A New Way to Think About the Lie the Character Believes

One of the simplest entry points to understanding how story works is the Lie the Character Believes. It is the fulcrum of any character arc or thematic discussion within a story. It’s also the gasoline in the engine of a character’s inner conflict—and, by extension, it can either power the outer conflict or at least be used a lens through which to view it.

As its name suggests, the Lie the Character Believes is a simplistic concept, which is exactly what makes it so valuable and utilitarian a tool for understanding story. However, as with all simplistic concepts, we must be careful not to assume it lacks complexity.

Although you can certainly frame your character’s conflict in terms of a black and white Lie/Truth dichotomy, the reality is of course more complex. And that’s exactly what we’re going to talk about today: reality—and how the Lie the Character Believes is, in fact, a gauge of the character’s relationship with reality.

What Is the Lie the Character Believes?

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

Those of you who have read my book Creating Character Arcs (and the Creating Character Arcs Workbook) will be familiar with the Lie the Character Believes as arguably the central principle of character transformation. For those who are new to the idea, the Lie the Character Believes is the mindset the character will be challenged to arc out of over the course of the story.

If the character succeeds in transcending the Lie, the story will follow a Positive Change Arc. If the protagonist already adheres to the story’s thematic Truth and inspires supporting characters to transcend the Lie, the story will offer a Flat Arc. And if the character fails to transcend the Lie, the story will present a Negative Change Arc (of which there are at least three variations).

The Lie is a limited perspective the character holds about himself or about the world. Up until the beginning of the story, it is a perspective that has offered relative value to the character and his ability to survive and succeed within the story’s “Normal World.” However, once the character enters the crucible of what will be the story’s Adventure World, everything changes. The Lie proves itself to no longer be a functional modus operandi. From here on the, character will be challenged to adapt to the story’s thematic Truth. Only if he succeeds in (usually painfully) the expanding his perspective will he be able to grapple with the main conflict and perhaps gain the plot goal he is pursuing.

>>Click here to read “2 Different Types of the Lie Your Character Believes

As we explored a few weeks ago, the Lie is distinct from but still closely tied in with other aspects of the character’s primary “pain point.” The Lie will usually arise from a painful experience in the character’s past—called the Ghost—which informs her way of perceiving how the world works. Very often, the Ghost will have caused a wound the character carries with her and which makes her cling even more desperately to the Lie in the belief it is somehow protecting her. This belief may be entirely accurate, or it may simply be a trauma response.

Over the course of the character’s arc, the Lie will be systematically challenged by the events of the plot. The character will slowly begin to see another possibility—the enlarged perspective of the thematic Truth. Particularly at the story’s Midpoint, he will face a Moment of Truth, in which he is able to see the validity of the new perspective even though he is not yet willing to relinquish the familiar Lie-based mindset. By the time the character reaches the Low Moment of the Third Plot Point and is faced with the impending Climax, he will have to choose whether he is willing to sacrifice the comfortable mindsets upon which he has so far depended, in order to allow himself space to the grow into the possibilities of the bigger Truth.

Remember: The Lie and the Truth in a Story Are Relative

The Lie the Character Believes might be an outright deception.

For example, in The Village, the young characters are taught by the elders that monsters will kill anyone who ventures into the woods. (The Village (2004),  Touchstone Pictures.)

Or it might be an obviously mistaken perspective.

For example, in Gone With the Wind Scarlett O’Hara is determined to believe Ashley Wilkes loves her more than his wife Melanie. (Gone With the Wind (1939), MGM.)

However, the most accurate way to think of the Lie is simply as a limited perspective.

For example, “growing up is hard” in About a Boy. (About a Boy (2002), Universal Pictures.)

One of the best ways to recognize this is to also examine the idea of the thematic “Truth.” Even though I capitalize the term in my teachings to indicate its importance as an entity within story, this is not meant to indicate your story’s thematic Truth must represent ultimate Truth. In 99% of stories, the thematic Truth will be a relative truth. It is truer than the Lie-based mindset with which the character has wrestled throughout the story.

In short, the Truth the character is challenged to adopt is itself a limited perspective. It’s just less limited.

