by Nina Wright, author of the Whiskey Mattimoe mysteries
Once upon a time, in a place far away, I found myself falling in love with a man who was funny, sexy, generous and smart, but whose personal story didn’t add up. No matter how supple my skills of denial, I couldn't ignore what I knew to be true: he was fudging some salient details…like age and marital history. Not marital status, please note. I was sure he was single. The problem was how many times he'd been married. And how recently.
Know what bothered me most? Not the lies as much as the fact that he kept telling them even after he knew full well he was talking to someone with a brain. A writer, no less. A keen observer of the human condition capable of doing complex equations, not to mention on-line research.
Why, I wondered, would he pretend to be ten years younger than he really was and insist that his adult kids were, too? And why oh why did he declare that the charming woman he worked with was merely an old friend when I had proof that she used to be his wife?
I won’t reveal how our story ended because I’m morphing it into fiction...and that's the seed for today's blog: to consider characters who are other than they seem. Characters who misrepresent themselves, through weakness or willfulness or both.
That describes a fair percentage of the cast of any mystery novel. But let’s widen our lens. Back in my acting days, a theater director told me, “People lie. Figure out when your character is lying, and you’ll find her inner truth.”
Advice that can work for writers. The key question, though, is why does your character lie? What does lying do for her—or what does she think lying will do for her—that the truth won’t? What’s at stake in her world, and why is lying the chosen route? Is it simply the easiest way, or does she think it's the only way?
Other intriguing questions, at least for her back story, include how did she learn to lie, whom have her lies hurt, how does she feel about lying, and how do other characters feel about her? What if she lies so seamlessly that she no longer knows when she's lying? How much responsibility should she take for the lies she tells?
I've been pondering these fictional liars: Anyone in a mystery who lies so subtly that readers can’t detect his repeated untruths. How do we as writers manage that charade and then eloquently expose it? Or what if you have a lying “regular”--maybe even one of the good guys? Perhaps the protagonist's buddy or sidekick lies as easily as he breathes. Why does our hero put up with that? And what if the liar tries to make honesty a habit? What causes the change of heart? What can he do to earn people’s trust?
Most intriguing of all: What if your protagonist is a liar? Whiskey Mattimoe tells fibs only when necessary, and readers know when she’s lying. (She's not good at it.) The convention of the unreliable narrator is a whole different issue. That's the point-of-view voice who deliberately misleads readers. How many of us use an unreliable narrator when we write mysteries? And if we don’t, why don’t we?
Back to the flesh-and-blood guy who insisted he was younger and less-often-married than I discovered him to be. If he were in a Whiskey Mattimoe mystery, where he might very well end up, Abra the Afghan hound would teach him a lesson. Provided, of course, that nobody murdered him first....
the third Whiskey Mattimoe mystery