Tips to Deceive Characters and Readers

Fictional truth is never quite as clear as it seems on the surface. Deceptiveness boils down to manipulation, disguise, and misdirection. The writer can deceive characters and readers in numerous ways.

A villain might murder another character, then lie to avoid detection. This leads to more lies, more misdirection, and deepening deceptions, creating tension and conflict.

What if the main character lies to themselves about who they are or their current circumstances? Because the truth may be too difficult to accept, the charade continues. One of the most widely known examples is The Sixth Sense.

*Spoiler Alert*

Dr. Malcom Crowe, played by Bruce Willis, could not accept the fact that he died from a fatal gunshot wound. He was an unreliable character from the start of the movie, but viewers didn’t know it. Because he couldn’t accept his fate, he fooled himself into believing he survived. Thus, we believed. In hindsight, we can see where the writer dropped clues. At the time, though, most viewers didn’t catch any hints the first time they watched the movie.

Creating an unreliable narrator takes a skilled hand.

Fail, and the reader feels tricked. Succeed, and reap the rewards.

The one advantage we have is that trust is often automatic. Because narrators act as our guide, deception isn’t something readers expect. Trust is woven into the fabric of our lives. Thus, we often take it for granted.

  • When we slip behind the steering wheel or into the passenger seat, we trust the wheels will stay bolted to the car.
  • When we eat at a restaurant, we trust we won’t get food poisoning.
  • When we crawl under the covers at night, we trust the legs won’t snap off the bed.

This presumed trust is why and how authors can manipulate readers. It’s reasonable to presume we can trust the main character. And so, we do. Should we, though? No narrator is 100% reliable. Stories that force us to question our own perception are often compelling page-turners, unputdownable, and unforgettable.

Deception can occur anywhere.

We tend to first think of antagonists who are manipulative and deceptive, but heroes can deceive, too. In fact, even secondary characters are capable of deception.

What if a main character lies to protect a child?

What if a foil thrives on deceit? Or it only appears like they thrive on chaos when in truth, they’re hiding a secret? The higher the stakes, the more they’ll lie to protect it.

What if a character believes they’re right? They genuinely want to help and don’t mean to misdirect the detective. I’m talkin’ about eyewitnesses to a crime.

Think about this…

We each view the world through a filter of our past experiences, emotional baggage, scars we carry, profession—past or present—worldview, religion, politics, the list goes on and on.

For example:

When I look at an old mighty oak tree, I see a living, breathing being who’s survived for decades, maybe even hundreds of years, and has provided housing and comfort to thousands of animals. And I think, Imagine the stories it can tell.

Someone else might only see firewood.

Neither view is wrong. We’re admiring the tree through different lenses.

Psychologists refer to this as the Rashomon effect, also known as the Kurosawa effect.

This refers to a phenomenon wherein the same event is interpreted in vastly different ways by different people. The Rashomon effect is named after the popular 1950 Akira Kurosawa movie Rashomon in which a murder is described in four different ways by four different witnesses of the same crime. It is often used to emphasize the point that people’s perceptions about an event can differ considerably based on their individual personal experiences.

Thus, it is entirely possible that an event may be described in different ways by different people without any of the witnesses consciously lying.

The same holds true for our characters. And that’s where the fine art of deception comes into play. If we stay true to our character, deception could be automatic. The reader might not catch on right away, but once the truth unravels it’ll make perfect sense. Why? Because they’ve come to know how the character views the world.

Another way to show a character disguising their actions, emotions, or a secret, is through subtle clues.

Subtle clues of how characters behave can tell the reader a lot about them. Imagine people in real life when they’re not being completely honest. How they act and react say a lot about who they are. Characteristics can also show the reader a character might be deceptive—things like suspicious behavior, not wishing to engage with others, indecisiveness, or apprehension.

Dialogue is another way for writers to manipulate the reader. What characters say—and don’t say—can show a character acting evasive or blatantly lying. Tone of voice also disguises the truth, as does ambiguity.

