s view of the Lie and the Truth over the course of the story, so that it’s a gradual evolution that finally empowers him to triumph in the conflict.

  29. Uhm, I am not sure if I got the 6th question. Will you please eloberate?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I responded to this in a previous comment, so I’m just going to quote myself here, “By qualifier, I’m talking about a proviso that the character has placed on the Lie. He believes the Lie is true, but *only* under certain circumstances. Jane Eyre is a great example of this. She believes she isn’t worthy to be loved, but her proviso is that she can *earn* love if she is willing to become a servant and a “good girl.””

  30. Sarah Caroline says:

    So I have one question about The Lie, because I’ve been reading at other websites about The Flaw. Is the character’s core flaw the same as The Lie? For some reason the term “the lie” is confusing me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The flaw/weakness is the *result* of the Lie. Lightning McQueen believes that fame is everything. That’s his Lie. His fatal flaw is selfishness, which is caused by the Lie.

  31. This has been absolutely fascinating. I started off with the flaw that my character is reckless/impulsive, but upon much reflection, I actually think the Lie is that “you can only gain respect/acknowledgement if you are the best” – and the recklessness is then caused by trying to be the best in order to gain that respect/acknowledgement (from her father and others).

    Does that make sense? Great post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Very nice! The thing I love about using the concept of “the Lie” is that it forces us to look so much deeper than just the character’s weakest flaw. The flaw is a surface thing; the Lie is a soul-deep thing.

  32. Katie M says:

    Thanks for this series; it is clarifying a lot of what I’ve been muddling through for a while now. I enjoy your website and I’m starting to go through the character arc stuff, which I expect to help tremendously.

    I’ve been having some trouble coming up with a good Lie for my protagonist though, which confuses me because I had little trouble coming up with fitting Lies for my other characters. My protag grew up in a culture & family where duty and honor are important. It’s sort of expected that you put the family first, play your role. And he wants to, but he also feels like something is off about his life, though he just assumes it’s his problem. He is betrothed to a girl he likes but doesn’t love and he knows that in the future he will have to take the leadership role he has been groomed for his whole life.

    So his Lie could be that he is expected to give/sacrifice of himself for the good of his family, even when it is at his own expense. Does that sound like the kind of Lie that would work here? I’m not sure I like it because it doesn’t sound…unique, I guess, a little obvious. Does that make sense? I almost feel like it should be more complicated or it won’t work.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Lie you’ve described here could definitely work. When you’re having trouble figuring out a character’s Lie, the first thing to do is consider where you want him to end up in the book’s finale. What fundamental Truth will he have learned that will have changed him into a different person? It’s also worth considering that perhaps your protagonist doesn’t have Lie. If he’s following a flat arc in which he inspires change in the characters and world around him, he will already understand the Truth.

  33. I just discovered you, Ms. Weiland, and I have to say as a practical thinker this discussion really speaks a language I understand as I head into revising my first rough draft. I knew my characterization had problems, and grew frustrated with not knowing how to identify them and subsequently how to fix them. What I found especially frustrating was that I usually have plenty to say about others’ work (I tutor high school writers), but not my own. NO LONGER, thanks to you. I love the comparison with music theory – insightful!

    To answer the question, my MC’s Lie can be stated like this: “I will never amount to anything because my people are enslaved.” The products of this belief include fear (take no risks), and stasis (don’t stir the pot). I can’t say she is comfortable here, because there is a deep longing in her to do something great, this combination will most certainly pave the way for discomfort and change as she moves through the plot. Wow! Being able to articulate it like this makes me feel so much more secure in my revision process. Buying your book now. Blessings!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Awesome to hear you’ve found the series useful! I think it’s so valuable to consciously “claim” our story instincts. Once we pair that conscious knowledge with our fabulous instincts, great things happen!

  34. Eureka!

    Now back to writing.

  35. Mattimaus says:

    Fascinating post – I’ve been working on a story about an amnesiac-ish main character that doesn’t realize he had become the villain who nearly destroyed the world (in a previous untold story) until a group of his his own friends stopped him.

    I plan on it being a tragedy of some kind – where he realizes he can’t stop being a villain – accepts this and transforms into something terrible.

    If you first asked me what the lie he believes, it would be that he is a hero. But I’m realizing now that this is far too superficial. I’m leaning towards some combination of:

    1.) He’s not allowed to have what he wants or maybe, it’s immoral to have the things he really wants (normal things, like a beautiful girlfriend)

    2.) No who gets to know him will be able to love him.

  36. Is it possible for an MC to harbor two equal and opposite Lies?

    “The end justifies the means.” AND “You must always tell the truth no matter what.”

    “Money buys happiness.” AND “I don’t need money, all I need is love.”

    Of course anything is possible, but can you think of any story like this?

    (I just thought of a “King of the Hill” episode where Hank believes in both the free market AND tariffs: “That’s right, son. No, no, …”)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nothing comes to mind. When the character is caught between conflicting mindsets, one is usually the Lie while the other is the Truth.

