August 28, 2012

Spotlight on Subtext: When Characters Are Liars — Guest: Angela Ackerman

Picture of Angela Ackerman

I’ve mentioned before that I love subtext. I’ve analyzed the Spiderman reboot for subtext. I’ve written about how to revise for subtext, how to use subtext in emotional scenes, and how character development happens in subtext. Yeah, I’m a tad obsessed with subtext.

So when the fantastic Angela Ackerman of The Bookshelf Muse blog offered to do a guest post about using body language cues as subtext to show that a character is lying, you bet I jumped at the chance. *smile* Please welcome Angela Ackerman!


Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

People lie. They lie about the small things (that dress looks great on you!) and big things (I have no idea how that lipstick napkin got into my pocket, really!) And by natural extension, characters lie too.

Writing lies can be tricky if the liar isn’t the Point Of View Character. After all, thoughts and internal (visceral) sensations will tip us off when we’re in someone’s POV, but when we aren’t, it’s all up to body language and the reader’s honed sense of observation.

So, if writers need to ‘out’ a liar to the reader or have the POV character pick up on another’s lie, what’s the best way to go about it?

The Fake Smile. Natural, genuine smiles use a lot of muscles. Cheeks bunch up, brows comes down, eyes crinkle.  When a character is faking it, the mouth stretches, and that’s it.

Reaction Time. When someone reacts based on emotion, gestures and movement are smooth and happen immediately. But if someone is not being genuine, a hiccup occurs in the timing. Imagine Aunt May asking you what you think of her new red hair color. The first thing that comes to mind is that she looks like someone auditioning for the role of Ronald McDonald, but will you say that? Of course not. So as you scramble for something nice to say, there’s a delay.

Personal Space.  For most people, lying isn’t something they are proud of. It’s a normal reaction for someone to draw back, increase the space between themselves and others, or to place something between them as a shield or block. A lying person will have smaller movements which might appear wooden or have that time delay discussed earlier. Overall, their body tends to take up less space than someone at ease.

The Eyes Tell All. Because of the shame factor, often liars will not look you in the eye, or if they do, they cannot maintain contact for long. And that adage about looking up and to the left when you’re responding with a lie? It’s true! Looking up and to the right shows that the brain is accessing a remembered image, while looking up and to the left shows the brain is constructing an image.  So, a person would look up and to the left while they are crafting a response rather than relaying natural truth.

Discomfort.  Liars have one goal–for you to believe the lie and move on. They are not good at waiting, and if there are silences during conversation, they will often ramble to fill them or change the subject.  They may fidget, and are likely to touch their face (ears, cheeks, mouth and nose).  Some may prattle or give more detail than is needed, because their mission is to convince others to believe their words as truth. Often they will not answer questions directly, but talk ‘around’ an answer.

Micro expressions. The face can show a lot in a split second. Micro expressions are just that–true involuntary expressions made in that lightning quick moment before delivering a lie. These expressions are grouped into seven recognized emotions: sadness, happiness, fear, anger, disgust, contempt and surprise. The micro expression betrays what a person is really feeling, so if their next words or actions don’t match up, you’ve just caught them in a lie.

Denial. When a normal person is accused of lying, confusion is often the response, paired with a request for clarification. When a liar is outed, they react quickly and with passion, rejecting the statement and claiming complete denial.

Voice. Speech patterns often shift when a person is lying. Rushed speech, not pausing for breath, drawing out one’s words, the voice growing higher or lower than usual, a warble entering one’s voice…these can all be signs of discomfort with what one is saying.  If something doesn’t sound right, there’s usually a reason for it.

Are there liars who don’t follow these rules? Certainly! The best liars are ones that know exactly how the body reacts when a lie is told, and through practice, have mastered many of the universal ‘tells’ that go with lying. But for the majority who aren’t majoring in deceit, these constants hold true. Decide if your character is a natural born liar or not and you’ll have a starting point as to what to show to denote a lie!


