2 Different Types of the Lie Your Character Believes

The Lie Your Character Believes. It’s the atom waiting to be split, the bomb waiting to go off, the change waiting to happen in your character’s life. Even when hidden beneath layers of plot and theme, the Lie Your Character Believes is your story. You know this, of course. But did you know that sometimes there are two types of the Lie Your Character Believes?

The Lie Your Character Believes is the central cog in your character’s arc. This is so simply because the Lie is the reason change needs to happen—and therefore the reason there’s a story to tell in the first place. The Lie will inherently be opposed by a related Truth, and together they create the foundation for a cohesive and resonant plot and theme. (Note that in some stories, the protagonist is the one who believes the Lie; in others, the protagonist believes the Truth but is surrounded by supporting characters whose actions are informed by opposing Lies.)

Truly, there are as many different kinds of Lies as there are, well… lies. If it ain’t true, it has the possibility of driving character change in some way. The Lie might be something as trivial as Aunt Bea’s belief that her homemade pickles can win a blue ribbon when really they taste like kerosene, or it might be something as monumental as Javert’s belief that mercy and justice are mutually exclusive.

Should All Your Minor Characters Have Arcs

The shorthand for this is that there’s no limit on what kind of Lie Your Character Believes—as long as it drives the plot and engineers the theme. However, I feel it’s helpful to examine two particular categories into which your characters’ Lies might fit. Seeing the difference can help you know which is right for your story—or whether you might get extra mileage by dramatizing a related Lie for each category.

2 Types of the Lie Your Character Believes: Inner and Outer Lies

If you start examining Lies in popular stories—or your own stories—you’ll notice two different manifestations. Sometimes the Lie is one that exists mainly within the character’s inner self, driving the inner conflict. Other times, the Lie exists mainly within the character’s outer world, driving the outer conflict. This can be a tricky distinction, since the inner Lie will often affect the outer conflict and vice versa (after all, this is the essence of character driving plot).

We can think of this distinction, in very general terms, as the difference between a character-driven Lie and a plot-driven Lie. Again, this is a fine line, since the best stories are always strong in both plot and character. But you can easily spot the differences by examining stories that fall at opposite ends of the spectrum. Plot-driven stories often focus primarily on an outer-world Lie such as Hunger Games‘ Lie that “oppressive government is necessary” or Jurassic Park‘s Lie that “science should always be advanced.” Character-driven stories usually focus on an inner Lie, such as “men and women can’t be friends” in When Harry Met Sally or “money is the measure of worth” in A Christmas Carol.

Jurassic Park Dr. Alan Grant Ellie Satler Ian Malcom John Hammond

An inner-world Lie will affect the character’s outer world, sometimes even to the point of becoming the outer world’s Lie. And vice versa, an outer-world Lie will likely become crucial to the character’s inner conflict and self-estimation.

The distinction is important not so much because of how the Lie manifests in the story as it is because of where the Lie originated. Where did this Lie come from? Who (or what) gave this Lie to the character? And what do the answers mean for the character’s motivations and ultimate arc within this story?

Let’s take a look.

The Outer Liar: Your Character’s Oppressive World

Very often, the Lies we believe are ones we are “given.” They are not Lies that originate with us. Rather, they are beliefs openly acted upon in our outer worlds (whether that means the global community, a secret society, or a nuclear family). Sometimes these Lies really are lies, as when a government hides truths from its citizens to maintain power, but often these Lies aren’t so much propaganda as misinformation.

It’s important to note that a “Lie” won’t always be given to your character as the result of someone’s malignant desire to control or hurt. Sometimes the Lie will be offered because it’s the best the giver has to give, or because it represents someone’s current best guess on a subject. Humanity’s understanding of life and the world is evolving. Certain ideas that seemed true to Isaac Newton are now recognized by us as “lies,” just as some of our “truths” will be recognized as incorrect by later generations.

There are also “Lies” that prove themselves untrue only to certain people. “You’ll be happy only if you get married and have children” may be advice offered genuinely and generously by someone who has found it true for themselves, but it may prove disastrously untrue for another person.

Outer Lies are those that are fully represented and enforced by your character’s Normal World in the First Act. To overcome this outer Lie, the character’s story journey may focus on one of the following:

  • Transforming the Normal World—either by influencing it toward the Truth or by outright destroying it so something better can be rebuilt. (Don’t forget the “world” may be as big as an entire planet or as small as a single relationship.)
  • Leaving the Normal World—either to return to it a changed person who can now share new Truths with those left behind, or to return to it a changed person who can now stand strong against the Lies, or to never return to it because of the recognition that it is an unhealthy place and not a true home.
  • Changing Personally Within the Normal World and Then Leaving—in which the Normal World itself refuses to change and the major realization for the character is that the world cannot support the new Truth.

