Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Why Lie?

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....

Nina Wright

Now available: Whiskey and Tonic
the third Whiskey Mattimoe mystery


Felicia Donovan said...

Excellent post, Nina.

I think the distinction between a character that lies and a narrator that lies is an important one. Characters that lie can be quite interesting and justifiable from an author's standpoint if it makes them more human. They may lie for their own egotistical reasons or simply out of habit. Whatever the reason, it seems far more acceptable than a narrator who lies and misleads the reader. That just seems like a gimmick, though I'm sure everyone out there probably knows of a novel or two where this technique was used with great success.

And by the way, my Black Widows do not take kindly to men who mistreat women if you require any assistance...

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I agree with Felicia. Characters who lie can be interesting and add a lot of spark and spice. In fact if they always told the truth, how much fun or work would the sleuth have? But to a certain degree, the reader must trust the narrator. A narrator can tell the story from his/her personal prospective, which may or may not be the truth, but shouldn't willfully lie to the reader about that prospective.

As for your old friend ... I once had a disasterous date where at the end the guy said, "Just make sure I don't end up in one of your novels." My snappy reply: "You're not interesting enough."

And people wonder why such a gem as myself is single? :)

Katie Dessin-Rather said...

I associate the convention of the unreliable narrator with literary fiction, but I suspect that it appears in genre fiction, too. Can't give you an example, however.

Can anyone? Intriguing post, Nina.

Bill Cameron said...

Pleading Guilty by Scott Turow features an unreliable narrator. I love all of Turow, but I love Pleading Guilty best of all. Great novel.

Dann Fotheringham said...

I'm with you, Bill, on PLEADING GUILTY, and Turow in general.

Katie, I agree that the unreliable narrator is a tricky fixture, usually but as Turow proves, not exclusively spotted in literary fiction. I immediately think of the unreliable narrators in WUTHERING HEIGHTS and Jane Austen's EMMA. But then I was an English major. Mea culpa.


Felicia Donovan said...

Sue Ann, you need the sweatshirt a dear friend of mine gave me for Christmas last year. It reads, "Careful or you'll end up in one of my novels." I'll have to see if it's available in something black and slinky.

I'm writing about Black Widows, for Lordy's sakes. You wonder why I'm still single?

Tess Dubert said...

I find this topic fascinating!

Thanks, Nina, for asking those questions. They're great stimuli for a starting writer like me.

Sophie in Carol Stream, IL said...

I'm Tess's sister, reading this blog over her shoulder. We're thinking about collaborating on a mystery series that features a pathological liar, so your post is timely for sure.

BTW, we both like the Whiskey Mattimoe books. A lot! Since Tess forgot to mention that, I'd better be the Big Sister and get the job done.