10.11.2016

The Lies of the Sage

Novels consist of perceptions of truth. A skillfully drawn narrator advances his version of the world, as skewed and inconsistent as that vision may be. The unreliable narrator cannot be counted on to be honest. Or an author may limit her deception to specific characters, those for whom lies cover unpleasant truths.

We tend to think that dishonesty is associated with rogues. Criminals lie as part of their battery of nasty qualities. Such chicanery, though, is usually directed toward monetary gain, and while losing your shirt hurts, you haven’t been betrayed.

The types of lies that really hurt revolve around the issue of trust. As a species, we make compacts with others every day. If you think about it, the fact that drivers stay in their lane on a highway is a marvelous example of the complex web of trust that rules our lives. The depth of the association depends on the length of the compact and how much need we have for another person. That is why the lies of a father like Willy Loman have long been a staple of storytelling.

One of the relationships that has the most potential for betrayal is the mentor-pupil bond. This realm includes, of course, your parents. I remember that some of the most painful discoveries I made as an early adolescent was finding out my parents had lied to me on certain important subjects. They used their superior knowledge of how to put themselves in a good light with people to con me. The kid, innocent and thereby stupid.

As a writer, you can extend this fraught power to others that are older and seemingly wiser. The wrestling coach who uses his hands too freely. The beauty salon owner who seeks a better-heeled clientele. The senior banker who finds himself needing to recover a serious loss. Implicit in all such relationships is the younger person’s surrender to the surrogate parent. When we surrender, we are vulnerable. And people who are vulnerable can get hurt.

Sometimes the most wrenching lies cover the mildest sins. The mentor simply can’t bear to let her pupil know she isn’t that paragon of virtue she is projecting herself to be; she derives too much pleasure from her pupil’s perception of who she is. In this example you can see what depths of character can be plumbed. Not outright evil, just another pathetic bumbler like we all are.

Exercise: Once you have picked the mentor character and the lie, you need to set up how to make the discovery as painful as possible. That depends, as all plot developments do, on length of coverage within the book. Don’t rely on a background story. Put the two of them face to face repeatedly, then pull the rug.

“There's always a version of me who is the narrator. And I make myself look better than other people.”
—Pat Conroy

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine


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