On Deceptive Characters

Let’s talk about deceptive characters.

Maybe it’s just my impatience showing, but when I first start writing new characters, I’m tempted to have them act overly suspicious or overly good, depending on what their role is, right out of the gate. But where’s the fun in that?

deceptionThe best characters are ones we grow to care about throughout a story, those who show us their world in such a clear way we start thinking we know exactly who they are and how they’re going to behave. Then *bam* they surprise us!

Think **Spoiler alert** Snape from Harry Potter, or Dr. Sheppard from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, or Sienna Brooks from The Inferno.

The tricky part is that characters aren’t born into books this way. They must build up to this point—they must have an arc.

This is especially true for deceptive characters.

In writing deceptive characters, I always feel like I’m forcing myself to hold something back. Like the telling of a really great joke where you’re so excited you can hardly help but blurt out the punch line.

Now, in general, there are a couple types of deceptive characters in mysteries:

  1. Suspicious or unlikable characters who turn out to be good, or at least not murderers, as the case may be.
  2. Seemingly innocent or likable characters who truly shock us when they’re unveiled to be the baddie.

So what makes characters likable/unlikable? The best answer I’ve heard is to observe what makes you like or dislike someone in your own life. Or you could take notes during the next presidential debate.

Here are a few tricks I’ve found to be helpful in developing likable/unlikable characters:

  1. For unlikable characters, have them say or do something obnoxious like man-splain or cut someone off in rush hour, be mean to an animal or character who can’t defend themselves, have them be someone the MC or another reliable character has a problem with for a very valid reason (maybe a work-nemesis or ex-boyfriend), and/or give them an annoying habit.
  2. For likable characters, have them be caring (duh), have them stick up for an underdog or have a pet that thinks they’re swell (this is seriously a great—albeit cheap—way to make a character likable), give them witty dialogue, show that they have a good relationship with the MC or another likable character, and/or give them a tragic backstory that makes us empathize with them.

Readers, who are your favorite deceptive characters? Why did their true nature take you by surprise? Writers, do you have any tools you use to make characters likable/unlikable before the big reveal?

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Author: Kate Lansing

I write mysteries, YA novels, and short fiction. I also read A LOT, travel as much as possible, and take way too many pictures of my cat.

11 thoughts on “On Deceptive Characters”

  1. Great insights! Passive-aggressive characters really help the deception. You can make them turn out to be either the unlikeable white knight or the “a-ha, knew it all along” villain. The trick is how to make their deception/sneaky aggresion a purposeful plot element. Snape is probably the gold star of the technique and Alan Rickman played it so perfectly. RIP.

  2. Ooh, Carmen, great point!! Passive aggressive characters are wonderful for deception. It all comes down to who they’re especially aggressive toward and why. Snape is definitely the gold star (he’s probably one of my all-time fave characters), and *sniff* Alan Rickman…

  3. Great post! For likeable characters, I do everything you listed. All of it, for the protagonist. Some of it for others. For unlikeable characters, I make them selfish and deceitful.

  4. Really, I think Severus Snape was the pinnacle of a deceptive character for me. I wanted to like him, but I didn’t. He must be a bad guy, but is he? And the reveal was great. Tricks for writing them? I don’t know, really. You’ve got some good tips as does Carmen.

    And yes, Alan Rickman played Snape so perfectly. RIP.

  5. Wonderful tips! I am adding them to my trick bag. When I think of fascinatingly unlikable characters, the first one to pop to mind is Hannibal Lector.

  6. Another great post! I’m thinking we might need to start archive these posts somehow to make them more searchable. Like 3 times a week I plan on coming back to one of these posts. So many good ones!

  7. Keenan, glad to hear I’m not the only one who uses these tricks! 🙂 And making a character selfish is another great way to make them unlikable. Love it!

    Sue, Hannibal Lector is such a great example of an intriguing unlikable character… It was crazy how, even though he’s clearly a bad guy, I found myself wanting to like him. He had so much depth!

    Thanks, Sam! I second your archive idea! There are a lot of posts I want to circle back to in the future 🙂

  8. I just thought of another: Raymond “Red” Reddington from THE BLACKLIST. So clearly a bad guy. Or at least not an entirely good guy, one with someone murky morals at best. But holy cow, do I find him compelling.

  9. I write a lot in first person and it’s great to use those “first impression” type things. It sometimes turns my main character into an unreliable witness. Lots of deceptive possibilities there. Think how many times you’re wrong about someone, or how often they’re wrong about you!

  10. Red is a fantastic example, Mary! I’ve only seen the first season of Blacklist, but found him to be super compelling. He does good things, but his motivations are so murky…

    Becky, I write in first person too and definitely take advantage of the “first impression” thing. It’s great when the MC can make a snap judgement about someone and then be proven wrong in the future. Definitely true to life!

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