Symbolism and atmosphere can reinforce a specific message, feeling, or idea. If you look at the setting and the character’s state of mind, think about what you want the reader to see. Is there a symbol or setting that might help foreshadow the truth or reinforce the deception?

For example, the following foreshadows danger:

  • Mirages
  • Heat waves
  • Venomous snakes
  • Fog
  • Poisonous plants

Symbols of triumph and joy:

  • Breathtaking sunrise
  • Rainbow
  • Four-leaf clover
  • Butterfly
  • Cardinal

Both these lists are so common they’ve become cliche, but we can use that to our advantage. What if you took a symbol that commonly brings joy and flipped the script? Now, the reader will no longer be able to trust their own instincts. You’re toying with their perception. Thus, able to deceive.

These are just a few ways to create deception. The possibilities are endless.

What are some ways you’ve deceived a character and/or the reader? Or name a favorite author/novel that hoodwinked you.

This entry was posted in #amwriting, #writetip, #writetips, #WritingCommunity, unreliable narrators and tagged , , , , , , , by Sue Coletta. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and Expertido.org named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net.” She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers") and Writers Helping Writers. Sue lives with her husband in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire and writes two psychological thriller series, Mayhem Series and Grafton County Series (Tirgearr Publishing) and is the true crime/narrative nonfiction author of PRETTY EVIL NEW ENGLAND: True Stories of Violent Vixens and Murderous Matriarchs (Rowman & Littlefield Group). Currently on submission, her latest true crime project revolves around a grisly local homicide. For the spring 2022 semester, Sue will be teaching a virtual course about serial killers at EdAdvance in CT and a condensed version for the Central Virginia Chapter and National Sisters In Crime. Equally fun was when she appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series, Storm of Suspicion. Learn more about Sue and her books at https://suecoletta.com

37 thoughts on “Tips to Deceive Characters and Readers

  1. In Tenirax, when he sees Paloma beneath the willow tree, she is weeping. He comes to believe she is sad because her father has disappeared, which is true, but that’s not quite what is happening.

    He, himself, is no stranger to deception, planning to fool the Bishop with a counterfeit relic of a saint he has invented. From his first glimpse of the library to the ghost therein, to the cipher concealed in the Blue Book, trickery is afoot.

  2. Thanks, Sue. This is terrific. I might note that I have reached the age at which when I crawl under the covers at night I trust I will wake up in the morning.

    My favorite author who has hoodwinked me? Jeffery Deaver. No one else even comes close.

    Have a great week, Sue, and a terrific Fourth of July!

  3. Great tips. When you’re reading another author’s work and they’ve nailed it, writing deception looks so easy! 😎 But it can be tricky to write–especially, as you said, to avoid the cliche and flip it around to deceive the reader. But it’s fun to practice & explore.

  4. Great post! I think this sort of deception is what many of us look for in fiction, especially in mysteries. The worst, of course, is when you see the twist coming miles ahead.

    • Thanks, Philip! Yes, I agree. If I see the twist coming, then I’m only reading to see if I’m right rather than enjoying the story.

  5. Terrific post, Sue.

    As a beginner with this whole concept, I would mention that an antagonist in full view, actively “helping” the protagonist with kindness and advice, can deceive the reader and characters, at least until the clues start stacking up. In my second fantasy novel, the antagonist is “Scrubber,” literally scrubbing and cleaning the code ( a giant DNA molecule), as she sweetly and emotionally misguides the young team of detectives.

    Thanks for all the tips on deception. Have a great week!

    • Perfect, Steve. Having the antagonist in plain sight, disguised as a helper, is effective.

      You’re welcome! I’m so glad you found the post useful. Enjoy your week, my friend. 🙂

  6. Fantastic post, Sue. This is a gold mine on deception in fiction, which is a favorite of mine. It’s pretty essential to mystery fiction, and the reader is a willing and trusting participant.

