I could tell you what this podcast is about, but how would you know if I was telling the truth? Normally, you’d just have to trust me, but in fantasy stories, we can have magic that stops people from lying. That’s what we’re talking about today, and it’s a far more fraught subject than you might expect. It turns out the possibility of lying is pretty intrinsic to the human experience, and changing it has huge ripple effects that most writers aren’t prepared to deal with. What kind of ripple effects, you ask? Listen and find out!
Generously transcribed by Anonymous. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, with me today is…
Oren: I was going to mislead you about what the topic of today’s episode is, but I can’t because I’m in a Zone of Truth. So I have to tell you everything. Everything has to be truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Because this episode we’re talking about anti-lying magic and how it’s way more messed up than you think. It’s very bad.
Wes: It’s so messed up.
Oren: It’s a very common staple of fiction. A lot of stories have it, and it almost always has way weirder implications than they think it does.
Chris: And wider and more subtle, at every level.
Oren: Because it turns out, being able to lie to people is a pretty fundamental part of the human experience. And once you change that, that really changes the way we interact with each other. A lot of stories don’t recognize this. Then this covers magic, like the actuals Zone of Truth spell for D&D, which stops people from lying. Covers things like Toph and Daredevil, who can supposedly tell that you’re lying by listening to your heartbeat. And it covers things like the Aes Sedai from Wheel of Time, who have a magical oath that stops them from lying. Because these are all different ways of getting at the same thing. And the first thing I want to talk about is the detection methods.
You need to be careful with these because the whole concept that you can tell that someone’s lying because their heart rate changes is actually pretty dangerous because it turns out that we have machines in real life that do that, and they’re called polygraph machines, and they are very unreliable. And because it turns out that, yeah, someone’s heartbeat might go up when they lie. But it also could go up because they’re nervous because you just asked them a hard question.
Wes: That’s like me at the doctor every single time.
Chris: I personally just like the idea that Daredevil or Toph have somebody that they think is like always lying to them and that turns out that person just has a crush on them.
Oren: And it goes beyond the polygraph detection. The whole concept of being able to tell that someone is lying from how they’re acting is very problematic, and it leads to people who are innocent being assumed to be guilty because they act in a way that we associate with lying. But it’s often just a result of stress or them being neuro-divergent in some way. That’s already a problem if you assume that Daredevil can tell someone’s lying because of their heart rate. That’s already spreading inaccurate and potentially harmful information.
But going beyond that, you would just not believe how many plots depend on people being able to lie, how many plot points need that factor. And this is why characters like Deanna Troi, her power is way more nebulous, right? She doesn’t know someone’s lying because of their heart rates. She just knows. And notice how her power mysteriously stops working a lot of the time.
Chris: She tends to phrase it as, “Oh, you know, he’s hiding something.” They start downgrading it into really vague terms because it’s just too powerful if she knows when something they say is precisely a lie.
Oren: There are episodes where we don’t even go that far, where she doesn’t even go with, “you’re hiding something.” It just goes with, she doesn’t say anything and it’s…but later we find out that person was lying. [sarcastic] Wait, hang on. Why didn’t Troi’s powers go? And it’s cause, well, we needed them to be able to lie for the story to work, okay?
Chris: I like to think about it this way – if all of the different conflicts you can’t have if people can’t lie. Do you want to have a betrayal in your story? Do you want to have a secret mole or traitor in your story? Do you want to have someone who seems nice at first and then turns out to be evil at any point in time? Do you want any member of Team Good to be able to keep a guilty secret? Think of all of the plot opportunities that you’re just straight up giving up if somebody can tell when another person is lying.
Wes: [sarcastic] Yeah. You’ll never pull off that surprise birthday party.
Oren: My favorite example of this is from The Wheel of Time, which I’m doing a reread of. In The Wheel of Time, you’ve got the Aes Sedai, who are mages, and they’re incredibly problematic, but we’re just going to look at one aspect of them today, which is that they can’t lie. They have a magic device that when they swear an oath on it, they have to keep that oath. And one of the three oaths they take is that they can’t lie. But some of them we know are secretly working for the Forsaken. I think it’s called the Dark One in Wheel of Time, but he’s Satan. And these ones are part of what’s called the Black Ajah ‘cause they are evil and everything in The Wheel of Time that is dark is evil. It’s not exactly a complex setting, morally speaking.
