Writers’ Ten Commandments #9: False Witness

This series is about breaking the Ten Commandments in your writing—doing to your characters, or having them do, things you’d never want anyone to do to you.

Commandment #9: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Bearing false witness is another way to say “lying.”

Taken from a certain point of view, all we fiction writers do is lie—or, as my friend Charise Olson likes to say, “confabulate.” We tell tales, prevaricate, lead you up the garden path. We pull your leg, bend the facts, put a spin on it. We tell falsehoods, fibs, half-truths, whoppers, taradiddles. We fabricate, deceive, invent, falsify, exaggerate. We even dissemble, dissimulate, misinform, and mislead.

On purpose. And we’re not even sorry.

Have you ever wondered why the English language has so many ways to say “lie”? We all (well, most of us) do it. We all know it’s wrong. We’re ashamed of it. It’s bad form to accuse anyone else of it directly, and painful to accuse ourselves, so we euphemise.

But writing fiction makes it okay. In fiction you can lie all you want. In fact, it’s usually preferable not to tell the truth. (See post on commandment #5.)

But. (You knew there was a “but” coming, right?)

We write about people who never existed, but we have to make them true to what we know about human nature. We write about events that never happened, but they have to be events that could happen—at least within the story world we’ve created.

We may create entire fantasy worlds, or worlds that resemble our own with a major twist—but we can’t violate the fundamental moral rules of the universe. Rules like free will. Cause and effect. Justice tempered by mercy. The ultimate triumph of the good.

These are things you can’t lie about and make good fiction. There is a limit to how far readers will suspend their disbelief. There are some kinds of lies they won’t swallow, no matter how you sugarcoat them.

Sometimes these lies people won’t swallow are things they would accept if they happened in real life. Coincidences happen all the time, but it’s tough to make them fly in fiction. People do get saved by miracles, but if that’s the way you solve your plot problems, your readers may give up in disgust. People do drift through their lives letting things happen instead of making them happen; but if your protagonist does this, he won’t hold your reader as far as page two.

Why are we pickier about stories than we are about life? Well, for one thing, we don’t have a choice about life. We can’t return it to the store for a refund. We can complain to the Author, but it won’t do us much good.

More importantly, though, I think it’s because stories are meant to follow the ultimate rules of the universe as originally created, rather than the broken rules of the fallen world. Here on earth, life isn’t fair, and in the short run, good doesn’t always win. People have free will, but sometimes they get stuck in circumstances they can’t control. Sometimes they drift because they can’t see a path on which to act. Sometimes they act only to have what looks like destiny slap them in the face.

As fiction writers, we have to rise above the limited truth of this fallen world. We have to tell the higher Truth of the universe as it was meant to be.

To me, this is what it means to be a writer and a Christian: not to write stories in which characters “get saved” (necessarily), but to write about a universe in which the will of God is triumphant over evil. Those are the stories that resonate most deeply with the human heart.

That’s the edge Christians have over writers who know only this fallen world. I’d like to see more of us use it.



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