Seth Stephens-Davidowitz had an interesting op-ed in the New York Times this past weekend. Using data from Google searches and social media posts, he makes a point about the separation between our public and private lives:
Think of the aphorism quoted by members of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” Of course, this advice is difficult to follow. We never see other people’s insides.
I have actually spent the past five years peeking into people’s insides. I have been studying aggregate Google search data. Alone with a screen and anonymous, people tend to tell Google things they don’t reveal to social media; they even tell Google things they don’t tell to anybody else. Google offers digital truth serum. The words we type there are more honest than the pictures we present on Facebook or Instagram.
But this isn’t just a useful reminder to check your envy when you see yet another picture of your friend’s trip to the alpaca farm.
This is a strong tool for better understanding the people you create from whole cloth.
Nobody Tells The Whole Truth
We need to draw a distinction between deception and omission.
Deception requires actively perpetuating falsehoods. Omission involves allowing a false impression due to lack of contrary evidence.
The line between deception and omission can be thin.
- We think things about people that we never say to them, whether these are feelings of affection, disgust, or anything in-between. We omit this information. It becomes a deception if we say something contrary to what we’re thinking about them.
- We post that picture of an expensive dinner we had, but we don’t share that we used a Groupon to be able to afford it. It’s a deception if we take the Bow Wow challenge and use the picture to talk about how fancy we are 24/7.
- We show up for book club even though we only started reading the book the day before and nod along to the conversation. The omission lets us enjoy the company of others. It becomes a deception if we skim some talking points about the book from other sources and try to contribute as if they were our own thoughts.
Even though it may seem that omission is just a lesser form of lying, by the very nature of the self, we never truly share everything about ourselves with those around us.
Even people who regularly overshare are engaging in a deception: Wishing to be thought of as a completely open book. But even the person who will tell you every minute, embarrassing detail of their lives is still withholding information from you.
Take a moment and sit quietly. Follow how many thoughts you have in just one minute. No seriously, set a timer…
It’s amazing how long a minute can feel. Now imagine the exhausting task of sharing every single stray thought over the course of a day. Imagine the impossibility of communicating with others if we had to wade through all the noise in each other’s heads.
That’s why we pick and choose what parts of ourselves we present to others.
In a sense, deception is aspirational. Fake it ‘till you make it. An attempt to put forward the image of ourselves we wish we could truly be.
Here again, we need to draw the line: Omissions that don’t give others the whole story are natural and unavoidable. Lies are deliberate attempts to misdirect people toward false impressions.
Lies raise the stakes. You can forgive an honest omission, but a lie increases the burden to earn forgiveness.
These differences between the internal life of a person and the external life they show to the world are important to understand when we want to leverage it dramatically in developing characters and stories.
Deceptions Humanize Characters
As the audience, we have an important advantage over the other people in a character’s world: We can see a character when they think nobody’s watching.
When we see the contradiction between a character’s presented self and their internal self, it helps to make a fictional person feel dimensional and real. We relate to that feeling of having a part of yourself cordoned off from the rest of the world, and we also recognize the discomfort of having that barrier breached.
Singin’ in the Rain starts with a deception wrapped in comedic irony. Movie star Don Lockwood tells the story of his rise to fame to a radio reporter, giving the impression of a dignified, privileged childhood and a clear path to fame and fortune. What the audience sees undercuts his boasting.
The true story of Don and his friend Cosmo’s backstory plays out on screen as Don narrates. While he talks about having a classical education and performing in the finest theaters, we see him and Cosmo as children dancing for coins at the pool hall and playing a circuit of run-down vaudeville theaters.
By showing us that Don is putting up a front, the movie makes him not only more relatable, but more intriguing. We want to know why he wants to deceive his fans about his true biography, while simultaneously understanding the desire to remake your identity and present yourself in the best possible light.
Revealing the deception to the audience gives them the best of both worlds: We see the glamorous, enviable star that Don has become while also seeing his bootstrappy, admirable rise from rags to riches.
Judy Hops in Zootopia finishes her first day with the Zootopia Police Department and comes home to a call from her parents. While trying to lie and tell them work lives up to her expectations, the deception falls apart when they see her uniform: She’s been put on meter maid duty.
Judy wants to project a confident, together persona to her parents. She’s hoping the reality of her job will catch up to her aspirations. But the bright orange vest gives her away, and her parents latch on to the problem of her present, which interferes with the projection she’s trying to show them.
These moments don’t always play a major role in the entire story, and sometimes can be a button moment or little splash of character to add color to what we’ve already seen. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, there’s a telling moment that re-contextualizes our previous understanding of the hero.
Indiana’s father refers to him as Junior throughout the film and when questioned about it reveals that his son’s true name is Henry Jones, Jr.