And so they have this whole thing about, “Who’s Black Ajah? We can’t know who the Black Ajah is,” and it’s all paranoia. And it could be anyone. It could be you, it could be you. It could be me. No one knows, right? That’s like a huge part of the plot. So first it’s okay, well, I said I can’t lie, so you could probably just ask, “Are you Black Ajah?” And later on we find out that the Black Ajah have a way to break those magic oaths, but they can only do it in special circumstances. So you could fix this by just calling each Aes Sedai into your room one at a time, having them reswear the “I won’t lie oath” on the magic item, because if it doesn’t hurt you to double up on the oath, right? It does nothing to you if you aren’t Black Ajah. And then say, “are you Black Ajah?” And if they say anything but no, then you know they’re Black Ajah and you can just get rid of them. And I was like, there, I solved it. I solved the Black Ajah problem. And of course, this was never brought up as a possibility at all because it would defeat the entire purpose of the paranoia aspect. And it’s like, see that’s a reason why, just enforcing magical not-lying creates plot problems.
Chris: I don’t think I’ve ever come upon a story with anti-lie powers that have actually been consistent because they are just too hard to manage. At some point in time, the story’s going to be inconsistent and break it.
Wes: Because they’ll kind of bring up this situation where this is the only option. There is no other way to find out unless we find who’s lying and force them to tell the truth.
Oren: Right. And I mean also it’s just there’s a lot of tension and conflict that almost all stories have over, Which characters should we believe? Is this character telling the truth? And here’s the thing is, it works in reverse too. Not being able to lie is actually a very powerful advantage if you’re in a society where most people can lie and everyone knows you can’t. Because that means everyone can always trust what you say. You can try to do the whole like sneaky-lie-without-lying thing that Wheel of Time tries to do and imply that all the Aes Sedai are untrustworthy [sarcastic] because they’re evil scheming women. This book has a problem with women. But beyond that, it turns out that that’s actually very hard, trying to be all sneaky, especially if someone is just like, “answer plainly: yes or no.” If someone won’t let you say five paragraphs to get around having to lie, that’s actually very hard.
And so if people know you can’t lie, then you can tell them things and they’ll know it’s true. Right? So there’s no longer a…you can’t have a conflict over trying to convince the King that he’s going to be assassinated because he knows you can’t lie, and you’re telling him he’s going to be assassinated. So at the very least, he knows you believe it. Now, in certain circumstances, you could still make that work. You could have the King be like, “Well, I know you believe I’m going to be assassinated, but I don’t think I actually will be.” That’s a thing that could happen, but it just makes everything way harder.
Chris: Speaking of which, I also want to talk about characters that have radical honesty. They’re not that common. But Elnor, for instance, on the new Picard show fits in this category. The only time I’ve previously seen a character that had had this trait (and it is a really novel trait, it is really interesting, but I think that it might just be really hard to maintain) was in the show, Lie to Me. They had a character that practiced radical honesty. But after, I dunno, five episodes, he just broke his radical honesty pledge for a really bad reason and then just didn’t have it anymore. And it was too bad because then he was a boring character. But I think it might’ve just been too hard for the readers to maintain the radical honesty and have their plot work.
So I’m kind of watching Elnor to see. They’ve had a really good conflict so far where he had to pretend to be somebody else. He was even in a costume. And he was like, “Well, I won’t lie.” And then they’re like, “Okay, well you better not say anything.” And his conflict was just to stay quiet during this entire deceptive exchange.
Wes: Chidi is another character that enforces a self code of not lying from The Good Place. And I think he’s a good example of it done very well because there are situations, minor spoilers, where they go to the actual Bad Place where he is told that he has to lie, he has to pretend to be a Bad Place employee, and he still doesn’t want to do it even in that situation. And I don’t know, I mean it’s a comedy, and there’s certainly good opportunities there, but the radical honesty character as playing into this anti-lying magic situation is a fun one, I guess. Chris, you’re right, you’re right. You don’t see it that often.
Chris: Well, I think the nice thing about Chidi is that he actually can lie if the plot really requires him to.
Wes: And it’s very clear how uncomfortable it makes him.
Chris: Right, he’s got the whole stomach ache, facial expression on. So we can see that there’s a consequence which will make it so he resists doing it in the future, but we can break it if we need to. Whereas a lot of time when you have characters like Elnor who’ve taken a sacred oath, it would just feel a little bit weird. Where we can imagine Chidi doing it under pressure, it’s harder to imagine Elnor lying under pressure.
