A character who is a truth teller can be your best friend as a fiction writer. This type of character creates genuine conflict and makes it easier to reveal exposition in a quick, natural way.
But first, what is a truth teller?
You probably know a truth teller, or maybe you are one. That's the person who, whether you ask or not, will tell you when a color looks bad on you or your boss's critique of your skills is spot on or your novel drags in the middle.
The truth teller isn't trying to make you feel bad. They're giving honest feedback, at least from their perspective, because they believe that honesty is the best policy. Plus, the feedback might help you.
If you need straightforward, unfiltered information to improve your life, a truth teller is the one to ask.
Cordelia in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a truth teller. Admonished for being tactless, Cordelia responds: “Tact is just not saying true things.”
Elizabeth Bennet, protagonist of Pride and Prejudice, is also a truth teller, a characteristic she learns to temper a bit during the course of the novel. But early on, and sometimes without knowing all the facts, she freely tells other characters when she thinks their choices, life philosophies, and behavior are in error.
Genuine Conflict Among Friends
Genuine conflict arises out of differences between characters that can't easily be solved. In contrast, false conflict exists where two characters could simply speak to one another and clear up the misunderstanding between them.
Unless you weave in very strong reasons why those two characters don't talk, false conflict frustrates readers. They can tell when you artificially create conflict by having characters hold back things they normally would share.
Genuine conflict is fairly easy to create between a protagonist and antagonist, as those two characters should have contrary goals. But creating conflict between your protagonist and their friends or allies is also key to keeping a plot or subplot engaging. That's a little harder to do because they're all on the same side.
That's where your truth teller comes in.
Sometimes, though it's not their goal, truth tellers hurt other people's feelings. Your protagonist may not want to hear about their missteps or flaws just now, which can lead to an angry response. Also, like anyone else, truth tellers can be wrong. In which case their tendency to speak without thought can cause a lot of harm if the listener doesn't remember that it's one person's view, not gospel truth.
Further, most people engage in denial at times or put off dealing with issues or habits that cause them trouble. The truth teller, though, won't have it. They'll call your hero on attempts to avoid, delay, or deny, forcing issues out into the open.
Finally, because they're not spending energy sorting out how to say something diplomatically or on whether something ought to be said at all, the truth teller often spots trouble and gets to the heart of it quickly. This is fantastic if you've got other characters who tend to miss warning signs, overthink, or hesitate to act.
The truth teller pushes them, and the story conflict, forward.
Because the truth teller forces issues and speaks without a filter, this character can bring out exposition in a natural way.
In real life, most people don't repeat background the other person they're talking to already knows. For example, I wouldn't say to a friend, “The other day I saw your ex-husband, John, who drove you into bankruptcy and gave signs even when you were first dating that he was terrible with money but you ignored them.”
Not only would my friend already know the history, she probably wouldn't appreciate what sounds like a criticism for not heeding early warning signs.
That's why a character who makes that kind of statement sounds clunky and forced.
A truth teller character, though, might very well say something like: “Hey, I ran into John. Too bad you ignored all those early warning signs and let him drive you into bankruptcy before you divorced him. But at least he seems pretty unhappy, too.”
Now you've shared back story with your reader through a character who has a tendency to point out flaws or mistakes, so it's believable. You've also started a potential conflict. John's ex will likely react defensively, maybe by explaining why they didn't see those early signs. Now you've revealed exposition in a way that's always interesting — through conflict.
I hope that's helpful!
L. M. Lilly
P.S. If you're looking for more on characterization, you might find my book Creating Compelling Characters From The Inside Out helpful. Available in ebook and print formats here.