Angela Ackerman is one half of The Bookshelf Muse blogging duo, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression.  Listing the body language, visceral reactions and thoughts associated with seventy-fivedifferent emotions, this brainstorming guide is a valuable tool for showing, not telling, emotion. She lives in Calgary, Alberta, in the shadow of the Rockies, with her crazy (and therefore awesome) family, dog and one slightly zombie-like fish.


Subtext is cool, isn’t it? Angela and Becca’s book is phenomenal for learning all these body language cues. No more telling or naming emotions. Show them instead.

And as a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of her pants), I’m curious if I’m the only one who’s written a liar but didn’t realize it right away. *smile* What finally gave it away to you? Did your other characters realize it before you did? *raises hand* (These are just some of the reasons I find liars a blast to write.)

And Angela wants to know:

How about you…have you ever written a liar into your stories? Are they fun to write? How did you go about conveying this to the reader? Let me know in the comments!

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And then there are those of us who naturally hesitate even before giving honest answers, because our first thought is “Huh? What’d you ask?”

Couple that with delayed memory—”Have you seen my purse?” “No”…2 minutes later…”Here you go.”—and accusations of being a liar get more frequent and annoying.


1) Heart Microexpressions. I really loved the first season of Lie to Me.

2) I love the variety of options you’ve given here. It’s depressing how often a literary liar is outed by the main character with. “I could tell he was lying.”


Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

First of all, Jami, thanks for having Angela. I LOVE The Emotion Thesaurus!! I use it often and enjoy its user friendliness 🙂
I really enjoyed this post. I liked the bit about the eyes moving up and to the left or right…didn’t know that. Very cool!
I’ve never written a liar into any of my novels. I have, however, made a character or two lie now and then. Especially a hero to his heroine or vice versa. Like recently when my heroine wanted to protect the man she loves, she lied to him. I also let my characters lie to themselves, but that’s a different post.
Thanks so much for sharing, Angela. Best wishes to you and your blog.
Thanks jami!!


Aw thank you Tamara! It means a lot to hear you say this–so glad the ET is helping you, and the blog as well.

I love the moral conflict that goes with lying, when we’re in the POV character’s head. It’s a great angle to explore as well, and you are right lying is sometimes a necessity!


@Carradee, I think that’s when one’s personality coupled with other body language comes in though, right? I certainly have had my share of pauses because my brain is on a different thought process than the person I’m talking to. I think this is pretty common, in fact, lol. If not, you and I at least have this in common! 🙂

Tami, Lie To Me was such a good show! I loved it! The Mentalist isn’t too bad, which is on a similar vein, and there’s a new one called Perception that I’m interested to see what it’s like too. I find the brain/body language connection so interesting!

Jami, hope you are having a wonderful holiday–thanks so much for having me here–it’s always an honor to hang out at your blog! 🙂



It’s possible it’s from a disconnect between personalities and body language disconnect. But I get that, too—like I have a specific laugh I use when I’m getting frustrated and fed up with something, and my brother always used that laugh to say, “See! You find it funny!”, no matter how many times I’ve told him, “No, this means I’m about to blow my top.” To this day, he tends to be startled when I lose my temper.

With the “Liar!” accusations, people point directly to my hesitation or to my previous claim of no knowledge on a subject. So whether I wait to process the question (and for my memory to turn on) before I answer or I answer immediately, someone will snap that I’m obviously a liar.

No, but if I were to lie to you, you wouldn’t know it. There was a while in my childhood where I figured, “Since you think I’m a liar anyway, might as well.” Kinda creepy thing was that my lies were perceived as honesty, and I got in trouble for lying when I was being honest. !!!



I think intent and motivation has a lot to do with it. If we feel we’re in the right or lying is necessary, we’ll likely show fewer ‘tells’ than if we are uncomfortable with the act, you know?