Not only does this reveal take the wind out of his sails, undercutting his heroic swagger with a wink just before the credits roll, but it also shows us an important fact about Indiana Jones: He’s a constructed persona. Like an author adopting a pen name, or a vigilante picking a superhero title, Henry Jones, Jr. wanted a name more befitting a part-time professor and full time extreme archaeologist.
These deceptions don’t just give us a window into the individual, but about how their core identity relates to the world around them.
Deceptions Reveal Values
At the beginning of Ghostbusters (2016), Dr. Erin Gilbert disowns her previous work in the field of the paranormal and tries to distance herself from the book she co-wrote with Abby Yates on ghosts, even when a copy of that book shows up in the hands of someone asking for help with an actual ghost.
Erin wants to secure tenure at Columbia University, and in order to portray herself as the kind of physicist she believes they want, she moves from omissions about her past to active deception. It even reaches the point where she tries to convince the dean of her university that an online video of her screaming in glee that “Ghosts are real!” isn’t actually her or real.
It helps the audience understand what’s happening because we know the whole truth. We just saw an actual ghost vomit on Erin. We believe ghosts are real, but we also believe why Erin wouldn’t want to own up to that yet.
At this point in the story, the respect of other scientists is still more important to her than scientific discovery. Her actions reflect her sense of values.
When she’s fired, carrying her things in a cardboard box, she riffs to the students and faculty she passes in the hall about how she’s only changing offices. The degree to which she needs to maintain the idea that she’s a serious, respected scientist is so great, that even in this moment of total failure, her nervous energy demands that she keep up appearances, despite the obviousness of the deception.
Another example of obvious deception comes at the end of The Godfather. Michael Corleone lies to his wife, Kay, saying that she’s allowed this one time to ask him a question about his business and he’ll answer honestly.
When she asks if he ordered the murder of his brother-in-law, he lies, saying he had nothing to do with it.
We know this is a lie. We saw him order multiple murders. We saw Carlo murdered.
This obvious lie combines with the famous shot of Kay looking back at Michael as the door closes to his office, shutting her out of his world, and shutting her off from his interior life.
At the beginning of the film, Michael made a statement of values to Kay after relaying a gruesome story of his father’s business to her: “That’s my family. That’s not me.” Now he leads that family, and his earlier honesty with Kay is only a memory.
Michael’s desire to protect his family doesn’t necessarily mean being honest with them. He sees his job as a powerful protector of those closest to him as one that requires him to be deceptive.
But it also shows how he values their trust. He wants Kay to trust him, so he deceives her into believing that he’s letting her into his confidence. He doesn’t just want his family to be safe, but for them to feel that he has their best interests at heart. To Michael, that doesn’t require transparency.
The family in Ordinary People are all actively engaging in layers of outward deception and self deception. Brothers Buck and Conrad have a boating accident where Conrad survives, but Buck drowns. The fallout from this death and Conrad’s subsequent suicide attempt reveals fractures within the family.
At a dinner party, Beth stops her husband, Calvin, from talking about Conrad entering therapy. She doesn’t want to reveal to their friends about the trouble they’ve been having at home. But even in his admission of Conrad’s therapy, Calvin downplays the seriousness, creating the deception that it’s just “to polish the rough edges.”
When Conrad meets with Dr. Berger for their initial therapy session, he doesn’t want to talk about what the real problems are. He says he wants to feel more in control, and that’s the only reason he’s agreed to see a therapist. Conrad’s problems with his parents and deep-seated survivor’s guilt aren’t even on the table, as far as he’s concerned.
Control. Looking to deal with the outward signs of turmoil instead of looking to the source. Even though we see how different Conrad is from his mother, Beth’s values and influence are right there in how Conrad initially wants to deal with his problems.
The tensions created by these deceptions boil over when the family tries to take a picture together.
Conrad and Beth refuse to be photographed together apart from everyone else. The act of taking a happy family photo together reinforces the layers of deception the family are trying to create, showing what’s behind the need to deceive. They want to show that they’re still a happy, united family. On some level they want to believe it, too.
They value the appearance of unity. That their home life is polished; no rough edges for others to see. But what we see of this family shows they’re not equally committed to the work it would take to bridge the gap between their outward projection of success and comfort and the inner feelings of love and connection required to make that outward projection honest.
In stark contrast, Su Li-zhen and Chow Mo-wan from In The Mood For Love deceive each other about their mutual attraction. Their relationship desperately wants to bloom like a flower poking through cracked concrete, but their values prevent it.
These two neighbors start off friendly enough, but after learning that their respective spouses are having an affair (together), the tone of their dynamic shifts. What starts as an attempt to role-play the affair and figure out what could have lead their significant others to stray turns into something else.
Their time together becomes more frequent. Intimacy develops. But it never directly replicates the painful deception that brought them together.
They tell themselves “We won’t be like them,” referring back to their adulterous spouses. It’s a deception. They believe they can consciously prevent romantic feelings from developing between them. They believe they should prevent romantic feelings from developing.
