I recently read an Entertainment Weekly interview with Dennis Lahane, author of Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone. (You can read it in its entirety here: EW Interview with Lehane) When he was asked about the theme of ‘honesty’ in his novels, he responded with the following:
“Yeah, I was once at a party with a guy whose job, and everybody knew it, was to help companies refashion properties that were polluted… so that they could resell them. That’s what he did. And it was literally like, “You sell cancer to children.” “You’re the Flint, Michigan water supply,” you know what I mean? And yet, he’s at a party. But if you asked him, “What do you do?” and he said, “I sell crystal meth,” people would be like, “Get the f— outta here!” I find the crystal meth guy at least honest. I don’t think he’s a “good guy.” His soul is his other issue, but at least I know who he is.”
This answer spoke to me as a writer because you are always looking to add layers to your characters, but HOLY COW doesn’t it also apply to the people we deal with in real life?? Simply put, a bad person can be honest to you and a good person can lie right to your face. (All those who have done internet dating of any kind, say AMEN!)
It also speaks to taking people at face value. That super nice coworker you know may be having an affair. The creepy-looking dude outside the convenience store may have to sell street drugs to pay for his daughter’s insulin that keeps her alive – and will tell you that without a blink. Snap judgments about people are rarely 100% accurate.
From now on I promise to layer my characters with more values even if it goes against type – and maybe give more people the benefit of the doubt. Good doesn’t necessarily mean honest or truthful; bad doesn’t necessarily mean liar.