Oren: Although here’s the thing. I would say that Chidi and Elnor are reasonably similar. They have different justifications, but in terms of the entire dynamics of the story, they’re sort of the same in that they personally won’t lie. But the only guarantee everyone else has that they don’t lie is that they say they won’t lie. That’s just, that’s way less disruptive. Also, Elnor is both doesn’t lie and also socially unaware. So that’s a very different kind of character type to a Chidi. Chidi doesn’t lie, but Chidi is also polite. Whereas Elnor is the kind of character [who] walks up to you and is like, “Hello, your nose is hideous. I don’t lie. Radical honesty.” Whereas Chidi doesn’t do that. He just doesn’t lie. And so those are two different kinds of characters, but they are much less disruptive to the setting in which they live because they could lie under the right circumstances and other people can’t have any guarantee that they aren’t.
Wes: Well, that’s what you’re really getting at in this situation where there’s magic at play or something. Chidi and Elnor have still retained their agency, and there’s nothing else kind of affecting that. But in stories where it’s a cheat, it robs them of who they are if somebody can just be found out or not have any choice in the matter.
Oren: Quick thing I should’ve mentioned. I realized we were talking about Chidi and Elnor, which sounds a lot like Eleanor, who was a character on The Good Place. But we were actually talking about Chidi from The Good Place and Elnor, the character from Star Trek Picard.
Eleanor from The Good Place lies constantly at all times. She’s still very rude though, it should be pointed out. She will still tell you your nose is hideous.
Wes: Oren, in Wheel of Time, do they ever bring up lies of omission?
Oren: Yeah. They don’t consider that a lie.
Wes: Like Zone of Truth (and all these other magic ways to stop people from lying) assumes that the person under the influence of the serum or the spell will talk. That has always bothered me, that they’re not only forcing them to tell the truth, but they’re also forcing them to talk.
Oren: So it gets weird here. Okay, so my understanding, and it’s been a while since I’ve read the Zone of Truth spell, I’ll call it up now while I’m talking, but my understanding is that the Zone of Truth spell doesn’t force you to answer. It just forces you to answer honestly if you talk. That’s how the Aes Sedai thing works. That’s typically how magic works. I’ve noticed that drug truth serums (which again, are not a real thing, but in fantasy they are or in sci-fi), those tend to be more along the lines of forcing you to answer. That can create some problems there. There’s a really good article that I’ll link to about the problems with Zone of Truth and how it basically incentivizes players to torture people, which is a thing that people do sometimes on purpose. Zone of Truth is an accident. It’s not supposed to work like that. But once you create a scenario where people can’t lie, then you can inflict pain on them until they tell you what you want to know. And the normal rules for why torture doesn’t work don’t apply anymore.
But I’ve also seen storytellers do that on purpose. Where they’re like, “Hey, my character in Daredevil does this. Daredevil can tell if you’re lying so he’s gonna beat on you until you give him the answer.” And it works for Daredevil, and that’s their internal justification. And my strong advice is don’t do that for all the reasons we talked about before. It’s actually both because Daredevil’s way of detecting lies is inaccurate and highly problematic. You’re almost certainly going to regret giving your character that ability at some point. But also because frankly a lot of people aren’t going to see that distinction. They’re just going to see a character getting tortured and they’re going to see the torture working and then they’re going to think torture works. And there’s a whole John Oliver segment about this, about how people think torture works and so they support torture when they shouldn’t. And just to be clear, torture would be bad even if it did work, but it doesn’t.
Chris: That’s almost why I think it’s better if you are going to do some sort of truth spell or effect for it to make the character talk. Cause then at least there’s nobody going to Torture Town. ‘Cause there’s no reason to because the character will talk. Granted, I think a lot of this is writers in the moment just want to give their characters information. That’s what they’re thinking about “How does my character get this information?” A lot of times, of course, they also want to be edgy, which is too bad. And so they resort to anti-lying powers and torture and things like that in order to just have their character be able to capture an antagonist, get information from them, and then move on to the next step. And there’s other ways to give your protagonist information. Search their person, take a phone out of their pocket, and then look inside their phone for instance, find clues. I have a blog post that’s just a list of ways for your character to get information and to get the clues that they need for your plot to move forward.
Wes: What’s also great about that is those clues serve as evidence. [laughter] You’re not just extracting a confession out of somebody through dubious means, but you’re actually building your case, which is great for mystery stories and things like that.
Chris: Depending on what type of story you have, there’s a whole other issue with if your main character is a cop and what appropriate cop behavior should and shouldn’t be. Where breaking and entering and grabbing clues is a typical thing for a protagonist to do, but cops are supposed to have warrants for that. I think that’s a little bit beyond my area of expertise, but that’s just another thing to keep in mind. But oftentimes the protagonists are not actually in an official position of authority and there’s a masquerade and so they’re trying to find out about the magical bad guy and there’s no authorities to help them and yada yada.