  37. WOW! A few months ago I read this post and thought it was so awesome, I put The Lie and all the questions you had in my character template sheet. Never knew who wrote this blog. A week ago, I purchased a book by some K.M. Weiland and am loving it. I wrote a post on character design and happened to use this blog as one of my references. Didn’t recall who wrote it…so just now I see who did and I am laughing at myself. How the strings of the world become entangled. Very cool. Well….I like your book Structuring Your Novel. 😀 I have the workbook and it’s helpful so far. Still working on it. Thanks for writing it!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Well, cool beans! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed this series–and the book. Always makes my day to hear the info has been useful!

  38. Hello! I love your articles and have learned alot from them! I didn’t even know that THE LIE existed before and it has given my characters a depth they lacked.

    My character Julian is a 246 year old vampire that was blind as a human. Which resulted in him being abused and hidden away in a cellar from society. He was a disapointment to the human race as he sees it. So he might have a hatred towards the humans.

    So his lie is that he is not worthy of love. But i am not sure in what way i can introduce his lie or give a hint on it… Do you have any tips and tricks? Thanks!! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Most often, the key to the character’s Lie is found in the Ghost in his backstory. Sounds like you already have that, so just make sure you’re exemplifying the Lie in the character’s actions. What specific actions, motivated by his Ghost/Lie, areholding him back from the Thing He Needs?

      • Thanks for response! Do the thing my vampire WANTS is to save the humans in order to survive. His NEED is to forget his dark past. Am I on the right track with this? Cus I am always thinking: Am I doing this right? xd

        And could there be conflict between this want and need? I also have another problem, in the beginning I wanted to show that my MC is a caring character by making him run to a sick child. But afterwards it hit me: He dislikes humans. How could I show that he is a caring guy but still hint at his dislike for humans? THANKS!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          It’s great when there *is* a conflict between Want and Need, because that’s what creates the character’s inner struggle. So you’re definitely on the right path!

  39. Caroline Mezrahy says:

    Thank you for making this post. I apologize in advance for any mistakes I might have committed while writing this comment, as English is not my first language.

    While this has greatly clarified my understanding of character development, I still find myself confused when I try to apply the Lie to my MC.

    My MC has suffered a lot during his childhood, firstly because he never met his father, which left him unconsciously seeking for a father figure as a replacement. Later, he was deeply betrayed by someone whom he greatly admired, while at the same time suffering an immense emotional trauma for witnessing his mother’s death.

    This resulted in him being captured by bandits who sold him into slavery. Later in life, my MC would rely on people who ended up either manipulating him or betraying him, which made him incredibly afraid of putting his trust on anyone at all.

    This cynical approach to life is what I think his Lie is; his fear of trusting or allowing himself to care for people. Yet at the same time, he wants to free other slaves because he knows exactly the horrors they are going through.

    My point is that his Lie sort of contradicts with his goal, because the Lie tells him not to trust or care for anyone, but at the same time he wants to help slaves that suffer like he did, knowing that people in general have the potential of being just as vile as the others he has met on his past.

    Do you have any tips on how I can make this situation work? Thanks again.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re on the right the track! This contradiction you’re noticing is the inherent key to the character arc. Your character’s Lie has caused him to build protective walls around himself, but instinctively, on some deep level, he realizes the walls are actually stifling him. His Want is to protect himself; his Need is to embrace others and protect them as well.

      So what I would recommend is making his progress toward his outward goal of helping others more conflicted. There’s a part of him that wants to help, but his Lie keeps feeding him all these reasons why he should just take care of himself. He has to slowly grow into alignment with helping the others over the course of the story, as he moves out of the Lie and into the Truth.

  40. Setting: Fantasy fiction and Kingdoms at war
    My protagonist, the youngest of three princes, does not know why his grandfather, mentor and army general chose him to follow in his footsteps in taking on his critical role.
    He believes it may be nepotism (in which case why did the grandfather not choose the middle brother? Something the reader will work out for themselves as they get to know the middle brother).
    During the wandering response quarter of the story, those my protagonist has to lead question his mentor/grandfathers sanity in old age further undermining his confidence and suitability fore the role.
    Ultimately he must lead a small group of people older and more experienced than he is on a mission to resolved the plot. All of these people were originally chosen by the grandfather and they are not all convinced about his ability to lead.

  41. Jennifer Jones says:

    This is late, I know, but I just discovered this series and it is GOLD!

    So my main characyer has terrifying visions (people getting murdered and all that). When it starts, she tells her mother, who then sends her to a psychiatrist. Meadow knows her visions are more than just a delusion, but the psychiatrist prescribes her medication. The visions persist, but the way her mom acts and how the psychiatrist treats her makes her feel like she’s crazy. So she tells them the medication is working and the visions have gone away. This is all in the backstory. So the Lie is that if she tells people the truth about herself they won’t accept her or they’ll think she’s crazy. The Ghost would be her mom’s reaction.

    I am stuggling with the Lie because there are so many it could be, but this one lines up with the plot nicely. It could also be that everyone you care about will desert you (because her childhood best friend and his family disappeared without saying goodbye — also an essential element to the plot.)

    I guess I’m stuggling because by the first plot point, she finds out she’s not crazy. From there maybe she learns how to trust her visions more….learning to view them as clues rather than an abnormality to be hidden…?

