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?

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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),  produced by 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), produced by 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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Author: K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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  • July 3, 2023