The Destructive Power of The Lie Your Character Believes

We are often our own biggest critics, aren’t we? Whenever something goes wrong, we feel disappointed, frustrated, upset, or hurt. The fallout might cause others around us to suffer too, causing further anguish and guilt. When this happens, unless the situation was in no way tied to us, we tend to blame ourselves:

Why didn’t I see this coming? I should have been prepared.

How could I fall into this trap? I should have known better.

I can’t believe I did that. What’s wrong with me?

In other words, we become critical of what we did or didn’t do, how we allowed something to happen…or not. We chastise ourselves for not avoiding whatever happened to us.

To be fair, sometimes we are to blame: Drunk texting an ex may lead to an embarrassing Facebook upload of screenshots the next day. Falling asleep at the wheel can end in a car accident. Most times, though? We’re not to blame. Still, we never let ourselves off the hook. Why is this?

Instinct & The Brain’s Need To Define Cause & Effect

Whenever something negative occurs that we don’t expect, we are desperate to understand why it happened so we can stop it from occurring again. This is our primal instinct to protect ourselves—mark something as “the problem,” then act so it (and the pain it causes) will be prevented in the future. Cause and effect—it’s a law we live by.

If we’re lucky, we spot the problem and follow through with a logical solution: I failed the test, so to pass next time, I will study harder. Or, My car was ransacked, so I must stop forgetting to lock it up at night. We change behavior to ensure that the same thing doesn’t happen again. Logical, right?

Unfortunately, cause and effect aren’t always clear, especially when dealing with something like an emotional wound. Rendered utterly vulnerable, lives are changed in an instant. There may not be a single cause to blame, or if there is, we often hold ourselves responsible for “letting this situation happen.” After all, we (falsely) assume we are in charge of our own lives so when control is suddenly lost, the mind reels – how did I let this happen? On some level we believe it’s our fault. Had we chosen differently, trusted someone else, paid more attention, etc., a different outcome would have resulted.

Our characters should mirror real people–this is what makes them (and their emotions) feel authentic, which captivates readers.  So, when we’re exploring their backstory and brainstorming a wound, we need to ensure that in their deepest pain, their minds follow the same detrimental path of self-blame that a person’s mind will.

The Internal Blame Game & Lie It Produces

When the character’s thoughts circle disempowering beliefs (that they are incompetent, naïve, defective, or they lack value) as a reason for their failure, it eats away at their self-worth. This, combined with a need to identify the pain’s cause will lead to a specific effect: an internal lie will form. This Lie (also called a False Belief or Misbelief) is a conclusion reached through flawed logic. Caught in a vulnerable state, the character tries to understand or rationalize his painful experience, only to falsely conclude that fault somehow lies within.

Imagine a character who convinces his wife they should pick up snacks for a movie night at home to save money rather than go out as she wanted to. While they are inside a corner store, a robbery occurs and the the wife is shot and killed.

This wounding event is horrific and will forever change the character. He’s not going to simply blame the shooter and move on. No, he’s very likely going to also blame himself. In his mind, he’ll dwell on how it was his choice to stop at the store because he was cheap and wanted to avoid an expensive ugh this out. He may question his actions in the store: why didn’t I charge the gunman? Why didn’t I find us a better hiding place? Why didn’t I try to create a distraction so my wife could escape?

You and I have perspective this character lacks and know that Losing a Loved One to a Random Act of Violence like this isn’t something a person can blame themselves for. But caught in his confusion, grief, and pain, he believes he failed his wife, failed as a husband, he was a coward, and so on.

His Lie might look like one of these:

I can’t protect the people I love.

I am unworthy of love because I fail those who give it.

I am a coward who runs rather than fights.

My judgement is flawed; I can’t be trusted to make good decisions.

Once a lie forms, it’s like a fungus releasing toxic spores. This false belief seeds itself deep into the character, damaging his self-esteem, sabotaging his confidence, and creating a deep fear, maybe that if he loves again he’ll lose them or if he’s given responsibility he’ll only screw it up and get people hurt.

This lie will affect how he sees the world and himself. It will change how he interacts with others (he’ll keep his distance, afraid of letting himself get close to people he will only fail or hurt), he will avoid chasing goals which will make him be accountable for others, and he will always be on the lookout for situations that will lead to loss and pain so he can avoid these at all costs. He goes from living a full life, to a half-life.

While most lies center on a perceived personal failing due to self-doubt or guilt, not all of them do. In cases where a wound isn’t as deeply internalized, the person may become disillusioned. Using this character’s example, he might come to believe:

People will take what you love because they can

Violence is everywhere; no place is safe

The police can’t protect anyone

This type of lie becomes a critical judgment about how the world works, because, in the eyes of the character, it’s true: someone did take what he had away from him without cause, and the last thing he expected was violence yet he found it, and the police didn’t keep this criminal off the street. His wide conclusions may be skewed, but this wounding experience taught him a negative life lesson. Now, he’ll always be expecting life’s other shoe to drop.

The lie is destructive and until it can be reversed, it will continue to hamper the happiness, fulfillment, and inner growth of your character. Understanding and planning your character’s backstory wound and lie is important. If you are writing a change arc, it is only when your character can shatter this misbelief through internal growth that they will feel that they truly deserve the goal they seek. Their deeper sense of self-worth gives them the courage and inner strength they need to put all their energy into achieving it.

What Lie does your character believe? Let me know in the comments!

If you need help with Emotional Wounds and the Lies they cause, grab your copy of The Emotional Wound Thesaurus or visit One Stop for Writers’ expanded thesaurus and our helpful tutorials.