    • Jennifer Jones says:

      Though, technically, at plot point one, she finds out she’s still abnormal. I should probably explain….the inciting incident reveals to her a magical world. At the first plot point she finds out she is from this world, but her parents tampered with her memories. She also finds out that, vendors in this magical world, her visions are not normal because she is not a Seer. So maybe her struggle with being normal, even in a magical world, can be part of the Lie.

      Of course, you don’t find out what causes her visions until book 3 🙂

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        To discover the Lie that’s fundamental to her arc, take a look at the Climax. Whatever Truth she’s claiming and wielding there needs to be the opposite of the Lie she’s going to be overcoming throughout the story.

        More in this post: “What Is the Role of Theme in the Story’s Climax?

        • Jennifer Jones says:

          So say the Truth at the end is that she’s not crazy…that her visions are real and that she can stop whatever is happening in them. Can it be herself that this is proven to? She has a friend that believes in her visions, but maybe she has her doubts….so the Lie would become: her visions are only delusions and she can’t stop them because they aren’t real.

          I’m struggling a bit with this

  42. Hi,
    Love your articles; so helpful. I’m trying to differentiate my ghost from my inciting event. Do I have this plotted out correctly?

    My protagonist is a 12″ tall barn brownie, a character that I have created based on Scottish folklore. Back in 1800’s, in New England, the brownie is called forth by tree spirits to protect the barn that has been built out of their ancestral tree homes . A little girl comes to the barn, makes eye contact with him, drops her candle lantern, catching the hay on fire. Brownie is not able to put out the fire, and the new barn burns to the ground. He does rescue the girl’s doll, and leaves it for her by the house. He feels responsible for the fire and is devastated.

    The girl, realizing that Brownie saved her doll, sends him a thank you note, and tries to reassure him that it wasn’t his fault; she shouldn’t have been out there. He disappears. (GHOST)

    A new barn is built, and because of her note, he begs the tree spirits for another chance. They detect a lack of confidence in him, and concoct a story about a magic vest that will protect him and the barn from future harm, but only while he is wearing it. He accepts their terms, and also imposes one on himself: never have direct contact with another human.

    He assumes his new responsibilities as caretaker, and is hyper-vigilant. But after many years of waiting to feel better about himself, he figures out that being the best guardian isn’t making him happy. He is incredibly lonely, and wonders about the girl and her doll. Why was it so important to her? What purpose did it serve. He tries to make himself a doll out of odds and ends in the barn, which gives him a silent companion. Better than being alone, but not enough. He tries to make friends with the animals in the barn, but they aren’t interested. After landing in the watering trough, he takes off all of his clothes, including the vest, and leaves them out to dry. (INCITING EVENT)
    While sleeping, a boy comes to the barn, takes Brownie’s clothes, thinking his little sister left them there, and carves his initials in the corner post, which then appear on Brownie’s arm as red welts. Brownie wakes up and runs out of his little house in barn, and comes face to face with the boy. They are both terrified, but also sense a common bond of loneliness, and make an immediate connection. (POINT OF NO RETURN)
    The boy tells his grandmother, and she tells him to return the clothes, and she makes a rag doll for Brownie that bears his likeness. He names him Tree. She also makes a similar rag doll for the boy, so that they each will have a new friend.
    Brownie is quite shaken up about this, and puts the vest back on, vowing to never take it off again. (RECOMMITS)
    But more years pass, and Brownie is still not happy, even with doll. Now he deliberately takes off the vest, and another child comes to the barn, with more severe consequences..
    Is the lie that he will only find happiness by being the perfect guardian, and his false belief is that the vest will protect him, or the other way around…the lie is that the vest will protect him, and his false belief is that if he is the perfect guardian, then he will feel fulfilled? Or does it matter?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      First of all, lovely story idea!

      Second, although the Ghost is often found in the backstory and thus never dramatized in the main story, it *is* possible to start with the Ghost, in a prologue kind of a scene. Remember, the Ghost is distinct from other bad things that have happened to your protagonist, in that it is a *specific* cause for his Lie. Is his encounter with the girl the reason he believes he must be a perfect guardian? If so, then that is probably his Ghost.

      • Hi,
        Thanks for quick reply. I keep hearing from agents to NOT have a prologue. I sense that his ghost is that he let himself down after his barn burned, and wants a second chance to prove to himself that he is worthy of taking care of a new barn. He thinks he has disappointed the tree spirits, and feels the need to show them as well that he can take care of the barn made from their former homes. The tree spirits aren’t upset, and realize that it was an accident, but they pretend to be so that he will be more careful next time. The tree spirits then tell him that if this barn is destroyed, then he will perish with it. (This is a lie that they tell him, along with the magic vest.)

