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!

6 responses to “Psychological Writing Series: Honesty and Truth

  1. This is too existential for me.

    The answer is… Yes?

    • LOL, Pete! It’s not a test question. I just find it exceedingly interesting how truth and honesty play a part in the way we do and experience things. In this respect, it’s such an easy device for creating conflict in our stories. In particular the misunderstandings between our characters can be super fun to play with.

  2. Loving this series Cat! I’ve had this saying for years: “Perception is everything”. I think this is the heart of honesty and truth. While we can understand and sympathize with others viewpoints, the only one we actually get is our own. All the information we experience and analyze moves through the filters of our bias’s, our preconceptions and our previous experiences with the same or similar thing. Essentially, our personalized perception.

    While we may not intentionally lie or speak an untruth, it is likely we will do both simply based on our perception of the event, when compared with say a recorded version that shows the actual event without all the filters.

    Our characters should have this same quality. When we envision their response to a situation our character is placed in, it becomes essential that we view the events through their perception and not our own.

    Great post!

  3. Gene,

    Exactly. It fascinates me and is such an easy way to manipulate our stories. However, we must first understand the absolute truth of our story, as well as to fully understand our characters’ perceptions. It’s a tall order, but effective.

    I am going to stretch you a bit on the idea of comparing something with a recording of an event. Because even then, we still view the scene laid out before us with our own prejudices, personalities and past experiences. And let’s not forget faulty memories or short attention spans. So much goes into a person’s ability to comprehend and replay a situation that I believe there is no such thing as absolute truth as far as humans are concerned.

    Is my psych background showing? LOL. Thanks for joining the discussion and giving me something to think about.


  4. As a person – not a writer – I’m trying to remember to see things from others’ pov. This helps to keep me honest, I think. Hopefully it helps me practice my writerly skills at being inside someone else’s skin. 😀

    I’d like to toy with this for an mc sometime, but I don’t think a villain – at least not the sort of villain you’re supposed to hate – would bother with doing it. Or maybe MY villains wouldn’t because those people I view as being the most villainous are those individuals who don’t CARE enough about anyone else’s pov to consider it. Does that make sense?

    • Victoria,

      You are one of the sweetest cyber friends around. I can’t imagine that you don’t already pay close attention to how others think, feel and experience the world. I’m sure it shines through in your writing.

      As to the villain thing–this would be a great challenge. How to create a villain who actually possesses some of these traits. I think we’d be surpised to find out that they do, more often than we realize. Take pirates for example. They were a hardened group of people with seemingly little or no virtue. However, they adhered so strongly to their codes as to make the most upstanding businessman feel inadequate–if one is willing to accept their loyalty, sense of fairness and hardwork at face value rather than attaching our set of prudish principles to the way they lived the rest of their lives.

      I firmly believe a villain can be loyal, honest and have a tremendous amount of integrity–within the set of rules dictated by his/her way of life.

      But enough darkness for so early in the morning!


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