Daily Archives: July 14, 2011

Psychological Writing Series: Honesty and Truth

I know, I know.  You’re learning way too much about moi through this series, but please bear with me.  And promise not to hold any of my childhood naughtiness against me, as I have learned some restraint in the intervening years.

Honesty.  Or rather the lack of it–as my story goes.

I was the world’s biggest liar as a kid. 

“Did you lose your earring?”  Nope.  Really, that’s not it in the heater vent where I dropped it two days ago.  Even if it looks exactly the same as the one in my ear right now.  Even if I spent hours trying to fish it out before you noticed it was missing.

I lied my way into and out of things.  I also lied myself into the corner more often than I could count.  Seriously.  I might as well have had my name on the living room corner for all the time I spent with my nose in it.

According to Merriam-Webster, honesty is “adherence to the facts: sincerity.”  I could argue this point, as I was very sincere in every one of my lies.  But if I don’t try to twist the definition, it really comes down to this: honesty equals the truth. 

 Or does it?

I’ve worked as a child advocate for many years and the most eye-opening thing I’ve learned is this: there is no such thing as absolute truth.  Instead, we all bring our experiences to the table when we interpret and remember the facts of an incident. 

Example: ask five witnesses to a crime the same exact question and you will get five variations of the “facts.”  Sometimes these factual accounts can differ so tremendously as to ring false.  Yet each witness is providing the absolute truth–according to them.

Confused yet?

I’ll simplify.  Remember back to the last disagreement you had with your significant other, parent or friend.  Now, what happened?  That’s right, really think about what happened.  Try to remember the exact words that were used. Where you were standing.  How you crossed your arms over your chest or tapped your foot. 

Now what does that look like from your adversary’s perspective?  Will s/he remember the exact same words, the places you both stood, how you looked and what you did?  Maybe they didn’t watch your toe tap, but noticed the ear tug and scrunching eyebrows.

Did someone see or hear this conflict?  I bet s/he remembers something else as well.

And yet when recounting the incident, you will all swear your version is true because that’s what you remember. For realsies, people cannot recount the absolute truth.  Our personalities, past experiences, moods and focus all affect how we see and feel things at any given time.  I call this personal truth.

Conflicting personal truths can make navigating relationships extremely difficult both in real life and in fiction.  Especially when each party is sincere in his/her version of the truth.

Often, however, confused is what we want our characters to feel.  In romance novels, it benefits us to have our characters misinterpret intentions.  In thrillers, we need to plant seeds of doubt in our MC’s mind about what is happening and how it happened.  This confusion creates conflict.

As writers, it is our job to know the facts of our tale.  Only then can we effectively allow our characters to bend the truth to fit their life experiences and personalities.  When each character is sincere and honest in their version of events, our stories retain natural conflict just like in real life.  And this, my fellow scribes, is the absolute truth.

Does recounting a personal truth make someone a liar?  How do we, as writers, learn to see all the variations one truth has to offer?  How do we reconcile this for our characters and, in real life, for ourselves?  Can the ability to understand the inherent falsity of truth make us more honest?

Curious minds want to know.

PS: my spellchecker isn’t working at the moment, so please forgive any typos!