        Brownie feels his contact with the girl caused the fire, and hence his failure to protect the barn. He decides that it is too risky to interact with humans, and the only way he can do his job is to avoid them at all cost. But his contact with the first girl introduces him to the concept of companionship, which triggers his longings/needs.
        Is it better to start the story with the fire as the hook, or jump it ahead to the second barn raising, where the Tree spirits are concocting the vest for him, and allude back to the fact that he has low self confidence because his first barn burned down, and use flash backs to reveal the ghost? The fire is why he is so hyper-vigilant with the second barn.
        I put that he rescues the doll at the beginning for the “save the cat” moment to endear him to the reader. Saving the doll at the beginning introduces the use of a doll through the entire story as a symbol of companionship…the second child that comes after he takes off the vest steals his doll, Tree. She passes the doll on to her granddaughter, who ultimately returns it to Brownie. Brownie eventually makes a real human connection with this child, and becomes her “doll” when they are out in public, the relationship he wanted ever since seeing the very first girl with her doll…the need to be loved.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Prologues are tricky, and generally I *don’t* recommend them, but occasionally they’re right choice for a story, as long as they have a great hook and are (generally) pretty short.

          • Is Brownie’s lie that if he protects the barn (by not interacting with humans,) then he will find safety and security and fulfilment, or that he believes he is not worthy to take care of another barn, but can become worthy by keeping on the vest and not interacting with the humans?

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            The key with Lies is digging them down to their most primal level. Protecting the barn is a surface-level manifestation of deeper Lie, one that seems to be about either fear or low self-worth. Which is more pertinent to the plot? Which does he have to overcome first? The one that’s left standing until the very end, that’s going to be his main Lie.

  43. He needs to overcome his low self worth in order to realize that it is him, not the vest, that has the power to protect the barn. Once he realizes this, then he is able to wage battle with the carpenter who has come to fix/takedown the barn. During the battle, he gets trapped in the carpenter’s toolbag, and ends up at the carpenter’s house, where he is discovered by the carpenter’s wife, who sees him as a doll. She takes him in, and cleans him up and cares for him. He still wants to get back to his barn, because that is where Tree is, but he senses a connection with the wife, and starts to see that relationships are more important than the building, and that that is what he needs to protect. He then begins to realize that a doll is just a one-way relationship, and that the carpenter’s family can give him the real safety and security that he thought was only available from preserving the barn. By leaving the safety of his home in the barn (want) he is able to find the human companionship he desperately needs. It is not the barn that he can’t live without, it is the humans. In the beginning he tells himself just the opposite. Is this the lie?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes. I’d phrase the Lie as something directly connected to his self-worth, since that’s the primal weakness at play here. But you’re totally on the right track.

  44. Thank you so much for all of your help! It was invaluable!

  45. Nerio Aguirre says:

    Hello K, your website is amazing! very heplful.

    My story have a fractured structure. I start whit the result of the lie at the inciting incident.
    Then we go back in time and know the character‘s lie (the money give him happiness) and the story go on to the start point.

    I tell you a little about it:
    At the beginning of the story three specters visit the character, demanding the life of his pregnant daughter or his grandson, he have to choose between those two.
    Back in time my character is a poor man who stole gold from a coven and killed a young witch. With the gold he can married with his beautiful girlfriend, an aristocratic girl.

    • Nerio Aguirre says:

      The murder is the first plot point.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Nothing necessarily wrong with that structure. The chronology of the timeline isn’t what’s important in plotting the plot points. The timing of the plot points will always be dependent upon the *actual* timing within the story. So even if your First Plot Point technically happens in your character’s past, if you’re dramatizing the “past” story, then it’s fine to have that important moment land at the 25% mark.

  46. J.A. Darling says:

    This article has been extremely helpful in further developing and understanding one of my primary protagonists. Kain is from another world that was the original home to both his people, the Almerans and humans. He was separated as a baby from his mother and older brother (the antagonist) when they were taken by the government. He however remained hidden and was later found by a human who raised her as her own. And until now that’s as far as his backstory went. There was a big gap between that event and the beginning of the story where he’s already a young man. I still haven’t quite settled on what his lie should be though. I feel like it should definitely have something to do with mistreatment at the hands of his well meaning but deeply troubled human mother. Reading some of the comments was helpful especially the one about the werewolf story. There Is a similar element in this story where Kain realizes that he has the Gift (a gene mutation that allows him to harness his body’s energy, giving him incredible powers) But the victim lie doesn’t entirely fit him. His major symptom is that he doesn’t see himself as being worthy of the role that circumstances have thrust him into. He lacks confidence and even harbors guilt over his mother’s overdose. That guilt is compounded when his mentor dies of leukemia (he’s been trying and failing to get a grant from the government to study the Gift for medical use) So I know his lie revolves around guilt, shame, and a sense of worthlessness but can’t yet put my finger on what it should be specifically.

  47. Well, for Amelia, she wants to help people but doesn’t think that she can do it in the books, and even though she gains confidence, she still thinks that she isn’t good enough until later on when she learns to trust her instincts and believes that she can do it.

  48. Hannah Killian says:

    Not entirely sure what the Lie for the princess in one of my WIPs is, but the Lie for her LI could have something to do with his father. . .