Oren: Another one that’s weird is if you really start drilling down on the whole concept of magical lie detection, you start to get into some bizarre situations where it’s not even really clear what a lie is. For example, if we go back to the Wheel of Time scenario, and let’s say the Aes Sedai decided to do what I suggested and bring in every Aes Sedai one at a time, have them re-swear the no-lying oath just in case they had it taken off earlier, and then ask them, “are you Black Ajah?” Are they lying if they say no because they don’t call it the Black Ajah? They call it the Zafran Booty Box. That’s what they call it. And then they’re like, “well, you didn’t ask me if I was in the Zafran Booty Box so I wasn’t lying.” Is that a lie? And how quickly can they change the name? If they find out you’re doing this, can they quickly put out a memo and be like, “Hey guys, we don’t call it the Black Ajah anymore. Now it’s the Zafran Booty Box, and they will never think to ask us that.”
Wes: This sounds like a semantics argument on Twitter. [laughter]
Oren: Yeah and that’s a weird question that doesn’t really have a good answer. And honestly, why would you put yourself in the position of needing to decide that?
Wes: But yeah, you bring up a good point. And that’s a lot of storytellers who employ this, I think, view truth as it is objective. The spell works because truth is objective and the person under the influence of the spell knows the objective truth, not their subjective reality and their interpretation of events. That’s a pretty big conceit to just put into your story, isn’t it?
Oren: I would argue that there is an objective truth. The question is: does your spell know what it is? Because for example, if in that scenario the answer to, “Are you part of the Black Ajah?” is yes, everyone there would agree to that in a vacuum with no other concerns. The issue is, Can you trick the spell by changing the name? You haven’t actually changed the truth. Have you tricked the spell’s programming is the real question.
Chris: Basically, is the spell dependent on the beliefs of the person saying it or does it just have all knowledge of the universe? Because if that person is wrong…
Oren: I do think it’s a different situation. It’s not even a question of, Does it have knowledge of the universe? This is still based on the knowledge that the people have. Most magic spell/truths assume that the spell only cares about what the person knows. But again, in this case, if you ask me, “Are you a writer for Mythcreants?” and I had just secretly two minutes ago in our financial documents changed the name from Mythcreants to Zafran Booty Box, and I said, “No, I am not a writer for Mythcreants,” I would be lying in that I know that, yes, I’m still a writer for Mythcreants, I know that name change isn’t real. It’s just something that I did because I wanted to play a semantic trick. And you would agree that if you knew everything that was going on, that saying that I’m still a writer for Mythcreants. So the question at this point is not, Does the spell have knowledge of the universe? The question is, Does the spell understand that you’re lying or have you tricked it with your little verbal semantics game?
Chris: So what you’re talking about is the distinction between technically correct and correct is often what we call that, right? Whether the semantics matter. But there’s also the difference of does the anti-lying magic based on a person saying what they believe to be true versus what if they’re wrong. Most anti-lying magic usually is themed to be based on what somebody believes to be true. But if we’re going to get into “how does a spell have knowledge of objective truth,” we could potentially have a spell where you can’t say things that aren’t true, even if you believe them.
For instance, in some of the Xanth books actually, there is a spell that’s supposed to make somebody say what their magic is even if they don’t know. That magical appears. So technically we could have a spell that enforces objective fact, regardless of what the person’s saying it believes.
Oren: I mean, there’s no reason you can’t do that.
Chris: You shouldn’t. You shouldn’t. I mean, that’s like having an omniscient character in your story.
Oren: This actually comes back to another point that I was making, which is that when you’re talking about introducing speculative elements to your story, be it magic or technology, you can justify most things. The question is, Should you? You can create a world where the only way to do magic is to punch yourself in the genitals.
That would explain why people are constantly punching themselves in the genitals. But you probably shouldn’t. That’s not a good idea. And it’s the same thing with magic lie detection making torture work. Yes, you can make that a thing in your setting if you want and have it be logically consistent. It’s still a bad idea though.
In Lord of the Rings, you’ve got those weird square-shaped mountains around Mordor, and a lot of people say, “Oh, well those mountains are artificial. They were made by the Lord of the Rings angels. That’s why they looked like that.” And I’m like, okay, that’s technically plausible, but it’s still a bad idea.
If I was in Avatar, I could have the earthbenders run around drawing dicks on the map, and I could say, “Yes, see, an earthbender did it. That makes perfect sense in character.” And yeah, it does, but you still shouldn’t do that. It’s still a bad idea.
Chris: If you can at all avoid having any kind of anti-lying magic or powers in your story, that’s the best. But let’s say for a second that somebody already has established it in their story, they’re writing a sequel, or otherwise, they are wedded to this idea and talk about what we can do to mitigate this so it’s at least less of a problem, even if it’s still present.
