character development, David Sedaris, Fiction, how to make a character more believable, how to make a character more real, intimacy between reader and character, intimate point of view, Medicine Hat, Memoir, University of Regina, writing
IF YOU REALLY want to create a believable, trustworthy character, have her lie.
It’s true. Humans lie. We lie to our partners, to our children, to our bosses and coworkers and to our neighbours. We lie about what we’re doing Saturday to get out of a dinner party with the landlord and his communicating-with-spirit folk. We lie to friends and say, ‘Nah. We’d love to have you stay with us.’ For five days, with a colicky newborn tended by a deaf nanny, over the only long weekend in sight. We lie about wanting coffee or wine and say yes when we don’t want some and no when we do.
We lie a lot. So, to create a character that’s real, whether you’re writing fiction or narrative non-fiction, it’s worth telling a lie or two.
An important thing to remember about writing lies for your characters is that sometimes we do it to spare others’ feelings. More often, though, we lie to protect ourselves from truths we want to ignore.
In the second chapter of my memoir How to Meet a Nice Man from Medicine Hat, I am at a bar the night before Christmas Eve during college. The idea of this evening is to get drunk and either brag or lie about what you’ve been doing since high school. I’m sure readers would think I’m sweet for doing neither of those things. But that wouldn’t be me. And it wouldn’t be real.
So I proceed to lie, twice.
The first time is a few moments after running into a college rival, Bart. (To set the scene, he was the student association president and I was the editor of the campus newspaper. He had been hanging with bigwigs, ie. the prime minister, in the capital, while I had just left a job covering corn-eating contests at our hometown newspaper.)
When the song ended, I shuffled through the crowd toward him.
He scratched his head. “Jeeze, it’s been a while. What have you been doing?”
“Graduated from J-school last year.”
Casting my eyes on Ben was like looking in a mirror; I had to admit what was, and I was ashamed. Instead of scars and pores and pupils, in my reflection I saw maggots swimming under the garbage bags on my deck, the yellowing clippings of my articles, the Astroturf stoop where I smoked at night.
Ben was eyeing everyone else, dark figures whose teeth and lint glowed under the black lights. The bar, half the size of a school gymnasium, was now packed.
I had attended the University of Regina, in Saskatchewan. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, dodge bullets in the desert and win awards for my heartbreaking stories. I wanted to come home once a year and give talks at the library about my adventures.
Ben’s lips rolled. “Oh, right.”
“I got on at the News. I was really lucky. Most of the people in my program couldn’t get a job. Or they did, in Saskatchewan towns that aren’t even on maps.” I laughed and sucked my straw. I didn’t tell him that I had left the Medicine Hat News months ago and was now a largely unemployed freelancer.
“Still with Brian. We bought a house last summer. A corner lot with a double garage.”
“Wow.” His forehead caterpillared. “Good for you.”
LYING SOMEHOW MAKES a character likeable because it’s real. Sadly, I am very real in this scene.
Ben goes on to tell me more about Ottawa, and I spin another tall tale.
“Natalie, I don’t want to offend you, but I thought you’d be somewhere.” The beer in his bottle swished in his hand as he spoke. “I didn’t think you’d be back here.”
Here: this bar, the cotton tube top I’m wearing, my boyfriend who drives a backhoe. Here: a bad word, Medicine Hat.
It’s the kind of Prairie city where, in a part of town near the river, old men get down on their knees with scissors to cut their green grass even; in other parts of town, men come home once a month in the big trucks they’ve bought with their oil patch paycheques. A lot of moms, like my mom, are blonde divorcees. Remarriage brought my brother and me to a little house overlooking the coulees, high above the train tracks. I went to school with our blind paperboy, spent Saturdays at the mall, sitting around the fountain which divided its four aisles, and had never seen a traffic jam or a talked to a black person until I was nineteen, in Calgary.
“Ben, I love Medicine Hat.” A truth and a lie.
He was silent. The air was damp. Spilled drinks and melted snow streaked the floor.
“Look, when I was in university, I met this documentary-maker from Africa.” I told him the story I’ve told so many times before. In fact, I borrowed it from an older News colleague and fellow U of R alumnus. I’ve repeated it so often that it feels like my own and I even believe the ending: “And he told us that you don’t have to be in a big city to make a big difference. I’m happy here,” I said. “I’m happy.”
“Good.” He coughed and patted his chest with his fist.
An important thing to remember about writing lies for your characters is that sometimes we do it to spare others’ feelings. More often, though, we lie to protect ourselves from truths we want to ignore. Unveiling those lies in particular creates an instant intimacy between reader and character.
People who are perfect, who have no lies to tell, are boring. No one reads books about boring people.
Can you recall scenes from books where a character lies, and you thought, ‘Yeah. I like this guy’? I know David Sedaris does it a fair bit in his dialogue and it’s part of what makes him so relatable and real.
Have you written yourself or a character lying? What were the circumstances? What affect do you think it had?