  49. Hi K.M..
    This post is a gem I keep coming back to. In my current WIP, I’m starting to wonder whether the Lie I created from the Wound makes sense. My MC’s wound is 2-part. First, she suffered a humiliating public racist micro-aggression as a child, and when she tried to talk about it with her father he trivialized it because he wants to believe that they live in a colorblind society. Also, she is the only African-American girl in town. After the Wound, she developed a fear of speaking up and getting into situations where she could become humiliated again. I see these as her survival strategies. The principal Lie she came to believe was that in this town it is better for me to stay silent than speak my truth because people prefer harmony over truth. She acquires a habit of being silent around future racial incidents and other avoidance habits. Her story goal is to pass her last class in High School because that is her ticket out of the town (to an all Black university where she thinks she’ll be liberated from the isolation she faces in her home town). My confusion is around the fact that the town does in fact prefer harmony to truth, so in a way her Lie can’t be disproved. And, if she does speak up she might actually be humiliated again. Should her Lie be something different then, more of a commentary on her personal shortcomings? Like maybe that thinks she’s not brave enough to confront these situations alone (though that seems like less of a logical extension of the Wound)? I think being tripped up on this is tripping me up on the Stakes. Also, I already know that at the end I would like to have her placed in a situation where she has the opportunity to speak publically about the reality of racism in the town.

    I really hope this makes some sense. Thank you for your wisdom!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think you’re totally on the right track. In stories where the Normal World is destructive to the character, it is *very* supportive of the Lie. It nurtures the Lie for the character and tells her it’s the right and safe thing–even as this Lie is personally destructive to the character herself.

      In stories like this, the character either remains in the Normal World and transforms it (or sometimes destroys it) with the Truth she discovers–or, as she grows into her Truth, she realizes she can no longer live in this environment and moves on–or she comes to such peace within herself that she’s able to live wholly even within the Lie-ridden world.

      • Thank you, this helps a lot. I already know that my character won’t transform the world around her. I think I’m trying to bridge the second and third options you mentioned. I would like her to grow into her Truth (that speaking up, though scary, is liberating and necessary), gain more peace within herself, and by doing so gain the ability and confidence to continue living in the town if she so decides to. I don’t want her Lie to be the thing that makes her run from the environment. I want her to do it on her own terms. Hopefully that’s not asking too much of my MC, lol.

  50. One of my stories still very early in development is, heavily condensed, about a genius prodigy who is thrown into a relationship with a ‘tomboy’.

    I am still working out the details, but his Lie seems to be that because his intellect is far greater than that of those around him, it makes him completely superior to everyone, so, while glad of the company, he is reluctant to let anyone into his life as a whole (he is accustomed to being in charge of his team). His new relationship, and the appearance of someone smarter than he, challenges him to let others help him, and he begins to realize that intellect is not always the most important aspect of a person.

  51. Samantha Ann says:

    So would the qualifier of a lie be rooted in the character’s ghost as well, or could it come afterwards? My MC believes he is powerless (main lie) after he is unable to save a friend from a burning building (ghost). Because he desperately wants power, he thinks money could supply it(qualifier).

    Is that logical even though the money angle doesn’t tie in with his ghost?

    I know for sure he feels powerless, but need some angle to make him want to do something other than flit about with no clear goal.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, the qualifier will often be a coping strategy that arises as a result of the Ghost.

      • Samantha Ann says:

        Okay, I’m on the right track then, just need to tweak it some.

        Thank you! I know this is an old post, so I appreciate the response. Love this series, btw. Super helpful.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Great to hear you’re enjoying the series! It’s coming out in book form next month. 🙂

  52. M. J. Piazza says:

    This is really good! I’ve never thought about writing this way before. Thank you for your advice; I’m sure my novel will be stronger because of it.

  53. Hello ^^ After beginning to read your Character Arc book, I have a couple questions as I am trying to apply it to a current WIP.

    My main character is a young woman whose Lie is: Vengeance against those responsible for kidnapping her and sister will assuage the guilt she feels over her sister’s death
    Her ghost is the fact that she and her sister were stolen from their home and then sold into slavery. The ghost is actually part of the plot, since it’s all about her finding out who did it and taking that revenge. She finds some help along the way. The thing that confuses me a bit is in the Normal World and also one of the questions regarding how the interior Lie is reflected in the exterior world.

    At the start of the story, she is hiding in an alleyway. She has escaped her captors, but is alone and hasn’t even started to think of vengeance. I’m trying to figure out if I’m on the wrong track or if I’m overthinking things a bit too much and worrying too much about following things exactly.

    My other concern is: is the positive arc the one I need or is it the negative? I want her to realize that vengeance won’t assuage the guilt, if anything, it will make it worse, but with the difficulty I am having in answering some of these questions, not sure if it’s the arc I chose or just that I’m overthinking it.

    Thanks so much for these articles and your book! They are very helpful and make me think.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sometimes the Normal World is literal; sometimes it’s figurative. In the latter case, the “Normal World” simply indicates a stage in the character’s story *before* she has engaged with the main conflict that occurs at the First Plot Point when she forms her main story goal. For example, if you look at sequel stories in particular, you won’t find a Normal World that is as clearly delineated as it was in the first story. But there is still a demarcation between the setup of the First Act and the shift into the main conflict of the Second.

      It could be that your character’s “Normal World” was that of her captivity. Only once she returns to comparative safety and determines her plan of action for achieving revenge will she leave that “world” for the adventure world of the main conflict.

