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, an online library packed with powerful 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.

27 Responses to The Destructive Power of The Lie Your Character Believes

  1. Taylor says:

    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.

    • There’s a lot going on here, so I may not have this right, but first, it’s totally normal for the sisters to have the same wound but react differently to it. They are still individuals, and how they were raised, their birth order, friendships, experiences, and personality will make them react differently, want different things, or if they want the same thing, they may want it for different reasons.

      Where the lie comes in is how does each sister somehow blame themselves for what happened? Kes somehow did something that led to her mother’s death, so that is an easier one to figure out. She let her mom down at a time when her mom needed her most, and she refuses to let Dani down, failing again. Not it’s probably not fair that she blames herself about letting her mom down, –it could have been her age, trusting the wrong person, making an misjudgement or not realizing the impact of something she let slip. That’s the nature of a lie – is is a mistruth, but in the character’s pain and grief and fear, they aren’t thinking logically and only know they should have somehow been able to prevent the outcome (even when they couldn’t).

      Dani seems to have a lot of anger, and she’s looking for someone to blame. Maybe it is easier to blame a person or the government rather than look at other sources…did her mom put herself and the family in jeopardy through her own actions (beliefs, stubbornness)? If so, it could feel like a betrayal for Dani to blame her mother, so Dani looks for someone else to lay it on. Or, maybe Dani also believes her sister was to blame, and it would be a betrayal to lay this death at her feet, so instead she lays it at the feet of someone else. Or maybe Dani is running from her own guilt that she didn’t protect her mother as she should have but she’s unable to deal witht he guilt so she deflects and takes it out on others.

      I don’t know if any of this fits, but it might stir up ideas. For figuring out the lie for each, think about the lesson each must learn if they are to feel whole again. For Kes it might be self-acceptance and self-forgiveness, and possible Dani also.

      • Taylor says:

        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!

  2. Ashley says:

    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?

    • 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 :).

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  4. Susan Policoff says:

    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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  7. 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.

  8. 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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  10. Ian Worrall says:

    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.

  11. Talia says:

    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!! 😀

    • A wound isn’t always something that “happens” to a character in the sense that there’s a villain, or malintent – a wound can just be a way of responding to events that a person beats themselves up about in the aftermath. Sometimes it is a mistake or choice they made, and sometimes the person sees in hindsight all the things they could have done differently that would have led to a different result and it affects their sense of self-worth.

      Think of a wounding event as a moment where the character’s world changes for the worse and they feel in some way responsible (even when/if they are not), or it causes such a core feeling of betrayal/hurt that they see the world differently (disillusionment).

      His lie could be many things – if he runs from responsibility now because deep down he believes he can’t be trusted to do the right thing/have power or control/have good judgement, then his lie will be something along those lines: My judgement is faulty; I can’t be trusted to make the right decision (and therefore he runs from responsibility, lets others tell him what to do, refuses to lead, etc.) If this mistake caused others pain, he may avoid connecting with other people for fearing he’ll hurt them again: I have to stay away from people so I don’t hurt them again. Just two examples. So look at his behavior in the story and try to see what lie is shaping it – what he is avoiding by acting the way he does. 😉

  12. Judi says:

    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

    • One of the biggest contributors for emotional wounds are family, because those who are closest to us can wound us the deepest. Sounds like you have a good handle on the obstacles (external and internal) that your character is up against. 🙂

  13. D.R.McElroy says:

    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.

    • Yes it is so human of our characters to internalize the blame, even if it means logic leaps! We really do feel we should have power over what happens within our sphere of influence, so when something disrupts that, it shakes us deeply, causing emotional stress and psychological pain.

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