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When Does A Writer Become A Liar?

July 26, 2019

(image via Wikimedia)

Telling the truth can be counterproductive for a writer.  Even when authors are writing something that’s supposedly “based on a true story,” they might embellish a little.  They sometimes make up dialogue because people usually aren’t as witty in real life as they are on paper.

Writers might leave out crucial details to make one person look worse than he or she is (or make him or look worse).  They might make up details that no normal person would remember, like weather and clothing, just to make readers feel like they’re part of the story.  Without these details, the truth could seem to be downright boring.

Some authors don’t even use their reals names.  Samuel Clemens wrote his books as Mark Twain.  Or was it the other way around?  Stephen King started off his writing career as Richard Bachman.  Some female authors like S.E. Hinton and J.K. Rowling abbreviate their first names so that male readers don’t get turned off by reading a female author.   Male author Dan Mallory used the pseudonym A.J. Finn for his novel The Woman in the Window so that readers would think he was female (I think… I might have misremembered that).

I’m pretty sure Dan Mallory lied about having brain cancer, though, and that’s probably worse than using an unethical(?) pseudonym.

At any rate, part of writing is being just a little bit dishonest.  Authors like to call it creative liberty.  A little embellishment can make stories, even those based on actual events, much more interesting.  But at what point does embellishment become outright lying?

One Comment
  1. On my About page, I write:

    Because I write in the first person style, occasionally my readers are fooled into believing that what I write is true. None of it is. We do not have turtles who run down deer, nor do we live next to the Minnesota State Mosquito Refuge, though you wouldn’t know it during the summer.

    All of my stories are fiction. They have to be. The population of my little town is 4 (counting the chickens) and since everyone knows everybody else and everyone knows everything about everybody, I have to write in such a way that they can say, “Hey, that’s me!” and at the same time say, “No way, that’s me!”

    But even though I am a fabulist, I worry about the boundaries of truth. I ask myself, “does what I am saying resonate with reality or does it reflect my biases and prejudices?”

    I addressed this in an essay titled, My Little Lie

    The first time I thought deeply about trust, I was tagging along with my father while he went shopping for a car. We had just stepped onto a notorious used car lot, when a guy in a plaid sports jacket clamped an arm around my father’s shoulder and pointed at a weary old station wagon.

    “She’s a runner,” he proclaimed.

    I was only in second grade but I could spot oil leaks, bald tires and rust with the best of them. I didn’t believe a word coming out of his mouth.

    “Dad,” I said once the salesman was out of earshot, “do you believe that guy?”

    “Sure,” he said.

    “Why?”

    “Because he doesn’t lie about the important stuff.”

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