      If the character overcomes a Lie and ends in a comparatively more positive mental space, then she’s definitely on a positive change arc.

  54. hi, Just bought your ebook, it’s fantastic.
    How’s this for a lie:
    If everything stays the same, we will be safe.

    So, she resists marriage, her sister becoming independent, etc.
    Question: won’t this lead to a static feel? Will my character be more interesting if she has a dynamic lie?
    Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Even if the Lie is a resistance of change (which, essentially, *all* Lies are), you want to make sure your protagonist still has an active goal. For example, she wants to stop her sister from becoming independent, so what does she do? Does she go out of her way to sabotage her sister’s relationships, etc.?

  55. Shubham Shetty says:

    I have just started writing the outline for my first novel but I cant seem to figure out which Type of character arc to choose for the protagonist. It is going to be a post apocalyptic novel which is set Just after a terrible epidemic wipes out more than 95% of humans. Please help.

  56. Shubham Shetty says:

    Here is the first few lines:
    As I wake up to another day in what is left of the world, I try to take in the sights of what used to be a bustling city and try not to cry. It is impossible to believe that only five years ago by this time these streets used to be crowded with people in cars driving to their offices or to visit their friends or to buy provisions, but now there is only the wind to sweep these streets……

  57. Shubham Shetty says:

    The novel I plan to write Has the following plot points:
    1. The protagonist lives alone in an abandoned city
    2. He encounters a small child trying to reach a far away settlement and reluctantly agrees to take her there.
    3. He overcomes several obstacles to reach there only to realize that the settlement isn’t the safe haven he assumed it would be
    Is the change arc suitable for the protagonist?

  58. Mauricio says:

    I keep having a hard time coming up with lies for my main characters, is there a better way to brainstorm ideas for false beliefs besides using the emotional wound thesaurus?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Consider who your character is at the end of the book and how he has changed. If he has changed in a positive way and grown into a new positive belief, that’s your story’s Truth. From there, to find the Lie, all you have to do is flip the Truth on its head.

  59. I want my character to believe that he must obey the commands of others, but I also know that a good character must make their own decisions. Did I create a bad “Lie” for my character, or is there a way I can pull this off? Thanks for your feedback!

  60. “He realizes the reason he’s not getting what he wants in the plot is because either a) he wants the wrong thing or b) his moral methods for achieving what he wants are all wrong.”

    How about c) his reason for wanting it is wrong ?

    My MC wants to marry a rich doctor on a schedule, because that’s what his mom wants and he always wants to please his mom (and by extension to please others, if they resemble his mom) because he grew up that way and he thinks his mom is always right (this is probably his Lie). I haven’t yet figured out how his Lie (“mom’s ways are best”) is evident in the conflict between his Want (marry rich doctor etc) and his Need (think for himself, make his own decisions, not get married for a while–or possibly at all, realize his mom is a crazy foolish idiot or that marriage is a bad idea nowadays, something like that). I mean, obviously he keeps doing what he thinks his mom would want (aided by a list of memorized Rules, which his mom has thoughtfully provided him with during years of homeschooling)–until he is distracted by the shiny objects which he finds as the story progresses. But that’s not very specific. And the Need as I framed it above is indirect. What are “his own decisions” ? What, really, is “the conflict” between Want and Need? What does it mean to say that the Lie “is evident” in that conflict?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Often, you can take a primal, comparatively indirect Want or Need and use that as the background to fuel something much more specific and immediate in the character’s plot goals.

  61. Why does she believe this? Because of a trauma in her past?

    Did she always have super powers, or acquire them? Did she acquire the Lie along with them?

    A more resonant Lie could be “my worth is only because I have super powers.” (Compare: “my worth is only because I have money,” “because I’m smart,” “because I have a good family,” etc)

    How are these super powers related to love?

    Does she lose them, temporarily or permanently, and see what happens? (See: Dumbo’s magic feather)

  62. A good minor Lie here would be: The Sheriff is always right. Create some internal conflict!

  63. Ah, a good question: Why is this Lie “necessary” for a period of time? What benefit or payoff does the character get from believing the Lie? Does it make the character feel safe, or feel popular, or feel successful, or avoid pain, or … ?

  64. Is she conflicted about helping him? What’s the obstacle? What’s her misleading Want? What’s her true Need?

  65. And if he doesn’t save the world or sacrifice himself … He’s a failure? Why would he believe that? When did that start?

  66. Maybe it’s “patriotism is more important than personal loyalty” or vice versa?

  67. I like this word “dramatize.” What does this dramatIzing involve?

    My MC is told some stories which give background info about the other characters and (ideally) constitute a subplot. But he doesn’t participate in those stories; he (we) are simply told them through dialogue with the MC. I don’t want him to simply be window dressing. I want him (and us) to care about the characters in the stories, so that they become considered as characters in “the” story.

    Do I need to “dramatize” the stories? What do I do?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That depends on a lot of factors, the chief two being 1) how important are these stories to the plot? and 2) what is the most interesting way to share them with readers?