How an Outer Lie Influences the Things the Character Wants and Needs

Very often, in a story that focuses on an outer Lie, the Thing the Character Wants will be something the world wants for him—and which he may think he truly wants but later realizes he doesn’t.

The Need, by contrast, will usually be either something he really does want but thinks he shouldn’t have (such as following his dream of being a musician instead of joining his family’s furniture-making business) or simply the Truth that he can and should make up his own mind rather than blindly accepting conventional limitations.

The Origins of an Outer Lie: the Ghost

Traditionally, the Ghost or wound in your character’s backstory is significant because it represents the Lie’s origin. This can still be true in an outer-Lie story, since very often it is useful to reference a dramatic backstory event that prompted or solidified your character’s belief in the Lie propagated by his Normal World. But sometimes the origin of the Lie, and therefore the story’s Ghost, won’t exist within the protagonist’s personal backstory. Rather, the Ghost is found in the larger backstory of the story world itself. Cultural and familial Lies have origins of their own. This origin may be long-forgotten, or it may be mythologized in some way, or it may be have a notable and dramatic source within memory.

The Arc of an Outer Lie

As with all aspects of story, the outer Lie represents one side of a polarity—which means the story arc should span the distance and swing all the way over to the other side of the polarity. A Lie with origins in the outer world should create a story that ends with deep personal change within the character. If the Lie is that slaves are inferior people, then the greatest change should come from within the protagonist himself, as it does for Huckleberry Finn by story’s end.

The Inner Liar: Your Character’s Shadow Self

In other stories, the Lie the Character Believes may originate not so much from the outside-in as from the inside-out. The character may believe this Lie doggedly even against the cautionary wisdom of her Normal World. This Lie may be obviously negative (“I will never find peace until I wreak vengeance on those who hurt me”), or it may appear positive while being invisibly driven by a corrupted motive (“I will prove myself worthy only if I am the first person from my family to go to college”).

Where do these inner Lies come from? Although you can argue for an external cause for all beliefs, these inner Lies aren’t so much “given” to the character as “birthed” by her. The character’s failure to recognize these misguided beliefs is the result of her personal blind spots—of deeply rooted cognitive dissonance and subconscious inconsistencies in her worldview.

Psychologically, the ego (recognized self) and shadow (unrecognized self) represent another of those polarities that provide so many story-arc opportunities. When the character is mistaken in a belief about herself because she fails to see or understand something that is hidden in her shadow (which should be understood as the sum of everything we don’t yet see or understand about ourselves), she will necessarily make incorrect assumptions about who she is, what she must do to live rightly, and what her world represents.

We all tell ourselves these inner Lies every day—that we are fundamentally unworthy or unlovable, that we must earn love through achievement, that we aren’t brave enough to face our fears, that we aren’t strong enough/smart enough/experienced enough to cope with the “real world,” etc. We may consciously recognize on some level that these ideas are not true, and yet we keep on following them down the same destructive roads. Our conscious rejection of these ideas doesn’t eliminate them; they’re rooted in our unconscious—and until we learn the Truth about that part of ourselves, thus making the unconscious conscious, we can’t arc positively.

Inner Lies present tremendous opportunities for deep and moving character arcs—whether Positive Change or Negative Change. To one extent or another, the character will project this inner Lie onto the outer world and her struggles in the plot. Other characters can thematically represent arguments both for and against the Lie. They serve as very real catalysts within the plot’s outer conflict, but they will also symbolically represent the various aspects of the protagonist herself—her inner arguments and personal conflict.

This character will almost always follow a change arc of some sort, either:

  • Changing Positively by recognizing that the Want is destructive or misguided.
  • Changing Positively by recognizing that the Normal World represents a positive Truth to which she can return.
  • Changing Negatively by further rejecting the Truth and pursuing her darkness even more aggressively.

How an Inner Lie Influences the Things the Character Wants and Needs

Usually, an inner Lie will fixate on a Want that is either inherently unhealthy or unhealthy because of why the character wants it. Either way, the character is mistaken in believing the Want will fix all her problems and make her happy—when what she Needs is to face her inner pain and investigate her true motives. If her initial Want was healthy, she will only gain the benefits she seeks once she learns to obtain it in a healthy way. If her initial Want was unhealthy, she will find wholeness only by filling her inner Need with an alignment to the Truth.

The Origins of an Inner Lie: the Ghost

The origin of an inner Lie is often something of a mystery to the character. Something in her history created a wound or inner divide that has hidden her true self from her conscious understanding. When the character is conscious of the wounding event but fails to truly understand, acknowledge, or accept the wound itself, this subconscious denial dumps the Truth into the darkness of her shadow, thus creating the Lie. Often, the Truth the character needs in order to be whole and healthy is nothing more than a simple acknowledgement that there is a wound. Once the character can acknowledge the Truth about herself, she finds an inherent healing.