This points to the fact that character arcs reflect real life by showing characters growing but rarely arriving. Think about it: we all probably undertake a new character arc—the challenge to make the leap from a limited perspective to a slightly more accurate perspective—every single day. Sometimes those arcs are so life-changing we recognize them as such (such as the “life cycle” arcs I talk about in my book Writing Archetypal Character Arcs). But even these massive mindset shifts are just another rung up (or down) the ladder of consciousness in this human life.

The best any of us can do is hope to refine our perspectives into greater accuracy a little more every day. And that’s what we expect from our characters as well.

>>Click here to read “How to Use a ‘Truth Chart&’ to Figure Out Your Character’s Arc

What the Lie the Character Believes Really Is: A Resistance to Reality

So if the Lie isn’t, strictly speaking, a lie and the Truth isn’t the truth, then what are they?

As I was lying in bed the other morning, one of my early thoughts (because apparently I dream about story theory…) was, The Lie the Character Believes is really just a resistance to reality.

The Lie is not a Lie until the character’s relationship to reality shifts, either internally or externally.

This is why the character will have been able to merrily carry on with her limited perspective for perhaps even her entire life up until the beginning of the story. This also helps us define exactly what story is, since it underlines the old directive that “whatever is happening in a story should be the most important thing to have happened in the character’s life so far.” We often take this to mean external action in the plot, but, really, what is more important than perspective?

Story, by definition, challenges the status quo. The Normal World of the First Act is designed to represent this status quo. It is a status quo in which the Lie-based perspective proves reasonably effective, which means the character has no reason to challenge it. Indeed, trying to challenge it too soon might even prove counter-productive.

But now times are a-changing. The world around the character, or perhaps the character himself, is no longer the same. Indeed, reality is changing. To the degree the character resists that change and refuses to adapt his mindset, his old mindset’s effectiveness will prove more and more limited, until it becomes definitively incorrect—a Lie.

Even if this mindset was previously competent, it is now outmoded. The rules have changed, and the character must now prove whether or not she can adapt. However, the adaptation of perspectives is not easy. This shift from Lie to Truth is never as simple as learning to apply new facts or skills. Rather, this is about digging deep into the psyche and uprooting a perspective with which the character identifies. The Lie, therefore, can also be viewed as an ego identity.

Ego identities don’t go easily. They can’t go easily. Their entire function within the psyche is to ensure survival. If something worked in the past, the ego wants us to keep on doing it. Depending on how deeply the ego has identified with any particular perspective, it will fight tooth and claw to keep from giving it up. The ego may not necessarily oppose the recognition of a new perspective, but it does not want to give up the old viewpoint.

This is why character arc reveals the progression of the character’s relationship to both the Lie and the Truth:

  • In the First Act, the character entirely believes the Lie.
  • In the first half of the Second Act, the character begins to experience the limitations of the Lie.
  • At the Midpoint’s Moment of Truth, the character witnesses the irrefutable potency of the Truth. In a Positive Change Arc, the character will adopt the mindset of the Truth, but will not yet give up the Lie.
  • In the second half of the Second Act, the character will attempt to implement the Truth without fully refuting the Lie and will increasingly experience both the potential of the Truth and the “punishment” of the Lie.
  • At the Third Plot Point, the character will encounter a situation that demands a final choice between the Lie and the Truth. The two perspectives can no longer be held simultaneously.
  • In the Third Act, the character will act upon whichever perspective was chosen. In a Positive Change (and Flat) Arc, the character will use the Truth to gain success of some type (whether internal, external, or both). In a Negative Change Arc, the character will refuse to face the demands of reality and continue clinging to the original (or an even worse) Lie.

9 Questions to Ask About the Lie Your Character Believes

As we close out this examination of the Lie Your Character Believes, here are nine questions you can use to examine how your characters might be resisting the new reality of your story. Inherent in the answers will be your story’s strongest character arc.

1. How have the early events of the story changed things for the protagonist in a way that demands adaptation?

2. How has the character’s reality changed since the beginning of the story?

3. How is the character now out of sync with this new reality?

4. Which of the character’s mindsets is no longer accurate?

5. How do the character’s attempts to maintain this old mindset now create a resistance to or even denial of the new reality?

6. Is the character attempting to apply old rules to a new game?

7. How might the necessary adaptation be painful or difficult for the character to accept?

8. What ego identities must the character release in order to successfully adopt the new perspective?

9. How will the character attempt to harmonize the old mindset with the new one?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is the Lie Your Character Believes? Tell me in the comments!