      The big benefit of dramatizing is that it’s easily the most interesting way to share info. But the big downside is that it takes up a ton of space and time, so if what you’re sharing isn’t super-pertinent, readers may still find it tedious.

  68. K.M.,

    I’m reading your Creating Character Arcs book, which is great. But I have a question about my character’s lie.

    The protagonist is an orphan who is filled with resentment at his father for leaving him, as well as guilt and a lack of self-worth. He is a thief who takes care of himself and doesn’t trust anyone else, basically his defense mechanism against getting hurt again. It’s not working so well, as he is going nowhere, just existing in a slum.

    What he wants, deep down, is to find a mentor/father figure to fill the void his own father left. He would have to learn to let people in in order to do get this.

    But what he really needs is to succeed on his own, to realize he is worthwhile. Only that will give him the sense of self-worth that will allow him become the word-saver he is destined to be.

    So is the lie the fact that he hides his true self from people to avoid pain, or is it his secret desire to get back his Dad or some substitute, when he needs to fine fulfillment from within? I’m pretty sure it’s the latter, but I was hoping for some advice. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Throughout the first half of your comment (about the character needing someone to love and trust but being held back by his Lie that they *will* hurt him), I was all, “Yeah, he’s totally got this!” 😀 But as soon as I hit “what he really needs is to succeed on his own,” I experienced a little flash of cognitive dissonance. The Lie you’ve set up is great, but it doesn’t tie in seamlessly with an arc about learning to be independent. So I’d tweak one or the other–the Lie or the end Need.

  69. Hi K.M.,

    Love your website and now own 3 of your books! Working my way through Character Arc book and also Structuring Novel workbook.

    I’m in such a dilemma. I have a story that is told from multiple 1st person POV and set in two different time periods. Current day and 6 years prior which sets up the story of current day with most of the major players.

    I’m not sure my story can work in the 3 act structure. How do I do this??

    The more I write the past sections, the more I love it and almost want to start there. The reason I didn’t is because I have a great hook in the current time in the start of the novel. You have to know what is going on NOW to get why the backstory matters. But it’s not really the backstory – it’s the meat of the story.

    I don’t know what to do and I am considering restructuring the entire novel.

    More info is prob needed:

    Starts in current day with main character Jessica tracking down a friend (Anja) after 6 years and considering stealing a child from a playground (they are connected)

    The child’s mother (Veronica) is another POV – she has a secret about the child which is eluded to in her beginning chapter and her husband is leaving her.

    The child’s nanny (Anja) is also introduced in the beginning.

    You don’t know the ties between Jessica & Anja until the 6 years prior chapters explore it all.

    I feel like I wanted to get my readers invested in the present day and then have them really interested in the Why it happened and what happened and what is going on by writing the past. Jessica & Anja met in high school and this is when the past is set.

    So, how do I structure this? I thought maybe Act 1 was the present with Act 2 being the past scenes but after reading your book, it shouldn’t work that way.

    Any suggestions/advice – DONT DO THATs would be helpful.

    BTW – your site has become my go-to.

    Thanks in advance,

    Cheryl

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Cheryl, great to hear you’re enjoying the site! I touch on this issue in this post on dual timelines. But the short answer is that you can handle this in two ways: either use the same plot point to drive the plot in both timelines (e.g., the memory or revelation of an event in the early timeline drives the plot in the later timeline) – or time it so each timeline gets its own structure-advancing plot point at the proper time. In the vast majority of cases, the first is preferable, since it will contribute to a much tighter story.

      • Hi again,

        Thank you so much for such a timely response! I’ve been stressing it for days because I really like what I’ve got going on and didn’t want to have to change it completely.

        I’m writing my chapters out of order currently and will eventually decide what is the right order. I’ve got a basic outline prepared so I know what I need to write and I just pick and choose from it when it’s writing time. I like that it allows me to jump to a different scene, POV, or time. When I do so, I learn more about my characters. Things I didn’t know yet.

        The article you provided is so helpful! I have years of your archives I must peruse. I am trying to balance my writing with reading and learning about writing. It can be challenging (oh and the full time job and a teenager) but I’m focused and driven on this goal.

        I also ordered the Negative & Positive and Emotion Thesaurus (no idea the plural of that word) and look forward to diving in to those.

        Thanks again!

        Cheryl

  70. Does the lie have to be something the character already believes before the start of the story? Or can it be something that results from the first chapters/inciting event?

    I can come up with a few Lies, but I’m having a hard time pinpointing one main Lie. The big Ghost they stem from is that she couldn’t protect her brother from getting killed (or herself from being dethroned) in chapter 1.

    She had other Lies before that, but chapter 1 changed much of what she believed.

    Is this okay, or does the ghost need to be farther back in the past?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As long as the Lie ties into the Ghost and is the product of previously held (if still very complacent) Lies, that’s fine. There’s always something that happens early in the First Act that suddenly forces the character to start confronting her Lie. Previous to that, she was just fine living with it, in large part because it may just have been in the background where it couldn’t cause much trouble.

    • I guess the trouble is, I don’t know what she goes into page 1 believing. In the past, the Lie was that family love and right living would keep everyone safe and secure–that was three years ago, when her family was living.