The Arc of an Inner Lie

When driven by an inner Lie, the character will usually transform it into a goal in the story’s outer conflict. Via the outer conflict, she will play out the possibilities and consequences of the Lie—and come to a final inner conclusion, which is dramatized in the outer conflict. Her realized Truth may not just provide inner healing, but may also function in the outer plot by providing necessary information about what she must do to resolve the external conflict.

***

Your story may focus primarily on either the outer or inner Lie—or you may see opportunities to add to your plot, character, and theme by manifesting both the inner and outer aspects of the Lie Your Character Believes. Just in understanding the different types of the Lie Your Character Believes, you can begin to add nuance and dimension to your story.

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

___

Love Helping Writers Become Authors? You can now become a patron. (Huge thanks to those of you who are already part of my Patreon family!)

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Madeline Taylor says

    Another wonderful post! I don’t always say so, because usually your posts send me straight to my WIP but this one is different and I wanted to make sure I thanked you for it, so thank you. Thank you for devoting so much of your time to helping those of us who are just setting our feet on this road to find our way to the top of the mountain. I almost said I don’t know where I would be without you, but I know exactly where I would be. I would still believe the inner lie that I was a terrible writer just because I couldn’t finish anything. I still haven’t finished my book yet, but I no longer believe that I’m incapable of doing so and it’s because of the truth you’ve been showing me these last few years since I found this blog. I saw myself in a lot of what you wrote in this article. Thank you again for believing in all of us and helping us believe in ourselves.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks, Madeline. I appreciate your kind words very much–although I’m sure you found your way up the mountain by your own tenacity. 😉 Isn’t amazing how story theory has the ability to illuminate the dark parts of our own lives as well?

      • Madeline Taylor says

        It may be my own tenacity moving me onward and upward, but I have a map and a clear trail to follow thanks to those who have climbed the mountain before me 😉

  2. Eric Troyer says

    Interesting post! Seems like all Lies and Truths are all of the Inner variety when you probe far enough. For example, the Lie “oppressive government is necessary” is really a Lie held by some people and accepted by many others. I think understanding that sometimes helps make it easier to defeat because it can be tackled one person at a time. Of course, they can be very persistent. The Lie “some human races are inferior to others” has lasted for far too long.

  3. Very enlightening. I’ve been struggling to identify the lie my protagonist believes. I now see that the reason for my struggle is that there are actually two separate but related lies he is fighting. On the one hand (outer lie) he wants to fight against an injustice he believes is about to be repeated, and on the other (inner lie) struggles with how to halt the injustice. Your article has given me a new perspective on how to proceed. Thank you.

  4. Shevon Porter says

    Thank you, thank you! This post (actually, podcast) was exactly what I needed to hear, when I needed to hear it. I’ve got some work to do, but now I know what the angle is. Wonderful. I love your podcast! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Have fun! The worst part of writing is not knowing what to do, and the best part is figuring it out! 😀

  5. Interesting and very useful. Thank you!
    Does give me a feel the author herself went through a healing journey in her own therapy.
    Great!! 🙂

  6. Aunt Bea’s homemade pickles! How many of us can go back to that reference?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I wondered how many people would get that one. The show is such a wonderful classic, but it’s getting up there in years!

  7. A very helpful post, as usual. I try to incorporate some of the aspects from depth psychology into my writing, so I was excited to read about the shadow. My question is about the Want. You say it’s either inherently unhealthy or unhealthy because of why the character wants it. What if it’s healthy but can’t be achieved as long as the character believes in the Lie? The character will pursue her goal but think that the goal is a bad thing and she is therefore a bad person.

  8. Adam James says

    So my impression is that this applies to fairly “normal” characters/people, as opposed to full-blown delusional nutjobs. Thinking here of the Annie Wilkes character in Misery. Imagine waking up to that!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mGGwDmCTha8

    Of course there’s somewhat of a continuum (e.g, the spectrum) to consider, too.

  9. Kathleen Kidder says

    This post helped my confusion on motivation that affects the character’s arc. It also helped me understand why I could not work on my own personal story. I listened to the podcast as I read the article, and I listened to it 3 times. So helpful!

  10. I’d previously read your articles on the Lie and so forth and struggled to really understand them. This post, though, has nailed it. I really understand the issues you are trying to get writers to explore.

    The distinction between inner and outer is helpful. It gives me a better grip on character development when you ask yourself whether the character is primarily driven by an internal conflict or an external one.

    So as others here, thank you.

