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One big aspect authors are often advised in storytelling is to think of the "lie" or "wound" (or the "ghost") that drives their character. Specifically, this is often framed as a negative belief the character has about themselves or the world that is untrue, and the character must learn to stop believing in order to thrive. The idea being that in the climax, the protagonist learns their previously held negative belief is wrong, and they are able to confront their problems and grow.

I was working on a story idea, and I was noticing something funny: the negative beliefs the character held that were holding them back were, in context, pretty much true. And these were very negative beliefs. Like, the character believed they were helpless, and they would always be hated for reasons outside their control, and it turned out...that based on what happens in the story comes off as about 90% true despite not being intended to be interpreted that way when I sat down to write it.

So my question is this: do you ever have stories where it turns out the protagonist's lie was true the whole time?

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If the Lie is true, then it's not really a Lie, is it? So you probably have some problems to solve...

The Lie is part of your character's journey or arc so it actually needs to be a lie for it to do its job in the arc.

How does your character solve their problems? What do they finally realize that sets them free? That'd be the Truth of the story and the belief that kept them from realizing this is the Lie.

In order to make a good protagonist, one important ingredient is to give them some backbone. Whimps are seldom good protagonists. At least not for the whole book. They need to toughen up (physically/mentally/professionally) and break their chains (or die trying—also physically, mentally, or professionally).

Or they risk not being particularly fun to read about.

I'd probably change the narrative in some way to make it possible for the character to, at least, escape from this toxic situation.

The Lie is also intimately connected to your theme or message, so in this case, the theme/message might be that there are some situations (all situations?) where you're helplessly being hated by everyone.

It may be a hard message to get your readers excited about... They will probably ask questions like, what does the character do to fix this? How does he survive this? Why? Why not? Readers want some kind of answer even if it is that there are questions that have no answers, but then they need to feel that in their bones.

You could, of course, also write a character that doesn't follow a positive change arc. But even in that case, there's a Truth that escapes them in some way finally leading to their undoing. And this undoing comes about because they believe in a Lie.

Also, the Lie and the (Emotional) Wound do not have to be the same thing. The Emotional Wound usually gives rise to the Lie. While believing in a lie can be wounding enough, the actual Wound is the root cause. (Check the list on the supplied link for examples of wounds and the lies/false beliefs they give rise to).

This isn't your story's antagonist, is it? It may be hard to give them a change arc, at least a positive one.

You might get away with giving them a negative fall arc (the character believes in a Lie and ends up believing in an even worse Lie) or a corruption arc (the character believes in a Truth but gets corrupted and starts believing in a Lie).

However, in my experience, it's really hard to not make the antagonist's fall take away from the protagonist's win, and ultimately make the story either confusing or the message/theme seem diluted. But maybe better writers than I can do better work in this regard...

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  • For clarification what do you mean by "the antagonist's fall take away from the protagonist's win, and dilute the message"? Because I'm wondering if that the same thing as the problem I've noticed with the story where the actions of the story basically vindicate the antagonist and validates their negative worldview. Commented Jun 19, 2022 at 16:48
  • @user2352714, I basically mean that the victory of the protagonist is more powerful and maybe "cleaner" if they defeat a strong and able antagonist, instead of having the antagonist fall prey to their own internal destruction. But if this is good or bad also depends on the genre and type of story. The less "action genre" it is, the easier it'll probably be to have a more complex antagonist. But yes, if the antagonist is a tragic hero following a negative arc, then whose story are we really telling?
    – Erk
    Commented Jun 20, 2022 at 17:13
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What you're describing sounds problematic but it might be quite fixable.

There are really strong reasons why (described in another answer here as well as extensively elsewhere) a protagonist needs to have some internal change to make a story great.

But here's the kicker: the needed internal change doesn't need to be the first, most obvious thing. The "lie" that your protagonist discovers is true, you can still keep that in the book, that might even be a really important part of your story. You just need to figure out what other lie that your character believes that he actually needs to be disillusioned from. Because obviously the first lie isn't something he needs to be disillusioned from...otherwise it wouldn't be something that turns out to be true.

It could just be that there's something about your character's perspective that is warped, rather than the facts themselves being wrong.

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Is it possible? Sure. I can easily imagine a story where the hero is told X, he believes X, some time later he concludes that X is not true, but then in the end he discovers that X was true all along.

Off the top of my head I can't think of a story I've read that follow that pattern. But I can think of the similar pattern, "everyone knows that X is false, then at the end it turns out that X is true".

The trick to pulling this off, I think, is the classic problem of good plotting: You want the ending to make perfect sense without being too predictable. I read a book review once -- won't go into the plot of the book, tangential to the main point -- but the reviewer said that he thought this book was great because he never saw the ending coming, but when he got to the end, it seemed inevitable and obvious.

I can think of many examples of stories like this. I tried to describe a couple but the descriptions got too involved, so let me just say that, yes, people have written stories where something that all the characters thought was false, and the reader was led to believe was false, turns out to be true. If you do it well, it can make a neat twist ending. If you do it poorly, you can have the reader get to the end and say, "Well, yeah, of course X. Was I not supposed to realize that? That's been obvious since page 12."

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Actually, I have never heard that particular rule, though I've read a great deal of advice.

It certainly sounds like a rule of thumb useful in many stories, but remember that the only real rule is whether the story works.

If it turns out that the character's obstacles are indeed real, the question is how the story conflict is resolved in despite of them. Believing yourself absolutely helpless would preclude that, so the character would have to learn that despite being helpless virtually all the time, there are times and places where agency is possible, and how to leverage them. (Perhaps other people believe the character is always helpless, and thus open up such occasions by negligence?) Or if most people will hate the character, a few close friendships can be more important than most people.

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