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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. This brings it together so well.

    I’ve always liked the idea that the Lie, and the weakness it causes, are in many ways a *strength* that was more useful before the story’s circumstances changed. A character from a harsh family will keep his boundaries high; one with charisma will date by playing the field; one who’s always been alone will do everything herself. Those are good traits to have up to a point, but they have their limits.

    When everything *isn’t* a nail any more, you can’t stick with your hammer.

    • Yep, I think of it as a maladaptive trait, which is how scientists / psychologists / anthropologists refer to traits (whether genetic, cultural, or personal) that destroy the one who possesses them. The deal, though, is that those traits aid survival in specific circumstances. Outside of those narrow situations, the trait is destructive, like the ones in your example.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally. Our perspectives are all about survival. So at some point even the most maladaptive perspective was formed a survival tactic.

  2. How does The Lie change for an antagonist? Does the antagonist’s arc become negative if she clings onto a lie that makes her evil in the eyes of the world?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      An antagonist can follow any of the arcs, including a Positive Change Arc. It just depends on what’s most supportive to your story. I talk about the antagonist’s arc in relationship to the protagonist’s in this post: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/how-the-antagonist-functions-in-different-types-of-character-arcs/

    • C. O. Merp says

      I was just thinking about this exact question as I outline my new fantasy novel. My MC and antagonist start out believing exactly the same Lie and are both repeatedly offered the choice to turn away from it. The MC realizes how false the Lie is and becomes a hero. The antagonist clings to the Lie, refusing to turn away from it, and becomes a villain. I don’t think this is technically any of the types of negative arc this site outlines (https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/learn-5-types-of-character-arc-at-a-glance-the-3-negative-arcs-part-2-of-2/), but it certainly changes the character, making him a worse person. So, I would call this a small character arc, even if he doesn’t completely get transformed.

      The Lie doesn’t even necessarily have to be evil in the eyes of the world in order to make a character arc negatively. A character can go through a very negative arc by refusing to let go of something good. Ex. Professor Weston in C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy, who wants to spread human life to other planets – not bad in itself, but his devotion to it and refusal to give up on the dream leads him into evil actions.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        “The Lie doesn’t even necessarily have to be evil in the eyes of the world in order to make a character arc negatively. A character can go through a very negative arc by refusing to let go of something good.”

        Absolutely. And what is “good” and “bad” can be relative within the story as well. For example, a character who chooses to join the family company instead of going to college could be arcing into a Truth in one story or choosing to remain mired in the Lie in another, depending on what the story is trying convey.

  3. What perfect timing, for me anyway. I have been researching this idea in the context of the lie we know because of what we are told. Examples, from non-fiction, if we believe FDR did not know about Pearl Harbor, we act differently than if we do not believe it; or, if we believe JFK was killed by Oswald alone, we act differently than if we believe it was a conspiracy involving others. I haven’t decided yet whether this book will be non-fiction or fiction, but either way, I thought exploring why “the lie” exists would be an interesting story.

  4. Fantastic article. Thanks!

  5. I have been struggling with identifying the Lie in my story because I was thinking of it literally as something the protagonist told herself and was conscious of even if she didn’t see it as a falsehood. But thinking of it as a perspective makes the concept easier to grasp. The Ghost may be consciously understood but the protagonist may simply have accepted that the wound cannot be addressed, healed or fixed and settled into a life based on that perspective (a passive Lie). The Need in this new paradigm could be a subtle shift to a perspective in which some healing is possible.
    I may not be expressing this well, but your new perspective on the Lie has made the concepts of the Lie, the Need (truth) and the Normal World less rigid—and just when I needed it the most. Thank you!🙏

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, most often in real life the “biggest” Lies we believe are those that are so deep in our subconscious we may barely recognize we’re believing them at all. We’re so identified with them, we take them for granted. Or, in some instances, we maintain other conscious beliefs that allow us to stay in denial about our investment in the Lie. For example, many people who are deeply invested in maintaining “their” personal perspectives as “the” truth would recoil at the suggestion that they’re not open-minded.

