Lord, let me be brave, and let me, while I craft my tales, be wise:
let me say true things in a voice that is true,
and, with the truth in mind, let me write lies.
That wonderful bit of poetry is from Neil Gaiman. These are the last three lines in his poem, A Writer’s Prayer. I focused on this last bit because of the way he holds the writer’s lot in his hand. How we must be brave and, even when we are quaking, we must be wise. We must tell our stories true even (and especially) when we are writing lies.
So many craft books tell us: “Know your character.” So true. Here is one my favorite ways to get to know my character. I figure out what lie they are telling themselves. Put another way: What is the thing they don’t want to know the truth about?
I think when our protagonist wants something (oh how, they must want, want, want something), they often do so out of the belief that getting what they want will fix everything. It won’t. That’s a lie they tell themselves. Think about how India Opal wants her mama in Because of Winn Dixie. Think about how she has to face the truth that her mama won’t be back. Think about how the lie works on her heart until she can see the truth.
I think if a writer knows their character’s deepest lie, they will find what drives the character, what builds the arc of the story and, ultimately, what will make the reader turn the pages.
Thanks to Bethany Hegedus for inspiring me with Gaiman’s A Writer’s Prayer. You can hear the entire poem here.