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.
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.
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:
- Heat waves
- Venomous snakes
- Poisonous plants
Symbols of triumph and joy:
- Breathtaking sunrise
- Four-leaf clover
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.