Oren: [sarcastic] I don’t know man, I think you’re just doomed.
Wes: Very helpful advice.
Chris: For instance, in one of your articles, Oren, you previously talked about Troi? One of the problems with Troi, the fact that her powers are passive, where she doesn’t have to do anything, she just receives mental information from everybody around her. Whereas if she had to actively look in somebody’s head in order to see if they were lying or not, then she just wouldn’t be doing it all the time. And even better, she could consider it a violation of their right to privacy because it would be, and then only do it in extreme circumstances. What that allows is for antagonists that you have no reason to suspect or no strong evidence, if it’s in violation of a right to privacy to suspect, be able to lie with no issue. But if you really want to get…you have a captured antagonist that is obviously gonna commit genocide or something, she can take that extreme step of reading their mind.
Oren: Yeah. Honestly, I much prefer the idea of Betazoids and other psychics in general having to concentrate on you to read your mind because the idea that they are constantly listening to all thoughts around them and they can’t turn it off is actually kind of upsetting. It both makes me not ever want to be around them and also makes me feel very sorry for them. It’s like people have weird random thoughts that are very involuntary and that’s just sounds unpleasant.
Chris: Harry Potter does a pretty good job with veritaserum and making it. It’s very hard to produce. It’s in limited supply. JK Rowling establishes pretty well that often potions take several months to make. I think she uses it on one antagonist, but it’s also used as a threat to Harry. What if Snape, of course because Snape is the worst, accidentally slips over his pumpkin juice and threatens him with it, basically, which is awful because Snape is awful. She uses it to increase tension too, and then conveniently it runs out. They can’t just go get more. Now that does break down in a big world after a while. It’s like, “What if it’s really important to get this information? Somebody has got to have some of it somewhere, right? If we have the money.” It’s not perfect.
Oren: But first, you could brew up some liquid luck and then use the liquid luck to brew up more liquid luck and then use a little bit of the extra liquid luck to brew up some of the truth potion. And basically it’s just an infinite liquid luck cycle.
Chris: Yeah, the liquid luck was too far, should not have done the liquid luck.
In cases where we had, you’ve already established lie detection via heart rate, showing that it’s fallible is definitely better than nothing.
Oren: Fallible, having it require some fairly onerous conditions in order to use. The Vulcan mind meld isn’t as bad because not only do they have to physically touch you, but they have to say this long “my mind to your mind” thing, which it’s pretty easy to create scenarios where that can’t happen.
Chris: I also have to say with the heart rate, you’d think somebody’s heart rate would go up if they’re in pain, people are scared, or excited for whatever reason, and so you can eliminate torture as a good way to detect lies if you’re using heart rate because if you torture them, their heart rate will probably already go up. You use that to ask them questions in a very calm environment where they’re relaxed and not in pain.
Oren: That guy seemed cool as a cucumber, but his heart rate went up when I asked him this question so that might be worth looking into, right? As opposed to, well now we know he’s lying.
Wes: That’s probably a key element. Having just something cast suspicion is better than just saying “we know.”
“Oh, that was odd behavior, not what I noticed that person doing before.” And that’s better than just saying like, “I know.” There’s no intrigue there.
Chris: Yeah, I mean if you really do have a point of view character that can detect heart rate, then that would be something that would flavor the narration a lot in a lot of social interactions.
“Oh, the character’s heart rate just went up. What does that mean? Were they worried about something? Did I say something wrong?”
Oren: What is your heart rate detection range? ‘Cause you could be a mobile heart attack warning system if you get a lot of those around. Can we mass produce this system? And whenever anyone’s heart rate starts to have a problem, we’re like, “Aha! Get that person some help right away!”
Wes: Daredevil, he’s hearing it right? Or is it he’s sensing the vibrations of their hearts?
Chris: He must be hearing it. Pretty sure he has super hearing, doesn’t he?
Wes: He’s different. All of his senses are heightened to where he’s just super.
Chris: The other thing I have to ask is, How fast is this change? I can sometimes, if I’m really close to somebody, have my ear on their shoulder or whatever, hear their heart rate. But I’m not constantly monitoring how fast their heart was, measuring how excited they are. So is this a really noticeable jump that somebody would actually notice?
Oren: That I don’t know. We are going to have to save that question for another time because we are out of time on this episode, so I’m gonna have to call everything to a close. Those of you at home, if anything we said peaked your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com.
But before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week.
Mythcreants relies on the support of readers like you. Help us create quality content by becoming a patron today.