    Mystery has been likened to a magic trick and I’ve found that very true once I began studying in earnest the craft of writing one. The difference of course is that, as in The Sixth Sensethe clues have to be there for the reader to pick up on, or, perhaps more accurately, to plant in the reader’s subconscious so that as the story builds, so does the reader’s suspicion. “Suspicion fiction” could be another name for the genre, but I really prefer mystery 🙂

    As for deception in my own fiction, there’s a fair amount, though not the unreliable narrator variety. I can’t talk about the one in A Shush Before Dying but will briefly mention a couple from my Empowered series.

    Mat begins the series believing her mother died when she was young and discovers in the fourth novel, Empowered: Rebel that that’s a lie. The same novel has a character who is believed dead resurface possessing a superpower believed not to exist, shapeshifting, which greatly aids him in deceiving my hero Mathilda and the reader.

    BTW, the hero or villain who is thought killed in a huge explosion/avalanche/car crash, building collapse etc (“no one could have survived that”) is another way to set up the reader’s subconscious for a later reveal, while deceiving them and the characters in the story. Tricky to pull off these days, but I couldn’t resist doing it, more than once in my series.

    Have a great Monday!

    • Yes, I agree, Dale. When writing a misdirect that’s been used before, we have to work doubly hard to pull it off…plant clues to give the reader a chance to crack the deception, and ensure it makes sense in hindsight. The only way to do it well is read and study how others pull it off and practice, practice, practice.

      Wishing you a great Monday!

  7. I love a good caper book/movie. Maybe I should not of seen “The Sting” at an early age. I have never tried writing misdirection but do love reading them. My favorite is Planet of the Apes. Not the movie, although Heston finding out where he has been is a classic, but the Pierre Boulle novel. Let’s just go with I did not see that coming.

  8. Presumed Innocent
    Gone Girl

    And just about every Twilight Zone episode. The best twist ever, I think most fans would agree, is “Eye of the Beholder.”

    • Yes to both novels, Jim! Excellent.

      Ooh, the Twilight Zone. Loved that show. Can’t recall “Eye of the Beholder” but I’ll look it up.

  9. Great post, Sue. A couple of examples come to mind: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie where the narrator has a filter all his own.

    Also, we saw a great movie years ago entitled He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not. It’s the story of a love affair gone wrong where the first half of the movie is told from the woman’s point of view, and the audience trusts her account. (Audrey Tautou is excellent in the role of the young woman. Who wouldn’t believe her?) But at the midpoint of the movie, the story “rewinds” and the second half is told from the man’s point of view. It’s a great lesson about the unreliable narrator.

    • Ah, perfect example, Kay! I’ll have to check out the movie. Excellent how the writer used the Midpoint (Shift) to turn the story on its head. Proper story structure makes all the difference. Thanks for mentioning that. I should’ve included it in the post.

    • For those of us who believe in the author being truthful, the only mitigating circumstances in ROGER ACKROYD is Christie’s distant viewpoint through the novel. If she’d gone deep viewpoint which wasn’t really a thing back then, she’d have been the biggest author liar in history.

  10. I like a “never saw that coming” read, but I don’t like it when the narrator is trying to fool me. I prefer it to be within the context of the story, where the narrators (and I’m a Deep POV person), are deceiving other characters for their own purposes, not for a “gotcha” trick by the author.

    • I’m a deep POV person, too, Terry. Since no POV character views the story world as another character would (same could be said of readers), I wouldn’t minimize deception as a “gotcha trick by the author.” If you’re referring to a classic unreliable narrator, like in Gone Girl, then I can understand why you don’t like them. Some readers do, some don’t.

      • One one of my infrequent scrolls through Facebook, I saw this topic appear. Synchronicity. Nobody responding in that thread (when I looked) liked unreliable narrators. Not sure they all had the same definition.

