When I’m in court and a witness claims another witness is lying, it makes me groan. The truth just isn’t that simple.
The truth, as one individual knows it, is her perception of reality filtered through her values.
What is important to one person is not important to another. That is why we have surprising results in the familiar witness experiment: a person rushes into a roomful people, perhaps with an object in hand and rushes out again. Then the witnesses all report having seen something different.
It is rare to have two people agree completely when relating events. Even married couples, or perhaps especially married couples, have their own versions.
When two people do agree completely, they are probably teen-aged girls, BFFS who have identical values and similar life experiences. That doesn’t mean their stories are true; just that they track each other.
In my experience, far fewer people intentionally deceive than is feared. Most writers create characters who lie to protect themselves, and that does happen quite a bit in criminal law. But there are many other reasons why witnesses “lie”.
Fear of Being Deceived: Interestingly, that fear of being deceived is one of those factors which colors witness stories. They will create evidence to combat what they feel is a falsehood and in so doing, they are intentionally deceiving. There could be a myriad of reasons why someone is so fearful of being deceived that he will combat it, but what I see mostly frequently is a person who is afraid that the suspected liar is getting something that the witness wants – an unfairness directly impacting the witness is perceived. These people will present as angry. And the more you question them, the angrier they get.
Skewed Perceptions: Some people do not share a perception of the three-dimensional world as the rest of us know it. Some mental process, a mental illness, a strong personality disorder or drug usage, skews their perceptions. They aren’t lying; they see things very differently. It doesn’t take much questioning to figure these people out.
Gap-filling: Most people have a tendency to fill in the gaps. Few remember every second of every event in which they are involved. Instead, they remember bits and pieces and then they string that together in a narrative (that supports their paradigm) by creating evidence to fill in the gaps. Some of those gap-fillers may be very significant. This is the trickiest witness to deal with. It takes a lot of careful digging to sort out what is real and what is fictional.
Herd instinct: If a witness identifies strongly as a member of a community, like a family or a group of co-workers, there is a tendency to support the narrative first advanced by that group, usually by the dominant member. Some people will parrot that story. Others, who are uncomfortable with the story, will make themselves unavailable for a statement, or claim they don’t remember. These people are easy to identify. Their stories are too similar to be believable and their group-affiliations will be obvious. Hired experts fall into this category.
Coaching: How a person remembers things can be influenced by how the story is first told by that person. This is critical in litigation, especially in criminal cases. All of the influences I spoke about come into play when the witness is first interviewed and the person who is doing the interview can shape the witness’ story by developing the gaps, herding them to a particular narrative. Afterwards, it is very difficult to get an accurate statement from that witness. Not only is he inclined to validate his first story, his actual memory of the events will be shaped by how he first told the story. This is another tricky witness and the questioner will need to take a lot of time examining the facts, other witness statement and that witness’ prior statements to find the nuances.
Looking hard at real life situations and analyzing why people tell the stories they tell, is fodder for developing red herrings and clues. It can also be useful for character development. Louise Penny’s The Beautiful Mystery is full of characters telling different stories for different reasons: monks in general, monks with different agendas, cops with agendas, and the Watson character, Inspector Jean Guy Beauvoir with a story arc all his own.
My question for you today, Mysteristas is: Other than the classic witness who is hiding something, have you noticed characters whose narratives are influenced by other factors?