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Character Arc, Character Wound, Characters, Emotion, Emotional Wound Thesaurus, Empathy, Fear, Motivation, One Stop For Writers, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.
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Esidara
Esidara
11 months ago

How do you find the lie your character believes? I’ve found resource after resource that talks about the importance of the lie the character believes and how it impacts the story… but I’ve never found any resource that explains how to figure out what the Lie is. They all seem to assume that the writer just … knows

Antoinette
Antoinette
1 year ago

I want to make sure that my character lie makes sense. So in my romance drama there are two main characters. Samantha is the main one we follow but her love interest Kevin also gets to have a point of view in the story. For his lie I think it’s that he believes he’ll never be good enough. Because his mother abandoned his family when he was young and because the father was always emotionally distant, he feels like he can only gain love through his success. He lacks friendships and romantic relationships because he sees them as a waste of time since they don’t further his goals. He is often rude and curt with people in pursuit of being a cold professional businessman.

Taylor
Taylor
1 year ago

For me, this is a little difficult to grasp.

The story I am trying to write is a fantasy novel. My two MCs are sisters, Dani and Kes. They both experienced the abandonment of their father and the death of their mother in their childhood. But the sisters have responded differently to their trauma.

Dani, the older sister, has emotionally closed herself off to the world and does not trust people especially people in authority. Dani wants to find out answers from the man who executed her mother and then eventually kill him. Seeking answers and revenge is her motivation.

Kes, the younger sister, hides her guilt for exposing her family that led to her mother’s death through humor and sarcasm which has kept people at arm’s length. Kes wants to find her uncle across the world because she believes he could offer more answers than the man who killed her mother. Seeking answers and protecting Dani is her motivation.

For the past couple of weeks, I have been trying to discover what is the lie that Dani and Kes believe.

At the core, they both want answers surrounding their mother who had left behind a considerable amount of unanswered questions about their father, about their heritage, and why their mother was executed by the government of their homeland. But how they go about it is different. I just need help if you don’t mind.

Taylor
Taylor
1 year ago

After thinking about this for over a week, I believe I understand what the lie is for Kes and Dani.

For Kes, her basic lie is that she doesn’t deserve to be forgiven for being weak when her mother needed her. She believes she has to do better, be stronger so that it won’t happen again. Although Kes wants closure, it is hard for her to stop feeling like she doesn’t deserve anything better.

The basis of Dani’s lie would be that she can’t allow herself to trust the world. Because if she did trust people again they will break you. Dani believes that people will lie to you even if they love you. She can’t let herself get hurt again like that.

Thank you for helping me clear things up there!

Ashley
Ashley
2 years ago

Great article! Thank you so much for explaining the mechanics and importance of the Lie in relatable terms. I have a question, though. If writing several stories with the same protagonist, would the lie perpetuate throughout the stories (or maybe pop back up after the protagonist seemed to resolve it) or would the protagonist struggle with a new lie after resolving the first one?

BECCA PUGLISI
Admin
2 years ago
Reply to  Ashley

Great question, Ashley. I’ve seen it done both ways: sometimes the character struggles with the same lie throughout the course of a series, and other times, the character confronts a new lie in each book. Full disclosure: Katie Weiland covers this whole idea beautifully, so rather than repeat what she says, I’m going to point you to her post about this. And if you’re not familiar with her site, pull up a chair while you’re there and look around. It’s a gold mine of authorial information :).

David Kian Lim
2 years ago

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Susan Policoff
Susan Policoff
2 years ago

I just found this post. My MC believes she can avoid grief by pushing out of her life everything that reminds her of what she lost (her husband and three of their friends in an accident). And she feels a little guilty since she wasn’t with them, and thinks she should have been.

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[…] What internal blame game does this create within your character and the lesson they need to learn in order to move forward or not? More about this from Writer’s Helping Writers Blog. […]

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[…] Zoe M. McCarthy urges us to allow characters to feel their feelings, Angela Ackerman shows us the destructive power of the lie your character believes, and Janice Hardy asks what your protagonist’s relationships are […]

Traci Kenworth
2 years ago

My character also believes she’s responsible for her mother’s death as the villain threatened to kill her if the heroine didn’t surrender. A series of events happen and the mother is killed.

Jackie Layton
2 years ago

My hero was put into foster care when both parents died in a car accident. He was in the backseat and saved by a fireman. He bounces around from one foster home to another and believes he’s unlovable. If people couldn’t love him as a kid, what was he doing wrong and why would anybody love him as an adult?

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[…] Destructive Lies and Character | Writers Helping Writers  […]

Ian Worrall
2 years ago

My main character believes she can only trust herself or more specifically no man can be trusted. She was the surviving victim of a serial killer, rescued by a member of the Russian Mafia who mistook the bag she was stuffed in for a drug shipment. He forces her to be a contract killer for him.

Talia
2 years ago

For some reason I’m having a really hard time with my protagonist’s backstory right now… his emotional wound wasn’t something that happened to him; it was something HE did. It was entirely (okay, mostly) his own fault, and his mistake was so huge, it affected the entire fantasy realm he lives in. So, naturally he blames himself for it, and he’s right to do so. The thing I can’t figure out is what lie he’s believing. I have some ideas, but I’m still in the middle of the first draft (and I’m a pantser, so it’ll probably come to me eventually!)

Thanks for the post!! 😀

Angela
Angela
2 years ago

Your reply to Talia was very helpful – to me! Lol. Thanks for the elaboration 🙂

Judi
2 years ago

My character is convinced that everything that goes wrong in her life is her fault and that she can do nothing right. Also that she’s unloveable because and doesn’t deserve to be loved. She’s learned most of this through family interaction

D.R.McElroy
2 years ago

My MC believes that her mother’s death is her (the MC’s) fault. Mom had a heart attack, but the MC feels that if she’d been there she could have gotten mom to take better care of herself, and maybe even gotten mom to the hospital sooner.