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Protagonist Feeling Vanilla? How to Frame the Lie the Character Believes

Updated: Apr 10, 2023

Good Morning Story Savants! This is yet another common thing you'll hear in fiction, and another way to approach your story and your character arcs. As always, I strive to give you many and varied ways to approach your fiction. Things that will help you think about your story from different perspectives, in order to achieve an overall grasp of all things story-related.

Figure Out the Lie Your Character Believes:

This lie will always be about their internal arc. It can be tied to the external plot in some way--I would argue that it SHOULD be--but the lie itself is something they believe, so by definition, it's internal.

The lie the character believes is a misconception about either themselves, the world around them, or both.

Example: Let's use our pal Harry Potter as an example. As book 1 begins, what is the lie Harry believes?

It's that he's ordinary and worthless and unworthy of love. And it's obvious why he thinks that. He lives in a cupboard under the stairs (not even worth enough to have his own room), he's treated terribly by his family, who both abuse him and use him as slave labor, and he has no friends or people who actually show him love.

So of course he believes that he's worthless and ordinary. He can't imagine he is special enough to be a wizard, to have had a powerful wizard once try to kill him, or that he had parents who loved him enough to die for him. But nothing could be further from the truth.

What the Character Wants vs. What the Character Needs:

Once you've figured out what the lie is, you need to figure these two things out. Because the trifecta of these things--the lie, the desire, and the need--will inform the character's entire arc.

What does Harry want? (Okay, disclaimer: Harry Potter is such a universal story, this could be interpreted many ways. I won't claim my interpretation is the "right" one, but it's what makes sense to me an we'll just call it one of many.)

Example: At his core, Harry just wants to be loved. He's looking for parental and, more specifically, maternal love. That's why he bonds so deeply with Ron's parents, Sirius, and even many of his teachers. He's seeking the parental love he never received as a child. But he's also willing to take non-parental love, in the form of friendships and romantic love. What he wants is to be loved and validated. Because that's what all humans want.

What does Harry need?

From a psychological standpoint, we all know that we shouldn't rely on others to validate us. So what Harry really needs is to figure out the truth of his past, figure out who he is and wants to be, and find his own self-worth independent of the people around him, especially toxic ones like the Dursleys.

Do you see how this will inform his entire arc and all his choices, reactions, and thoughts?

And Rowling does this masterfully by always giving Harry clear choices. He meets good, positive friends at school (Ron, Hermione) and more toxic possibilities (Malfoy). He meets good teachers who become positive mentors (Dumbledore, Lupin, McGonagal) and ones that treat him poorly (Snape, Umbridge) and we see him understanding the difference and making conscious decisions about who he wants to spend time with and where he wants to align himself. Learn from Rowling, and craft your story similarly.

But let's return to book 1. The lie Harry believes about being worthless is already in place as book 1 begins. And while his journey is far from over at the end of book 1, the lie, at least where the Dursleys are concerned, does end there.

Notice how he's mostly docile to the Dursley's demands in the beginning. But in subsequent books, when he returns to their home, he's never that docile again. He has no problem getting in their faces, standing up to Dudley, etc. Why? Because the lie has been exposed. He KNOWS he's not worthless and ordinary, now. And he'll never be enslaved to that lie again.

This is the place you need to take your characters to by the end of your story.

(Also, I said above that the internal lie really should be tied to the plot, right? It just makes for a tighter, more cohesive story. The Dursley's treatment of Harry and their literal lie about his parents and his past is how Rowling does that.)

So, figure out the lie the character believes, what they need, and what they want. Then craft the story so that they overcome and transcend the lie, and eventually get what they NEED.

Should they get what they want? It depends on whether what they want is healthy or toxic. Wanting love isn't a bad thing, and Harry does find this along the way. If your character initially wants something toxic, obviously they shouldn't obtain it at the end of the story, but if you write it correctly, they won't want to. Transcending the lie will help them realize how toxic that desire was, and they'll be able to leave it behind.

So how do we take steps to write this arc into our stories? I'll talk about that next time. As always, for a more fleshed out discussion, pop in your ear buds and give the podcast a listen:

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