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?
The 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:
- Suspicious or unlikable characters who turn out to be good, or at least not murderers, as the case may be.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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?