It shows that they want to value their marriages, even when they’ve been cheated on. That they value the approval of the people in their apartment building, especially the nosy families that they rent their rooms from.
They want to believe themselves to be superior to those who have wronged them, and that by denying themselves the love that so clearly displays itself in their scenes together, they are doing something admirable.
This clash between values and desires creates a conflict they need to navigate.
Deceptions Create Conflict
In a dramatic work, the purpose of these deceptions isn’t only to reveal character to the audience, but to create obstacles for the characters.
When a deception ties to a sense of stakes; when there’s something for the characters to win or lose due to their maintenance of the deception, that’s when you get conflict.
The show House, M.D. based itself not only on Sherlock Holmes, but on the idea that the answers to diagnosing confounding patients would usually be found by determining what information the patient omits or actively hides from the medical team.
It could be an omission about their history. An active deception to protect someone close to them or protect themselves from exposure. It could be an unacknowledged self-deception that needs to be overcome, healing the consciousness before healing the body.
This creates an active need to unravel and reveal these deceptions: the patients’ lives are in jeopardy. The stakes of the situation turn this deception from an interesting character detail into a problem that needed to be solved.
In the film The Third Man, Harry Lime lures his friend Holly Martins to Europe with a job offer. Harry has presented himself as a successful entrepreneur, but his apparent death leads Holly to uncover that Harry’s business was selling tainted medicine on the black market.
Two things combine to make this deception into a source of conflict:
- Harry isn’t actually dead, but faked his death to avoid arrest.
- His business of selling tainted medicine has killed children, and he hasn’t let being “dead” stop his business.
Given the sense of stakes created by these circumstances, Holly is faced with a choice: Go home and accept that his friend was a duplicitous war profiteer, or help bring him to justice. The conflict evolves based on Holly’s choice to stay and bring Harry’s deceptions to light.
Vincent Freeman in GATTACA has one wish: To become an astronaut. However, he was born in a not-too-distant future where genetic engineering is the norm for children, and Vincent was conceived naturally. In this world, Vincent’s high probability of disease and early death prevent him from pursuing his dream, or anything close to it (as genetic discrimination is casual and common).
Vincent’s deception comes when he meets Jerome, a genetically-engineered former athlete willing to donate blood, urine, and tissue samples to Vincent and allow him to pass as Jerome in order to apply for astronaut training.
Because of the heavy punishment for this kind of identity theft, and the ease with which it could be discovered (since even an eyelash could reveal Vincent’s true identity), this creates conflict every time he goes to work.
This conflict is pushed forward because Vincent’s DNA is recovered from a crime scene at the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation. A flight director was murdered, and while nobody believes “Jerome” did it, Vincent knows that he’s now the prime suspect. One more slip up could cost him his dream and his freedom.
It’s not just protagonists who deal with these kind of weighty deceptions. In The Matrix, the ally/antagonist Cypher works to deceive the rest of his crew on the Nebuchadnezzar and deliver Morpheus to the machines in exchange for having his mind wiped and his body re-inserted into the Matrix.
Cypher’s nostalgia for life in the Matrix as opposed to the real world could be an interesting expression of character; a way to show not everybody likes having their mind freed and being thrust into the human resistance.
What creates conflict is the deception driven by this desire. He kills members of his crew and places all of their lives in danger in order to double cross them. He pretends to be working with them while slowly building toward the point where he has no choice but to reveal his duplicity and hope to receive his reward.
What makes this deception intriguing beyond the conflict it creates is the understanding that Cypher’s reward is a form of self deception.
It speaks to his values when he says the cliché “Ignorance is bliss,” and the nature of his deception shows how deeply committed he is to that notion. The lives of other people are nothing to him compared to his own ignorant comfort.
And one more thing…
Returning to Stephens-Davidowitz’s article for a moment:
Any time you are feeling down about your life after lurking on Facebook, go to Google and start typing stuff into the search box. Google’s autocomplete will tell you the searches other people are making. Type in “I always ” and you may see the suggestion, based on other people’s searches, “I always feel tired” or “I always have diarrhea.” This can offer a stark contrast to social media, where everybody “always” seems to be on a Caribbean vacation.
As our lives increasingly move online, I propose a new self-help mantra for the 21st century, courtesy of big data: Don’t compare your Google searches with other people’s Facebook posts.
It’s worth remembering the actual point of this article as well: Don’t compare yourself to what you see of others.
Be mindful of the fact that when you look at the work of others, you’re only seeing the polished, produced material.
You’re not seeing those rough edges. You’re seeing the Instagram version of their #writerlife. You don’t get to see the hidden basement full of unsuccessful Ripley Clones.
Rating your unfinished work too heavily against the produced work of other writers isn’t fair to you. It’s a form of self-deception.
Even the most successful writer starts with a blank page. Everybody deletes.
So don’t compare your first draft to Zootopia.