  11. Felicia R Johnson says

    This has been so helpful to me! I think about my own inner/outer Lies when I was growing up. The article will greatly help me with my main character, adding a needed dimension to him and helping with his arc. Thank you so much for this. Your offerings have helped me more than you will ever know!

  12. Brad Nelson says

    Have you ever considered that some of your blogs can be perceived as being deeply personal and reflective? Bordering on universal therapy for the struggling author?

    Whenever I read (listen to) your Character Arc blogs I often find myself reflecting on my own life. On my own story. I ask myself, am I a flawed character living and motivated by an inner or outer Lie? A Lie that’s keeping me from achieving my goals & dreams? Am I hiding a deeply buried Truth from myself? A truth that, once finally recognized and accepted, will open my life to new possibilities and new horizons?

    As I read on and listen to your examples, I often recognize aspects of myself in your words, That’s when I’m forced to admit that of course I am. I’m my own flawed hero.

    So how can I change my story for the better? Well, maybe, like a successful author I know, I can eat a couple of chunks of chocolate in the morning instead of having another cup of coffee. Sounds, to me, like a good place to start.

    Thanks for another great blog.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The deeper I get into story theory, the more applications I take away for my own life. The lines between my interest in storytelling and my interest in personality psychology have long since blurred. This makes total sense, since in telling stories we’re really just trying to evoke an authentic human experience–one that will impact our readers with its verisimilitude and prompt them to consider their own lives.

  13. I’m reading your novel Dreamlander and can totally see how your using lies people believe, lies people tell themselves, etc. to motivate your characters’ actions. Cool! And helpful.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Aww, that makes me really happy. I wrote Dreamlander long before I consciously knew about any of this stuff. 😀

  14. Frank Booker says

    I love this post. As a recovering alcoholic and addict, i can relate to the inner lie I told myself for years until, 38 years ago, I began to dismantle it. I’m writing a ya novel now, where my protagonist is a child of an alcoholic, as I was, and has to work through the combination of hate/love for his dad. His lie is that his dad was too flawed to be a role model, but the truth is that he was one, and had his own integrity. He was a combat vet with PTSD.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s so great that you’re sharing what you’ve learned in your own life through your fiction!

  15. Casandra Merritt says

    This is interesting! I’ve been wondering lately if sometimes, character motivations or “ghosts” can be implied, not stated. Especially with the antagonist. Would it be bad to leave the reader to guess?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ghosts can definitely be implied. It will depend on the story whether this is the better choice or not, of course. But there are some stories where we never learn what traumatized the character or created a belief in the Lie. Usually, it’s best to at least give readers a clue or two, so they can imagine the rest.

  16. Rod Schmidt says

    “Outer Lies are those that are fully represented and enforced by your character’s Normal World …”

    Luke’s Normal World is living and working on the moisture farm with his aunt and uncle. I’m not sure he knows about the Rebellion until the video message shows up.

    Dorothy’s Normal World is living and working on the farm with her aunt and uncle. But she wants to go to “a place where there isn’t any trouble” (specifically, Mrs. Gulch wanting to have Toto destroyed).

    What are the Lies?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Not all stories represent both Inner and Outer Lies. In Star Wars, the Empire represents a vague sort of Lie about its being the correct sort of government. But it really isn’t much of a thematic turning point within the story.

      Same for Dorothy.

  17. Casandra Merritt says

    Thanks.

  18. Matt Godbey says

    Another insightful and well thought out post! Thank you KM! I’m curious, though. Are there words other than “lie” to use for this concept? “Lie” carries such a specific connotation I can barely think of it outside its literal meaning so it is confusing to discuss with this term. I know “Lie” has been used a lot recently but it is fairly recent, I think. “Truth” seems to have a broader sense and easier to use when talking about this stuff. So what about before the word “lie” started to pop up . Does anyone have other wording they use (or used) for these concepts?

  19. Carol Painter says

    I echo other comments particularly Madeline’s beautifully expressed words. When I listened to this podcast, shivers ran down my spine, it’s one of the ‘big ones’ for me. My breakthrough takeout is that it’s not enough to identify the lie, I need to unpack it and then build up a coherent spectrum of behaviours that are well integrated across the entire story that show the lie ‘in action’. A terrific and top podcast for me this one, thanks so much Katie.

  20. Useful post!

    I really liked your previous post about “how to write great first chapter”. Can you tell me how to write a great second episode?

  21. My character is going through an inner lie in the first book, which is she’s not smart/brave enough.

Trackbacks

  1. […] creating our characters, we have to dig into every aspect of their lives. K.M. Weiland looks at the 2 different types of the Lie Your Character Believes, J. Kenner instructs how to write romance scenes, B.K. Bass discusses avatars of the divine for […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.