      • An early morning thought: can the lie be manifested as a consequence of a choice between two values? MC would rather fit in than seek justice. The Lie is that fitting in—not ratting on her peers—is more important than being honest with herself. The Lie is living with what could have been prevented had she been forthright.
        Flip it over, it’s more important to do the right thing (value) and testify as to what she saw than to be popular. The Lie is that her honesty will be rewarded in some karmatic way that is tangible when in fact she pays for telling the truth for the rest of her life.
        Does any of this make sense?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Absolutely. In fact, the most interesting and evocative conundrums in fiction often arise from some variation of either win-win choices or lose-lose choices. If the choice were easy and obvious, it would be the first thing the character would do. There would be no need to *evolve* their core perspective to get there.

  6. This is a helpful way to think about this. Truthfully, I’ve always gotten a little hung up on the “Truth” vs. “Lie” dichotomy. Thinking about it that way is a struggle for me. However, what you are pointing toward here is really skillful vs. unskillful thinking, and that clicks for me and I think far more flexible.
    Thanks for this. I suppose it would be crass of me to wish you more morning insomnia…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I like basic polarities. To me they are easy keys to larger puzzles. But it is easy to allow them to over-simplify complex topics. And, nah, I think some of my best thoughts early in the morning. 😉

  7. James M. Takos says

    I’m retired military and from this see how much this works in the “real world.” Senior leadership at the start of a conflict are there because they believed “the lie,” which when they were young may have been the truth. But, since the world has changed and they have not, they fight the new battle as if it were the old one. Up through WWII, this allowed us to “kill off” thoes that did not change (not always by death, but removal from key positions) to allow the change that works. But then “the change that works” becomes the new lie as the world will change again as reality changes. A great descending spiral that, in my opinion, details so may of our real problems today.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Such a pertinent example. Puts me in mind Anton Myrer’s deeply thought-provoking novelization of all the major conflicts from WWI through Vietnam, Once an Eagle.

      • James M. Takos says

        Great book. I read it while I was in Okinawa. TV adaptation was only so-so. Very pertinent.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Yeah, I loved the book too much to watch the adaptation (even though it starred Sam Elliott). I’m funny like that. 😉

        • I love the idea that the lie is a term that is relative to ones current understanding. The lie is usually based on some sort of fear that inhibits an exploration of the truth. The image that comes to mind is of the way old maps sometimes had areas marked on them, ‘here be dragons.’ The belief that dragons or other monsters existed in that unexplored area instilled fear that stopped exploration and discovery of the truth. It is only when an explorer takes courage to ignore the warnings on his map of reality that a greater understanding of the world is reached. Further, that exploration process of reality is something that is ongoing throughout life

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Totally. I love that phrase “here be dragons” as symbolism within deep inner work. It’s so evocative and ignites so many archetypal responses.

  8. storyscribe says

    Sadly, this article and discussion became personal. I thought of people in my life who’ve refused to change perspectives or adapt when their “truths” no longer served them. One person in particular is older now and holds tightly to his “truth” despite the obvious pain it’s causing him and those around him. This would be the negative character arc displayed in an actual lifetime. It’s difficult to watch.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, it works in story because it’s true in life. I’ve experienced that as well. Sorry you’re witnessing a tough one. 🙁

  9. Great article. I’m attempting to get my synopsis done and this was just what I needed. THANKS. my character believes they’re cursed. It’s their childhood wound.

  10. Reynaldo Marchesini says

    Thank you for this and all your posts! Now, I have been wondering what do you think about a protagonist who starts the story with the truth and falls into the lie during the hook/first act (ghost) and the whole arc from the first plot point on is to learn “again” to trust the truth he already had…Because it seems that all the positive arcs stories start with the protagonist believing the lie before the inciting event…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      From a structural perspective, it can be difficult to sync what are essentially two character arcs within a single story’s structure. The beats of plot structure create the framework to fully develop a character’s arc. Trying to cram two evolutions (fall and return, in this instance) into a single structural frame can shortchange the realism and impact of one or another.

      However, there are other approaches that can work. A character who starts and ends with the same Truth is a Flat-Arc character. In these stories, the character doesn’t fall prey to a Lie, but doubting the Truth can be an intrinsic part of their journey: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/doubt-key-flat-character-arcs/

      Another approach is one in which the character does slightly change their initial perspective on the Truth, leveling up to a 2.0 version of the Truth. This new Truth is similar to the initial Truth/Lie, but more advanced. In this case the arc structurally plays out in the same way as a standard Positive Change Arc.

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