How honest are you? In your personal code of conduct, is it okay to dodge a question that you don’t want to answer? shade the truth for a good cause? omit certain details to save yourself or another person embarrassment? I think most people believe being less than totally truthful is sometimes justifiable. And even when we are completely honest, we run the risk of a misunderstanding. Communication is a risky business, an inexact science.
Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken … (Emma, chapter 49)
In real life, secrets, lies, and misunderstandings create havoc. But when writing fiction, they are our bread and butter, supplying an indispensable source of juicy conflict. It’s certainly true of my own writing, and of Jane Austen’s as well. Elizabeth misinterprets Darcy’s reserve as snobbery (Pride and Prejudice). Edward cannot openly declare his love for Elinor because he’s secretly bound by honor to Lucy (Sense and Sensibility). Mr. Elliot hides the true state of his finances while he pursues Anne (Persuasion).
In The Darcys of Pemberley, I force Elizabeth into a tight spot where, to protect Georgiana, she has to go against her own better judgement: Elizabeth was left to answer him with whatever resources of creativity she could muster, since the benefit of simple honesty was denied her. She returned to her husband without delay, prepared to offer a report that contained as much truth but as few of the actual facts as possible. As you might guess, this concealment later comes back to bite her.
For the sake of the story, a little subterfuge between characters may be necessary – and great fun! Don’t hesitate to keep the reader somewhat in the dark as well.
This morning I was reviewing a children’s story submitted by a gal in my critique group. In it, she explained that the voice the great king heard, threatening him, came to his ear by evil magic. My suggestion to the author was that she had “shown” the readers enough, and shouldn’t “tell” them the rest (“show, don’t tell”). Kids are smart; let them figure it out. Allow the readers to interpret the clues you leave and discover the truth for themselves, which is so much more satisfying.
So, when is honesty not the best policy? In fiction! After all, fiction is … writings that tell about imaginary people and happenings, what is imagined or made up. No one should be expecting the truth, right?