Nine Ways to Hide the Truth and Get Away With It

One of the common staples of magic systems is the ability to detect lies. It’s so simple, so logical, so useful—but many people shy away from it. Why? Because it makes it hard to bring in mysteries, or conspiracies, or much of anything that requires people to hide the truth.

It doesn’t have to, though. Everything has a counter or a bypass, and lie detection is no exception. It just requires being clever.

For the sake of this essay, I’m going to use the standard lie detection effect. It requires the user to understand the speaker, and specifically detects and alerts its user to deliberate untruth.

Now. How does a clever character get around this?

1. Don’t actually lie. This is the basis for foiling any of these things: you may beat around the bush, you may sidestep the question, you may do any of a number of things, but you may not lie, because you’ll get caught. But that’s not too specific, so….

2. Answer a different question. What you want to do is give a statement that’s topical enough to be relevant to the question, and still true. Ideally, it’s true enough that they mistake it for the answer, but one can’t expect to win all the time.

3. Interpret the question more literally than the questioner originally meant, in such a way that, through a technicality or two, you aren’t actually lying when you say no. “Did you steal Lord Vigarth’s book?” can be answered with no when you consider yourself to have borrowed it—particularly when you really did put the book back when you were done with it.

4. Interpret the question as being something else entirely, if possible. This is easiest when the question is missing antecedents, as all you have to do is fill in your own. Just make sure the antecedent’s plausible, or it’ll be pretty obvious you’re lying to yourself.

5. Answer with a question of your own, preferably one where the answer might in itself answer the question. Be careful, though; this is a common enough trick that people might see it coming. On the other hand, if you’re clever (particularly if they don’t suspect you yet) you can use the answer to lead the wannabe detective in an entirely different direction.

6. Qualifiers. “It’s been said that”, “Rumor has it”, or “[Other person] seems to think that….” make effective dodges—as long as it’s technically true that it’s been said, rumor has it, or other person is as far as you can tell under the impression that [whatever you’re about to say].

These ways, of course, are the most immediate. What happens if you know ahead of time you’re going to be asked?

7. (Particularly useful for establishing alibis.) Find something you want the opposition to believe, then convince a third party, one the wannabe detectives are likely to question, that it’s true, and find a way to make sure it comes out sometime when they’re detecting the truth (these things usually only detect deliberate untruth, remember?). That way, even if they catch you lying about it, their old results indicate it’s true. Not very good for their confidence in their system, is it?

8. Magic that foils truth detection magic. Now, most people favor something that just plain immunizes them to lie detection, but that can be sidestepped by requiring the person being questioned to tell a lie so as to ensure the magic works. Something a little more subtle would be in order. One of my favorite examples is in Tamora Pierce’s Trickster’s Queen; the main character creates what she calls a “Liar’s Castle”, a trick that’s half spell and half mental exercise in which she subsumes herself in one of her cover identities, so that “truth”, for her, is what’s true of that persona. It’s still possible to lie (I particularly like this one because you can choose something true of you that you don’t want the opposition to believe as the calibrating lie), but it’ll keep your secrets safe.

Then there’s the world-creator’s way of covering the traces.

9. Put the burden of proof on things that aren’t just the lie detection magic. After all, who says the person who performed the lie detection was telling the truth, or didn’t in some way tamper with it? You can’t trust anyone these days. The detective-types know what’s really going on and can’t do anything about it (leaving an opportunity to investigate and the knowledge that such investigation is necessary), the perpetrator gets to be smug, the story’s extended, and it works out for everyone eventually. It wouldn’t be the first time that a mystery wasn’t “Whodunit?” but “How can I prove it?”

Get the hang of that, and lie detection becomes a tool, and an inconvenience, but not an uncontrollable stumbling block. And that’s what makes a story interesting.

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