Truth and Lies

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

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?


19 thoughts on “Truth and Lies”

  1. In real life, yes, a multitude of them. I work in the probate litigation arena and as a paralegal, do a lot of early witness interviews. In fiction? Most well characters have their narratives influenced by other factors. The great Holmes comes immediately to mind. And this may be my sole opinion, Watson was the great detective, but Holmes believed that was his role. Thus, he presented himself that way to the public, and even to Watson.


  2. How about characters whose narratives are a form of self-medication or protection? Consciously, or subconsciously, they create stories about their past that help them negotiate the present or face the future. It might not be a completely false story, but a “better,” more palatable, or safer story – something that keeps them on an even keel.


    1. Molly: so many people are like that and I see writers touch on it but not sure I’ve been aware of someone who handled it well. Maybe Liane Moriarity, who writes those books about the little lies and secrets we tell ourselves so we can get through the day.


  3. Wow, this is so insightful! Thanks for sharing, Keenan! One other reason that comes to mind is that someone might not be able to believe something is true because of a relationship, friendship, or backstory with another character. I’m going to remember this post when I brainstorm reasons why characters lie…


  4. Yes, exactly!!! I was having a hard time coming up with an example, but just thought of one: the father in Defending Jacob by William Landay.


  5. Brilliant post! LOVE this one. There is always the witness who lies because of fear of retaliation. I love your gap filling example, though. That would be a fun one to use in a story. Add a Mrs. Bates character as a key witness…


  6. Keenan, very insightful. I think all characters – “good” guys and “bad” guys – will tell a story based on who they are. Take Hank’s Jane Ryland. She’s a reporter and she’s going to tell a story from the perspective of someone who has to tell it on TV. But Jake is a cop, so he’s going to interpret the details differently, put emphasis on different things and tell the same story, but not the same story.

    And I’ve done that “guy bursts in to a room then leaves” exercise. There were eight of us. The only thing we could all agree on is it was a black male.


  7. Fascinating! How about false memories? For example when one character hears someone else’s stories so often that he claims it as his own memory and embellishes it.


  8. I find characters in every book whose perception of truth/lie or right/wrong is influenced by “things.”

    Kate Lansing, the example of “Defending Jacob” ,and “The Ex” by Alafair Burke are perfect examples. Of course the “unreliable narrator” is very popular in books now (“Girl on the Train,” “Gone Girl”) and one of my favorites in this category is “The Kind Worth Killing” by Peter Swanson.

    I read mysteries or thrillers because I want to experience that deception in books that I do not want to encounter in real life. If a book did not have some sort of deceptive character, hidden clues, or outright lies, I probably would not finish it. Books are about separating the truth from the lies, identifying the liars, and bringing an end (not always a nice end) to the deception and conflict.


  9. Love this post so very much; it was like taking a fabulous mini-class. I learned a lot! Love that exercise–I find it fascinating how unreliable “eyewitnesses” actually are when it comes to solving crimes. As I get older, I question more and more of what I think I remember. I’ve stumbled into realizing that what I have thought were memories, were actually stories told to me by my parents and supported by photos, rather than actual memories. My mother takes LOTS of photos, so its sometimes hard to tell whether I actually remember the event, or just the photo of the event.


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