      I can’t name what Lie she has when page 1 starts. She believes her purpose is being a protector, but I don’t think that’s the Lie, because she believes it at the end too. (Protecting someone is what leads to the climax.)

      A few pages into chapter 1, she loses her last brother (to murder) and spends the book struggling with survivor’s guilt and a sense of failure. She also believes that without her family and crown (=her role as protector), she’s nothing.

      I’m pretty sure it’s not a flat arc. So is it a problem if I can’t name a pre-existing Lie? Is a Lie born in chapter 1 sufficient? Do I need to create a pre-chapter-1 Lie for her?

  71. mauricio says:

    If the protagonist isn’t aware of his own lie, then can you make the belief evident with symptomes of the lie or should the lie just be stated outright in the form of dialouge or internal dialouge?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes. In fact, symptoms are best, since they allow you to “show” the Lie, rather than presenting it in a direct on-the-nose fashion.

      • mauricio says:

        Could it also work for the truth? In a flat arc or at the end of a change arc, could you write positive symptoms that stem from the truth?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Certainly. Again, showing is always preferable to telling the “moral of the story.”

  72. Thanks for the great article. My protagonists lie is that he believes that masculinity is about physical domination, and his ghost came about as he was unable to protect his mother from an intruder, resulting in her death. Years later the inciting incident presents him with the opportunity of redemption by proving his lie correct, by saving his sister from a perceived aggressor. Thats his plot goal. So his plot goal is rooted in the lie. Can this work? Or does the inciting incident need to reflect a starting search for the truth (which it does progressively but its not the reason for the start of his journey, the opportunity). Thx!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Inciting Event asks a question which find its definitive answer in the Climactic Moment. It’s absolutely fine–preferable even–for the character’s plot goal/Thing He Wants to be driven by the Lie. But even if that goal is a worthy thing, he needs to eventually discover the Lie is holding him back from achieving that goal in a holistic way.

      So, for example, your character’s journey over the course of your story might lead him to an action in the Climactic Moment that still allows him to save his love ones–but in a way that reflects masculine wholeness through the addition of compassion or restraint, rather than just the power side of the dynamic.

      • Thx, really helpful. Last thing:can the inciting event be something he’s been hoping for, an opportunity to redeem himself, to prove he has embraced the lie? I know you talk of the protagonist momentarily rejecting the call to adventure but this character has been hoping this day would come. He’s been waiting for this moment to put his ghost to rest(and it will but not in the way he expects). Could this work?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Yes, the protagonist can wholeheartedly accept the Call to Adventure at the Inciting Event as long as there is a form of rejection or resistance from another quarter that prevents him from immediately engaging with the main conflict until the First Plot Point.

          • Thanks, really appreciate your responses and have enjoyed your book. Regards from Cape Town, South Africa.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Authors) to become one of my morning’s first stop! And today she wrote her second part of how to create stunning characters arcs. In it she tells us about the Lies the characters faces. When I say that I’m only beginning […]

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  5. […] believes about himself, the world around him or both is part of the your Character Arc (read more here, on K.M. Weiland’s excellent blog). We all believe different lies about ourselves: I’m […]

  6. […] For more on this concept, visit: http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/character-arcs-2/ […]

  7. […] them from the truth. This is their lie I am not throwing away my shot. For example, as stated on this post from helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com, “Lightning McQueen’s ingrained belief in the Lie that life is a one-man show the world was […]

  8. […] done, I wrote ‘1,700 a day,’ which is my goal, notes about the protagonist, antagonist, protagonist’s lie, and the main conflict, and other stuff like […]

  9. […] heavily dependent on your protagonist and her goal, so I start with that. K.M. Weiland talks about the Lie the character believes  (and the Truth she does or doesn’t learn). I try to find the Lie/Truth for all my major […]

  10. […] heavily dependent on your protagonist and her goal, so I start with that. K.M. Weiland talks about the Lie the character believes  (and the Truth she does or doesn’t learn). I try to find the Lie/Truth for all my major […]

  11. […] What is your protagonist’s lie? (<- click the link to read more about this on K.M. Weiland’s blog) […]

  12. […] Belief Problem This is what K.M. Weiland refers to as the lie your character tells themselves, and she believes it’s this lie which is a […]

  13. […] Uncovering the hurt that makes your character. Another good character development exercise, from KM Weiland. […]

  14. […] Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 2: The Lie Your Character Believes […]

  15. […] heavily dependent on your protagonist and her goal, so I start with that. K.M. Weiland talks about the Lie the character believes (and the Truth she does or doesn’t learn). I try to find the Lie/Truth for all my major […]

  16. […] heavily dependent on your protagonist and her goal, so I start with that. K.M. Weiland talks about the Lie the character believes (and the Truth she does or doesn’t learn). I try to find the Lie/Truth for all my major […]

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  18. […] Believes. This is another idea from K.M. Weiland, and you can read about it at full-length here. Essentially, this is the lie standing between your character and the growth they […]

  19. […] As you begin to explore your characters’ inner needs and their outer desires, start looking for the corresponding Lie and Truth that will tell you what your theme […]

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