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 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.


  1. My biggest problem when this was started is that the whole book was done pantser style back before even knew what that was, so I’m taking whats there and trying to fill in what’s missing, looks like I need more backstory!
    Wis there was an easier way to fix this. /facepalm 😓 I’ll leave you be niw sorry I thought there was enough to find the lie, guess not.

  2. So, I am actually struggling with discovering the lie for my two main characters. They are two sisters D (the oldest) and K (the youngest). They have a similar traumatic background which they have each responded differently and have nearly similar wants. D has emotionally closed herself off to the world and has had trust issues particularly those who are involved in military organizations. D wants to find out answers from a man who killed mother (he was general for a military organization). D also wants to kill him. K, on the other hand, has been left with immense guilt after her traumatic background and hides it through humor and sarcasm yet also keeps people at a distance. K wants to find her uncle across the world by raising money because she believes he could offer more answers than the man who killed her mother. K is not sure if she wants to kill this man. For the past couple of weeks, I have been trying to discover what is the lie these two characters have for themselves.

    At the core they both want answers surrounding their mother who had left behind a considerable amount of unanswered questions about their father, about themselves (D&K), and who their mother was before she died. But how they go about it is different. I just need help if you don’t mind.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like K’s Lie has something to do with believing she was responsible for what happened. Perhaps that’s *her* motivation for pursuing the killer? Because if she’s responsible, she needs to be the one to take care of loose ends?

      D’s Lie probably has something to do with trust. He believes no one is trustworthy? Or perhaps authority figures aren’t trustworthy?

    • Maybe K’s lie is that she believes if she kills the murderer that it will make her world right again, but it won’t. She will still be missing her mother. Depending on their relationship, it might be challenging to go the route that she believes her mother abandoned her when she was murdered. “If she had been more careful, she’d still be alive!” She could believe it’s her mom’s fault she is dead so she builds this resentment, but the resentment is really just a way of hiding how much she hurts… wait, not the last one, it’s terrible. I think I’m going to use it. haha. jk. Hope these help.

    • I think the first one I ofered is more for D. A question about D. If she has trust issues and keeps herself closed off from the world, so she HAS to get out in the world to find these answers, but when she gets them, will she believe them? For me, that either answers itself or is too close to each other and maybe there’s a better character trait. To say she’s closed off from the world, but has to go out of her comfort zone to find the answers, sounds a bit vanilla. I would consider digging deeper. What does she think closing herself off from the world will do? Wy does she think its the right decision and why does she think it will help her? If she doesn’t, then why is she doing it?

  3. Rachel Lynne Severson says:

    Can you elaborate on question 6…what is a qualifier?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      By qualifier, I’m talking about a proviso that the character has placed on the Lie. She 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.”

  4. Hi, I have a question. Can the Lie be something external? For example, a character that lives in a world where there is a widespread big Lie that everyone believes. That character has a thing he wants the most which is based on that external Lie. He will eventually find out the true about that world and realize that the thing he wanted is useless as it was based on a Lie. And he will switch to want something different now based on that new Truth he found out.

    The thing is, those Lie and Truth are external things, they are not internal conflicts but external ones. Of course, the discovery of the truth will trigger an internal conflict in the character as he will have to switch the thing he wants (the previous one was based on the Lie and it’s useless now).

    Can something like that work? Or does the lie need to be something internal based on a Ghost always?

  5. My main character from my series Rich is named Brooke Allis. Her lie is that she thinks all poor and middle class people steal from the rich via welfare. What could be some good symptoms for her? Also, how do I write from her point of view without making all the readers turn away instantly?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Symptoms might include treating poor people badly, etc. As for getting readers to invest in her when she’s still in the grip of the Lie, see this post: 4 Ways to Write a Likable Protagonist at the Start of His Character Arc.

      • Yes, treating poor people poorly ( say that 5 times fast ) makes a lot of sense. Morgan, why does she feel that way? Is she so obsessed with having that 6th shiny car that she gets angry because she’d have it, it if it weren’t for the poor and welfare? I exaggerated the point and certainly she would be tough for most to find common ground, but maybe there is something that she has to go without because of the poor. Her lover could have been the one to plant this seed in her head because he’s always complaining about it, so much that he loses interest in sex. She may blame the poor that she isn’t having sex. Just an idea, but taking material items away from the wealthy is a tough task. Maybe take something money can’t buy. (my example fails here because money can buy sex, but it can’t buy love.) That one of course is tired and overused, but it’s a direction to explore.

