last updated: 7 July 2019 (approximate reading time: 7 minutes; 1351 words)
Everybody lies. Anyone who says they never lie…well, maybe they're not being completely truthful.
Lies are part of our everyday currency. Sometimes we tell untruths with the best of intentions, however, usually our motives are less pure. Whether a lie then matters is a combination of many factors.
But how do we think about lies in novels which are, by definition, collections of lies?”
What is a Lie?
There might seem to be an obvious answer to the question: what is a lie? In simplicity, a lie is a statement that deviates from the truth.
Trying to define the words truth and lie presents an interesting challenge. Essentially a truth is something that is not a lie and a lie is an untruth. Often trying to demonstrate that something is a lie is a matter or proving that it is untrue, and proving something is true is a matter of knocking down lies.
I think we'd all like to believe that the truth is empirical, something that is a simple matter of fact. But any facts on which a truth is built must first be proved, and at some point, one of those foundations must be accepted as fact for the larger truth to be proved.
Beyond the simple question of whether something true or not, the context in which a lie is told affects how we perceive the lie, and how we feel about the untruth.
After looking to whether a liar has deviated from the truth, the next question is: what was the intention of the liar? Specifically, was the liar intending to say something that deviated from the truth? Were they intending to deceive?
Unintentional untruths can be told for any number of reasons. For instance, what is perceived as a lie may instead be:
- someone being sloppy or imprecise in what they say, or
- someone expressing a belief in good faith, but that belief is untrue (which may include a fact that was true, but is no longer so).
Of course, a lie is still a lie whether the liar intended to lie or not.
There are other instances of unintentional mistruths. Many times what may appear as a lie is simply a failed attempt at humor. Here the intention is that the lie would be recognized as a lie and not be taken as truth.
There are also the lies where someone has expressed what they believe should be true. There may be no intention to lie, but the falsehood is communicated when expectation and reality differ.
Omission or Commission
There are lies by commission and lies by omission:
- Lies by commission are lies intentionally told.
- Lies by omission are lies told by failing to include certain details or by failing to correct misconceptions.
A subset of lies by omission is the lie by implication where someone doesn't outright lie, but says something knowing how it will likely be misinterpreted. So for instance, someone may say: “when I was at Oxford I learned…” The implication here is that the speaker went to university at Oxford.
However, they may have learned whatever they learned while changing buses at Oxford.
Black and White
There's often a feeling that white lies are socially acceptable. We often feel that these lies are harmless or trivial. However, in many ways white lies are the most pernicious of all lies.
White lies are knowing lies—lies of commission—but lies which are intended to be kind. In particular, white lies are intended to avoid hurting feelings or to shelter someone from a harsher truth.
Whatever kindness is meant, a white lie is still a lie, and it's an deliberate lie specifically intended to deceive. But more than that, whether the lie is a “white” lie or a “black” lie is a matter of perception by the liar. In other words, the person who is willfully deviating from the truth then gets to decide whether their intent is pure. A person may be lying not to be kind, but in order not to have to deal with the consequences of the truth—they may still think the lie is white.
By equal measure, a white lie has no regard to the perception and the consequences of the lie for the recipient. The whiteness, or otherwise, is purely a matter for the liar.
Understatement or Overstatement
A lie may have large elements of truthfulness and yet still be a lie. An understatement or an overstatement of the truth are still lies, and intentional lies.
People will often exaggerate or seek to minimize their involvement in an explanation. Small details may be changed, embellished, or skipped over—these small details still form part of a larger lie.
Consequences of a Lie
Lies have consequences: people react and feelings get hurt. Very often the consequences of a lie occur at a different time from when the lie is told—the consequences beginning when a person finds that they have been lied to.
The consequences might be comparatively trivial (a missed train) or life changing (a divorce or a murder). While the consequences of a lie might be significant, the uncovering of a lie and the subsequent consequences do not change the fundamental of whether something is true of false.
To Whom Lies Are Told
In the same way that a tree falling in the forest makes no sound unless there is someone to hear it, a lie is only a lie when it is heard by (or otherwise communicated to) another person.
Just because one person says something another believes to be false, that doesn't make the statement a lie. The first person could be telling the truth—the person receiving the information may be incorrect in their view or may have misunderstood what the first person said.
How Do We Feel?
When we have been lied to, we feel a range of emotions, usually including anger and maybe shame. Anger that someone would lie and shame if we were taken in by the lie.
The force of any feelings about a lie will likely be based on a number of factors:
- whether the lie was intentional
- the extent to which the recipient believed the lie—especially if the lie was believed over a long period of time
- if there was a public aspect to the lie (causing the victim to lose face)
- the consequences of the lie for the recipient of the lie
While not scientific or empirical, in broad terms the strength of feelings will be amplified by multiplying these factors. One factor alone is probably manageable—several in combination make a lie far less palatable.
Another aspect of how we feel is when we know we are being lied to as the lie is told. Somehow this seems more consequential and often the lie is then less about the untruthfulness of what is said, but more about the (abject lack of) respect. Stepping further, when a lie is so blatant, then we must look to the liar and question whether they believe what they're saying, and if not, we must wonder at what they are trying to achieve if it is so obvious that they are lying.
Challenges in Fiction
A novel is, of course, a pack of lies. A novel does not contain a shred of truth—even if “facts” are included, they are only “true” if the novelist makes them true.
The first job of the novelist is to establish a truth within the context of the novel. The reader needs to understand—and believe—the facts of the story. Only once a reader knows and is confident with the truth of the novel can lies be introduced. Alternatively, the author can start with a lie and build the facts around it so that the reader comes to realize that the story began with a lie.
If there's no truth, then there can be no lies. Only with a grasp of the facts can the reader understand when a character shades and blurs the truth. Without the solid foundation of character, the reader will have trouble understanding when a lie is intentional or if there's simply a discrepancy in the writing.