The Lie Your Protagonist Believes

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Written by JJ Barnes

Giving your Protagonist an interesting arc where they grow and change as a person is an important part of storytelling. If they come out of the story unchanged and having learned nothing, there is no point in sending them on that journey in the first place.

The lie your Protagonist believes takes your character at the start of your story where they will believe something about themselves and the world they live in, and follows them through the course of the story as they learn the truth. I’ll be writing about what effect it has on your story, how to write it into your own work, and referencing The Nightmare Before Christmas.

What is the Lie Your Protagonist Believes?

The Lie Your Protagonist Believes, The Table Read Writing Advice
The Nightmare Before Christmas

The lie the Protagonist believes can be something external about the world, but more often it is likely to be something internal about themselves. They believe they want or need something to be happy, and are motivated to get it, but through the story they realise that it’s not true.

You see this a lot in romantic comedies where the girl believes she’s in love with one man, and through the course of the story it turns out she’s in love with somebody else. However, the example I’m going to write about is Jack Skellington.

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Jack Skellington As An Example Of The Lie Your Protagonist Believes

In The Nightmare Before Christmas, Jack Skellington sings a song about how bored he is of being the king of Halloween, and how he longs to be anything else. He believes that his happiness will be found somewhere else.

He then discovers Christmas Town and Santa Claus and becomes obsessed with the idea that if he replaces Santa Claus, he’ll get the satisfaction and fulfilment that he longs for. He is then motivated to go and achieve that goal.

Whilst he’s expressing his longing for another life, he’s being followed around by Sally who is in love with him, but he doesn’t know. It’s a visual clue for the fact that during the course of the film he learns that what he’s longing for isn’t actually a different life, it’s to be in love.

As you follow Jack Skellington, you watch him following the lie he believes to be true. The fact it’s a lie is what gets in the way of his happiness, until he accepts the truth, and goes home to be with Sally. The audience is discovering the truth as Jack Skellington does, and that’s what you can take into your own writing.

The Lie Your Protagonist Believes, The Table Read Writing Advice
Photo by Lina Kivaka on

Your Audience is Connected to your Protagonist

When using this device in your own writing, you keep to your Protagonist’s point of view, so the story presents as if what the Protagonist believes is true. Together your audience and your Protagonist discover the truth, and that keeps your audience and the Protagonist connected. Your audience is going on the journey with them, and even if on an emotional level they realise that it’s a lie, everybody has to discover the truth together.

Your audience can learn the truth a little bit before your protagonist. Not a long time before as they need to be rooted to your Protagonist’s experiences, and if it’s too obvious too soon they’ll feel disconnected. But if they realise it just a bit before, they can then watch the story unfold in a satisfying way as the Protagonist discovers the truth, excited to witness that realisation.

This is something you can play with, make sure you reveal it to your audience in a subtle and effective way by planting seeds throughout the story that hint towards it, without revealing it to your Protagonist.

A Layer of Conflict

This is a really useful writing technique to make your Protagonist’s story arc interesting and keep your audience invested in them and connected to them.

Giving your Protagonist something they want and sending them in pursuit of it is always the first step in story creation and making that thing a lie is an interesting device that just makes it more layered with conflict and, therefore, more interesting.

More From JJ Barnes:

I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.

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