  6. Tiffany Smith says:

    I’m in the middle of writing my story, and I just came across this post and realized that my main characters don’t have Lies. At least, not that I know of. So I started thinking, and Tiffany’s Lie could be that, since she knows a possible future (and how to make it happen), she expects everything to come easily. She realizes it will be physically difficult and dangerous, but she expects everything to go smoothly. Her symptoms of this could be overconfidence – overlooking problems, perhaps, or seeming a bit arrogant to people she knows will become her close friends but aren’t yet.
    But I don’t know how to make this a problem for her – I am not willing to drive those friends away (unless it’s temporary) and I don’t know how to make her overconfidence a problem without wrecking my plot.
    Since I write chapter by chapter and post online as each one finishes, it requires something special to go back and change something – particularly a bunch of little somethings that change something over the course of the story.
    Any ideas? Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s possible she’s on a Flat Arc, in which she already knows the Truth and uses it to change the world around her. See this post.

  7. My protagonist is a polish princess, forced to marry a swedish viking king. She’s 13, living in a very patriarchal world, with the lie “I have no chance of influencing my own life”, handed down to her from her dad and her big brother. Wed away to a viking king, she learns to use power slowly, simply as a way to survive, and in the end she’s going to be a fairly well-known historical figure. So, I’m using historical “facts” as checkpoints in her life, but with the arranged marriage at 13 as a known fact, and the ridiculous power she accumulated in the end of her life also a fact, she kind of gave me an arc pretty generously … so her “rival” had a more unusual arc.

    The “rival” is another viking woman. The rival’s lie is “victory is only possible if you ignore the option of failure”. This means she never has a plan b, and if she respects an enemy, she can’t imagine that enemy having a plan B either. This leaves her completely unprepared for actual loss. And unable to plan for enemies who can take a loss and then counter.

    This is new for me – earlier her “weakness” was that she was greedy for power and believed that she could only be totally safe if she had total power, but changing it to making her unable to imagine loss gave me some more solutions, so thank you!

    Then a second antagonist is a family member of the swedish king, who’s been promised power but is never given it. His lie is “if i follow the rules, what is owed me will come my way”. His problem is of couse that his uncle never wants to give him half of Sweden, so he gets angrier and angrier, but can’t revolt against the rightful king of sweden. I’m not sure if this “lie” is strong enough … but he could have lived happily as a rich “prince” if he hadn’t been so obviously hungry for his “rightful” piece of the cake. So I guess that is his “lie” … he believes that rules will be followed, even by swedish viking kings like his uncle. Only when he himself starts bending the rules, he gets a chance to fight for the throne.

    And then it’s the swedish king. His lie is “rules don’t apply to me”, obviously. So he refuses to share his throne with his nephew, thus turning a powerful ally into an enemy. Only when he submits to a bigger power (learns some humility) he gains the possibility to win over his nephew. Funnily enough this “sacrifice” is already in the historical saga, so it’s as if sagas are great literature or something.

  8. So do I have this right?

    A character has a physical or psychical injury. That is the ‘wound’ or ‘ghost.’
    That injury causes them to believe the ‘lie’ they tell themselves.
    That process — injury causing the lie — causes external behaviors (plot events), which is the ‘want’ of the character and is particular to that character and story (opposed to the ‘need,’ which is internal and moves the theme and is universal to all people, and the audience at large).

    If that is accurate, how does what I’ve seen called the “Flaw / Moral Weakness” tie into this? Is that a result of the Wound (injury) and Lie? (I think I saw ‘flaw/moral weakness’ cited in an article about Truby’s method of story.)

    Excellent website BTW. Top notch.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, you are correct. Usually the flaw will either be a result of the Lie or, in some instances, a cause of the Ghost. Usually, it is something the character will have to overcome on his way to overcoming the Lie and discovering the Truth.

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