Liar, Liar

Why do people lie? Let’s start with you. When’s the last time you told a lie? And I don’t mean a big one. I mean a little one, say to protect a friend’s feelings, or to spare yourself embarrassment. I consider myself an honest person, but I occasionally lie. My daughter believes in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. While I didn’t tell those lies precisely, I have played along. Even today, I woke up thinking of a palatable lie I might tell a friend to avoid spending time with him and his new girlfriend out of loyalty to his ex-wife who is also my friend. There are a hundred things that I don’t say, or gloss over to keep the peace in relationships. Is keeping silent the same as lying? When it comes to lying, I have a lot of questions.

Most of my novels, are in one way or another, my way of answering the queries I have about human nature. I am most concerned with motive. I am far less interested in what people do than I am in why they did it. Why do some people cheat, steal, or murder to meet whatever dark agenda they might be running? Why do others willingly sacrifice themselves to protect, to defend, to help strangers? But I am especially fascinated with why people lie. Why do we lie to each other? Why do we lie to ourselves?

I have had a number of characters lie to me over the years. I start off thinking they are one thing only to learn, as the narrative progresses, that they are something else entirely. But Lana Granger, the main character of IN THE BLOOD is by far the most effective liar I have encountered. When we first met, I knew she was hiding something, maybe a few things. But the size and scope of her lies surprised even me. Of course, she had her reasons. Liars usually do.

While Lana might be the best, she’s not the first liar I have encountered. When Jones Cooper first showed up in Fragile, I didn’t think very much of him. He was just the husband of a significant character in the book. But as the story unfolded, I came to understand that his lies were central to the major events in the story. He, like Lana, had constructed an entire life around a falsehood that had its roots in his childhood. Everything he did in his life was, in one form or another, a penance for hiding the truth. And it was eating him alive inside.

Given the corrosive nature of lies, and how the act of lying and then lying again and again to protect the initial lie takes such a heavy emotional and psychological toll, wouldn’t it be easier to just tell the truth? I often look to myself for answers when pondering my characters. Take the situation with my friend, for instance. Wouldn’t it be simpler for me to just say: “Hey, look, as much as I love you, I just can’t get past the idea that hanging out with you and your girlfriend is a terrible act of disloyalty towards your ex-wife.” Otherwise, I will perpetually have to come up with excuse after excuse until the invitations cease out of anger, annoyance or just embarrassment.

But the truth hurts. For Lana, it is far harder to bear the facts of her life than to live a lie. Her falsehoods form a cocoon, and inside it she’s undergoing a metamorphosis. She’s growing and changing. She’s reaching a point where she might be able to push out through the layers of her chrysalis and emerge a new creature altogether. So, in that way, don’t her lies have some kind of redeeming value for Lana? Perhaps it is her psyche’s way of healing itself from the trauma of her past. Perhaps it was wise or even necessary for Lana to lie about herself. Maybe it was her right to be someone she wasn’t, just for a little while, until she was stronger. One of my other favorite questions: Is a lie always a bad thing?

Jones Cooper on the other hand is ruined by his lies. When the truth comes out, it costs him dearly. He is not healed by his time in hiding; he has only delayed facing the consequences of his actions. In fact, things would have been much easier if he had faced them earlier. He might have lived a different life altogether. Here’s another question: Is it better to face the truth even when you know the consequences will be dire?

Characters lie for all sorts of reasons. Lana lies to protect herself. Jones lies because he can’t face the truth that his actions reveal about him. Willow Graves, a teenager I met in Darkness, My Old Friend, lies because she wants people to think she’s cooler than she is, never realizing until too late how her falsehoods will spin out of control. Annie Powers, the troubled main character of Black Out, lies because she is hiding from someone who wishes her harm. But, for all the different motives my characters have for deception, there’s really only one reason. Fear. People lie because they are afraid of the truth.

Writing about my lying characters has convinced me that honesty is the best policy where my friend is concerned. But I’m still not sure what I’m going to do. It takes courage to speak an unpleasant truth. And I know this from bitter personal experience. There have been times when I have opted to say the absolute truth of my feelings. I have stood up against abuse, spoken out against bad behavior, left situations that were too unpleasant to endure simply for the sake of good relations, and offered honest responses to hard questions asked by friends. In some cases, when people were ready to hear the truth, things turned out all right. But mostly, they went badly. Huge battles followed, relationships were sundered or permanently maimed, and I still struggle with thinking that I should have just kept my mouth shut. One more: Is keeping quiet the same thing as telling a lie?

At the end of Beautiful Lies, Ridley Jones, a character who loses everything in the pursuit of the truth of her life says (and I really do hate to quote myself but it is my essay about why my characters lie): “Now Jake and I have a policy of total honesty between us. And that’s not always easy (as in, “Do these jeans make me look fat?”), but it’s always real. And I’ll take real any day over lies, no matter how they glimmer and shine, no matter how beautiful.” Of course, the irony there is that Ridley is still being lied to at the end of that book. She just doesn’t know it yet. Here’s another question: Is a lie still a lie, even if you never know the truth?

Does my fictional universe in some way reflect how I perceive the world at large, populated by liars, a place where nothing is as it seems? I wouldn’t go that far. I don’t lie in any significant ways, nor do most of the people in my inner circle. But I will say that I think there are myriad shades of truth in most encounters, layers of self that are revealed or concealed. The laying bare of the soul is a frightening act of intimacy; most of my characters don’t have the courage for it at the beginning of my novels. Some do by the end. Maybe that’s the point, that they all walk the road from lies to the truth. And for most of them, there’s redemption in the journey.

Lisa Unger