How can I make the reader see/suspect that a character is lying (or not telling the whole truth) without just telling them that the character has told a lie?
Oh, deception! How fun. I love deception.
That sounded weird.
1. Have things that don’t add up. Think about what your deceptive character was doing and then imagine how it might disrupt things. Maybe they said they were one place when they were actually at another. For example, if they said they were at the grocery store, but they come home with no groceries, that’s pretty suspicious. That one is a bit obvious, but there are ways to make even that sly little detail so subtle that the reader doesn’t quite notice what’s up right away.
2. Acknowledge their feelings. Think about the secret they are keeping. How does it make them feeling? If they are traitorous, are they a little jumpy, nervous about being found out? If it’s a pleasant surprise, are they bursting at the seams, excited? If it’s something tragic, is it tearing them up inside, making it hard to fake a smile? Does that show sometimes? Is there someone they normally trust that they haven’t been as open with recently?
3. Plant clues in not just how they act, but what they say. Maybe they once briefly said something that was vaguely sad/suspicious, but it was quickly breezed over, intentionally or not. Maybe something they say is not quite what it seems- maybe they are poking around, trying in a heavily veiled way to figure out what the protagonist might know or suspect. Maybe when they are recounting a certain story, they’re a little vague on the details.
Also, try to keep in mind exactly how obvious you want to make this. If you want the reader to know something the other characters don’t, i.e, that this character is being deceptive, then you can afford to openly flaunt the signs. You don’t necessary need to say “*footnote: he is lying. Liar Liar plants for hire”, but you can do little more “point-out-discrepancies”, for example, having the protagonist or others think about or openly state that they suspect something is screwy, even if they can’t place what. However, if you want the reader to be surprised, I suggest breezing over the signs quickly- move on their attention to something else, and then later, when the surprise is revealed, they can look back and see that wow, they signs were all there, but I didn’t even think about them.
Another thing to keep in mind is perspective. When stories are written in first person, the narrator has to say what they observe, which tends to make things a little more obvious for some reason. You can still be subtle by having the character either a) a little oblivious, noticing very little, or b) hypersensitive, seeing so many things, it’s hard to sort out and particular one as significant.
And be wary about how much you’re saying. You don’t need to force signs onto every other page. Let them appear naturally at moments where it’s relevant. Keep track of where the deceptive character is and what they’re doing even if it’s not going to be stated in the story- by mapping that out, you can figure out where their actions might overlap where the other characters might notice it.
Have fun being deceptive! It’s an art!*
**disclaimer: I don’t mean you people. I mean your characters. Please lead honest and good lives. Don’t play games with people!