  11. Love this Sue, and good timing, as I’m noodling ideas for my next book.
    Interesting story. My sister and I grew up in our parent’s war zone – and we each sided with the other parent.
    We saw the same situation 180 degrees apart.

  12. Sue, great post! Really liked Sixth Sense and need to watch again to savor the planting of clues. The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents always had wonderful twists.

    My main character Tawny enters stories with preconceived notions that often turn out to be wrong. In Eyes in the Sky, her boss and new lover Tillman wants her to be involved with his three troubled teenage children and maneuvers her into meeting them. She is positive they must hate her for breaking up his marriage (although she didn’t). Naturally, her encounters with the kids are far different than she expected and lead to all kinds of trouble that drives the rest of the story.

    • Great example of how one character filters the situation differently than another, Debbie. I know, me too. After writing this post, I added the Sixth Sense to our watchlist. I bet it’ll be even better now, viewing the movie through writer eyes. Depending on how it goes, I may do a follow-up post. It’d be the perfect way to show all the ways the writers deceived us.

  13. I’ve always believed that viewpoint characters may lie to us or themselves, but authors never should lie to the audience. That’s cheating which is particularly bad in mysteries.

    In THE LAUGHING GOD’S KISS, I had two characters who were not who they said they were, but I didn’t want the audience to know this until the reveals. I also didn’t want to lie. For the leader of a secondary group of terrorists, I only used his title. For the man who paid the hero to murder the heroine, I had him lie about his identity in dialogue.

    The man called El Segundo sat cross-legged in his tent, a hand-drawn map of the Valeran mountains in the dirt in front of him. Dusk filtered through the tent fabric in dark pastels and colored the map death red. He could hear the movement of his men as they prepared their evening meal and the nicker of a horse. Smoke and the scent of slightly burnt meat wafted through the tent.

    In the far corner of the bar, another man sat with an untouched glass of beer in front of him. He wore a crisp white shirt and a tailored gray suit. His brown hair, shaved cheeks, and nails were as immaculate. He fit the room as well as a nun would a whorehouse parlor. “My name is Galen Glenn. I’m an ethnobotanist. I hunt plants native cultures use as medicines. I bring these plants back to the U.S., and my company examines them to see if they have any value as medicines for general use.”

    • Yes, I agree, Marilynn. If the author is using an omniscient or a distant POV, they should never lie to the reader. In deep POV, the author’s invisible. Thus, they can’t lie to the reader. 😉

      A character lying in dialogue works great. Btw, I love this line: Dusk filtered through the tent fabric in dark pastels and colored the map death red.

  14. Thanks. I disagree about not lying in deep viewpoint. The author shapes the narrative even when it’s in someone’s viewpoint. Sure, I chose not to say, “I’m really the hero’s brother, and me and my men are just pretending to be terrorists to catch the real terrorists,” but I didn’t lie and say he really was that terrorist.

  15. Great subject & post, Sue!
    I love surprises, and so unreliable narrators don’t bother me, but clumsy writers do. Write or direct it well, and I’ll happily read/watch it again and again for the thrill of the “Ah!” moment.
    I think my own work involves a mix of the Kurosawa effect and “unreliable narrator.” I use deep First Person POV, so it’s a bit easier to guide the reader in the direction of my MC’s feelings for another character. She cannot understand why all of her comrades find that particular character so untrustworthy. It’s as if they’re seeing a completely different person. And the reader, seeing this character solely through the eyes of the MC, doesn’t (or shouldn’t) understand either.
    Technically, clues are given, but very subtly, because I don’t want my readers to know the truth until the MC does!
    But after the scales fall from her eyes, so to speak, her friends’ misgivings ring terribly accurate. Of course, by then, it’s far too late.

  16. My sister thought all through the movie he was dead and when we walked out of the theater amazed that he’d been dead all along, she looked at me and said, “How did you not know? The kid said he talked to dead people.”

    I’ve always wanted to write a story like that…and Jeffery Deaver–yeah, he’s a master at deceiving!

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