I agree with your assessment — Mentalist was more “fun” but less science because they wanted to hide so much from the viewer for a big reveal at the end. It’s like the mystery novels where, at the last minute, the hero points to the gardener and declares it was HE who stole the diamond brooch, because no real gardener would ever prune rosebushes with the military knife that the reader never got to see in his toolbag.

I agree completely on the brain/body language connection. Absolutely fascinating stuff. I’m also an animal lover, and I’ve worked with both horses and dogs on a professional level, so I’ve got extra impetus to learn what various subtle body cues mean. One of my TBR pile is a book on the similarities between autistic behavior and dogs. (The strange things you find at garage sales…)


People have asked me about the body language of animals…I think this would be an interesting angle to study as well. Animals don’t have the power of speech, so their body language must be dynamic to send messages.


I agree. One friend jokes that I’m the “squirrel whisperer” and “cat whisperer”, because I’m good with both. (She does wildlife rehab. When a baby squirrel is particularly skittish, I can get it to calm.)

Due to my better understanding of cat-speak than my parents, my mother’s cat has accidentally ended up mine. She will hang out with them if I’m not around, but I can do no wrong in her eyes. I can bathe her, and her question will be “What’d I do wrong?” (It’s a specific meow and posture.)

Granted, I’ve also taught the cat that if she ignores my mother, I’ll ignore her—and my mother discovered that saying my name is a good way to get the cat to behave.

Last night, I accidentally used the wrong body language on a [i]skittish[/i] small dog. I was expecting it to be more agressive. The poor thing ended up terrified. I realized my mistake and adjusted my body language (which confused her, at first, but she got over it).


I’ve been enjoying both blogs you’ve had on subtext (although I haven’t seen the new Spiderman yet:) My author friend Ava usually just whips the lie by the reader like a fastball. The poor reader has to pay attention to all the conversations in the book to end up finally figuring out it was a lie. By putting the pieces together of all the different conversations in the book. (“But wait…so-and-so said that…”) Kinda like crime/legal dramas where the bad guy slips up in cross-interrogation. Frankly, I don’t even try:) I just read along and end up surprised! I NEVER try to figure stuff out in advance.
(You can probably perceive… through subtext… that I’m not so hot on picking up lies and subtext in real life, either:)
I do have an issue/question: you say that you are”a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of her pants)…” This surprises me. You are so studious and methodical (bad word? regular? consistent?) with your blog… you have flippin’ SPREADSHEETS for plot outlines!! Are you SURE you’re a “pantser”? I know you wrote your first story (the fan fic of HP) just off the cuff, and you were INSPIRED by the “snuggery” comment to create a whole world… but I just don’t imagine you as a “winging it” writer. See? Not very perceptive of me;) Totally missin’ that subtext.
Anyway thanks for the post: keep up the good work, HOWEVER you do it!

The Golden Eagle

I’ve written liars; I find they’re a lot of fun to play around with, especially in relation to the other characters and the plot.

Great post!


Liars can be great characters, I agree. My favorites are the ones who lie with confidence, but inside, their morals rear up and so they are torn about their actions.

Chihuahua Zero

Thinking about it, the co-protagonist of my WIP is kind of a liar, even if it’s mostly through the omitting of information. For example, not telling the narrator that the latter’s best friend is also a psychic–and that there are also more psychics out there than initially presented.

He’s a very timid guy in general, so it further emphasize the “facade” aspect he keeps up throughout the book. Some of the lies are justified, but it results in a “digging himself deeper” situation I plan to have end in a breakdown by first having him put up the fakest facade he can have up–and then smash it and let the pieces wreck the lawn.


I think omitting info probably what most of us do 99 % of the time. We see this as skirting a lie I think–would you agree?

Buffy Armsgtrong

Great post! It’s always nice to have a list of tells because we all know characters lie. Cheeky little… 🙂


ROTF. I agree! But liars can be great assets to a story, can’t they?

becca puglisi
becca puglisi

I have a person in my life who lies quite a bit. She does it so naturally because I believe she’s convinced herself that what she’s saying is the truth. Because in her mind she’s not lying, you don’t see any of these tells. This is another case where someone may lie smoothly without the usual signs.

