The Subtle Knife: Writing Characters Readers Trust But Shouldn’t

I don’t know about you, but I love reading books where the author encourages me to draw conclusions that are wrong. Case in point–untrustworthy characters who I trust anyway. Like all writers, I am ultra aware of character cues and actions as I read, so when I’m led astray and find out someone I believed to be good really isn’t, I want to cheer and tell the author, “Well done!”

Tricking readers in this manner is difficult.

moodyIn real life, all of us are body language experts. At least 93% of communication is nonverbal, meaning we are very adept at ‘reading’ other people by their mannerisms, gestures, habits and voice changes. In books, this skill allows us to pick up on nonverbal cues which communicate a character’s emotions. Plus, if we are in the dishonest character’s POV, we also have access to their thoughts and internal visceral sensations (heartbeat changes, adrenaline shifts and other uncontrollable fight-or-flight responses). All of this means that tricking the reader can be very tough.

There are several ways to make the reader believe one thing while another thing is true.

One technique is the red herring. This is where a writer nudges a reader in one direction hard enough that their brain picks up on ‘planted’ clues meant to mislead them. So for example, let’s say I had a character who was a pastor and youth councilor for his church and he spent his weekends working with homeless teens, trying to get them back into group homes. The reader will begin to get a certain image in their mind.

If I then further describe him as slightly bald with a bad taste in fashion (imagine the kind of guy that wears those awful patterned sweater vests) but who has a smile for everyone he meets, it’s a good bet that I’ve disarmed the reader. They’ve written this character off as a nice, honest guy. Even though his life is all about the church, no way could he be the one stealing cash from the collection box, or the man having affairs with depressed women parishioners, or playing Dr. Death by administering heroin to street teens, right?

Another technique is pairing. Similar to a red herring, pairing is when we do two things at once to mask important clues. If, as an author, I show my friendly pastor leaving an alleyway at night and then have a car crash happen right in front of him, which event will the reader focus on? And if later, the police find another overdosed teen nearby as they interview the pastor about the accident, commending him from pulling a woman from the wreckage before the car could explode…would the reader put two and two together? If I did my job right, then no.

1NTA third technique is to disguise aspects of his “untrustworthy nature” using a Character Flaw. After all, no one is perfect. Readers expect characters to have flaws to make them realistic. If our nice pastor (am I going to go to Hell for making my serial killer a pastor?) is characterized as absent-minded with a habit of forgetting names, misplacing his keys, or starting service late and flustered because of a mishap, later when the police ask him when he last saw dead teen X and he can’t quite remember, readers aren’t alarmed. After all, that’s just part of who the character is, right?

When your goal is to trick your readers, SET UP is vital.

If the clues are not there all along, people will feel ripped off when you rip the curtain aside. Make sure to provide enough details that they are satisfied you pulled one over them fair and square!

What techniques do you use to show a character is untrustworthy? Any tips on balancing your clue-sprinkling so that the reader doesn’t pick up on your deceit before you’re ready for them to? Let me know in the comments! 

Image: lllblackhartlll @ Pixabay

About ANGELA ACKERMAN

Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Character Flaws, Character Traits, Characters, Experiments, Positive & Negative Thesaurus Guides, Subtext, Uncategorized, Villains, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.
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Gordie Eggleston
Gordie Eggleston
4 years ago

A method I have used to lure readers into believing something which is not true is by using the first-person, present-tense. The first person narrator does not KNOW the future (nor the motivations of other characters which will be revealed later in the story) yet he/she can say, with certainty, what is absolutely not true. Readers can become equally convinced of the narrator’s stated opinions about things he/she cannot know to be true when the narrator states them as fact.

First-person, present-tense narrators are almost always characters whom readers trust but shouldn’t (when they speak of things they cannot know or what is yet to occur in the story). Readers should take into account that a character telling the story as it unfolds is not omniscient, but how many readers take into account that the story they are reading is being told in the present-tense? Most readers assume the narrator knows everything about everything in the story. Authors should not make that mistake but use both the tense and reader assumptions to their advantage.

I only use first-person, present-tense narration when absolutely necessary (e.g. when the narrator’s misunderstanding or ignorance of what is going to happen in the world of the characters is integral to the story). I find it difficult to pull off present-tense storytelling without sounding clunky.

Hope this is relevant.
Keep writing! 🙂

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Jordan at Now Novel
4 years ago

Great post Angela, thanks for sharing. I also love books where the author (and narrator) hoodwink you into making false suppositions. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels come to mind.

Best,
Jordan

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Diane Rinella
4 years ago

Very strong article. Thanks for the great read.

Carol baldwin
Carol baldwin
4 years ago

Instructional post, thanks. I never heard of the pairing concept. Will have to consider it!

Cindy Patterson
4 years ago

This is good stuff! And I have to tell you, thank you so much for all your help. I come to your site every time I’m editing anything. 🙂

Traci Kenworth
4 years ago

This helps out with my wip, thanks!!

Celia Lewis
4 years ago

Louise Penny does that so well in her Inspector Gamache stories! I’ve been so shocked, I’ve read the story over again to try and see why I didn’t realize…
Very helpful tips here. Merci!

Angela D'Onofrio
4 years ago

I use a variation on pairing in one book: I set the main villain’s accomplice up to be the one chiefly responsible. By the time readers start to deduce that her strings are being pulled by somebody else… It’s too late, and they have no choice but to reach for the popcorn and hope the heroine makes it out alive.