Greatness, as always Ange. Thanks for hosting her, Jami!


Yes this is a tough one–if a person believes their are speaking the truth, to them it isn’t a lie. I imagine they react a bit (denial or anger?) if challenged on what they say though.


My husband believes that when people say they’re going to do something, they mean it, at the time. They really want to. They intend to. They know they committed to do it. BUT they don’t follow through. To me, those people are liars and I’m tired of excusing them. In my personal life, that is, however, in fiction, they make for some unreliable characters and therefore, add tension and conflict to many scenes.

Far Away Eyes

Yeah, I’ve written a liar. The guy you love to hate. Actually my liar was pretty obvious to every character but one, but she’s in love and blind as bat to his tricks.


I wonder what your lying scoundrel feels when he lies to this girl…or are the feelings not mutual? That would be interesting…a liar who feels conflicted about lying because he cares for the one person out there who believes his lies. 🙂

Todd Moody
Todd Moody

This is great stuff, I’m bookmarking this for future reference!


Happy it helps, Todd!

Sonia G Medeiros

I find writing about liars so interesting. Especially when characters lie to themselves. Oh, sweet denial. Even better when the author doesn’t point out the denial but lets the reader figure it out for themselves. In everyday life, I strive to be as truthful as I can (though being truthful doesn’t mean being brutal or telling everything always) but that can be pretty boring in fiction. 😀


Lying to oneself–I agree, this is such great conflict! And the moment when their eyes are opened to it…magic. Thanks for the comment, Sonia! 🙂

Laura Pauling

Awesome! I need to know this stuff because I love books with lies! 🙂


Haha, yes, thinking about your book I can see this, Laura!! 🙂


[…] Spotlight on Subtext: When Characters Are Liars by Angela Ackerman guest posting for Jami Gold. […]

Laura Stephenson

I had been wrestling with different character traits to work with in my novel but hadn’t thought of “liar.” Now I’ll have to take this and run with it!

I’ve had main characters lie to themselves and occasionally others, but not non-POV characters.

Reetta Raitanen

Fascinating primers on lying. I haven’t written an unreliable narrator yet but some characters have been spinning the truth. It always comes out sooner or later and makes great drama.

One of my favorite stories with a lying narrator is Justine Larbalestier’s aptly named Liar. The funny thing is that despite the book title and the character lying to everyone, I didn’t realize that she was lying to me too 😛


OOh –I just recently read “The Emotion Thesaurus” for some ideas on how to “show” my characters’ feelings better. I loved it!

I love all the lying cues in this post. I will definitely be putting them to use (ahem…in my fiction). 🙂

Jamie Alexander

This is great! In the novel I’m working on, both of my characters lie to each other at some point so I will keep this close at hand. Thank you!

Stephanie Noel
Stephanie Noel

The sister of my main characters in my WIP is a major liar. She’s concealing her true identity but has a major advantage: she’s from a society where emotions can be controlled through very advanced technology, so the only thing that is betraying her right now is her body: having been cut from her world, she’s slowly losing weight and getting more and more exhausted.

I didn’t know that she was a liar at first. When I started rewriting the story, she was just a regular friend. Then she became a sister and eventually a liar. My main character doesn’t know yet.


[…] for more nuggets of wisdom, and if you like, come visit me at Jami Gold’s blog as I tackle Characters Who Lie and their unique body language […]


[…] Spotlight on Subtext: When Characters Are Liars […]


[…] Ackerman, one of the authors, shared a guest post here about writing with subtext by sharing information about a non-POV […]


[…] gives readers hints about characters […]


[…] The Emotion Thesaurus is great for helping us with those physical cues non-POV characters can do to reveal their thoughts or emotions. One of the co-authors of the ET, Angela Ackerman, guest posted here with a whole list of how to hint that a non-POV character is lying. […]

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