Fool them all

From Kill Zone Blog, this entertainingly titled post: Tips to Deceive Characters and Readers

Sometimes you certainly DO want to get to a particular moment and Surprise! it’s not the moment people thought it was going to be. No doubt you more often want to surprise your readers rather than your characters. Or at least, you may want these two groups to be surprised about different things at different moments.

So, sure, sometimes you want to nudge people — let’s say, readers — into expecting one outcome when all the time you plan to deliver a different outcome. You want plot twists, in other words. Is that what this post is about? Let’s see …

Not quite! Or not exactly.

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.

What a great movie that is! Plays completely fair, but the twist was a complete surprise to me. I immediately wanted to watch it again and see how the scriptwriter built in this deception. This is the kind of deception that comes from an unreliable narrator. That’s one focus of the linked post, though not the only one.

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. 

I would say that really, while we may expect honesty, we don’t necessarily expect reliability. I mean, all first-person and close-third-person protagonists are at least somewhat unreliable. Their expectations, desires, and biases cause them to interpret events in certain ways. Sometimes they’re obviously unreliable about everything; at other times, they’re providing a unique point of view that is fundamentally honest, but not entirely accurate.

This post is from Kill Zone Blog, which is basically focused on mysteries and thrillers, so we also get the kind of deception common in books like that:

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.

That’s certainly a staple of detective fiction. Even more common: everyone lies to protect themselves or other people. This reminds me of the TV show “House.” Isn’t “everybody lies” a mantra of House’s on that show? I seem to remember that.

But in addition to misdirecting the reader via an unreliable narrator or character telling little white lies to the police detective, here’s a way to potentially mislead the reader that I hadn’t thought of:

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
  • Heatwaves
  • 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.

I never thought of this! I guess it’s true? True-ish? Although, I mean, sometimes heatwaves just mean that it’s hot. All you want to do is establish the setting in the reader’s mind and it’s hot, so heatwaves. When I send characters into the land of two Suns in Tasmakat, there may well be mirages. I mean, it’s a desert. Mirages kind of go with the territory. So, if the setting reasonably includes heatwaves or mirages, does that count as “symbols of danger”? I would say some of these are actually symbols of confusion if they’re symbols at all — mirages, fog. But of course confusion can be dangerous and probably always increases tension. I guess I’m willing to agree that if the author includes a mirage, the reader is going to anticipate potential confusion and danger.

Does a sunrise symbolize joy? Maybe it does, even if all the author is thinking is that it’s about time for morning to arrive so the character can get moving. The author could just type, “As soon as the sun was up over the horizon, he got back on the road.” There you go, sunrise without a bit of symbolism or any mood being evoked or anything like that. Maybe if you take the time to write a paragraph about the luminous sky and the streaks of gold and pink clouds and so on, you do mean to evoke a mood. Not necessarily joy. I would say, hope, peace, or a new beginning.

It never occurred to me to use visual description to reinforce deception, though. That’s a new idea for me. Maybe next time I see fog in a story, I’ll wonder about this.

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8 thoughts on “Fool them all”

  1. I agree shimmering can go either way. Combined with the sound of bees, you get one feeling. With the sound of flies, you get another.

  2. I know, right? “Steady hum” and “incessant buzz” are synonyms. Kind of.

  3. Of course, with description, you have to deal with what the character would notice. The city girl sees only desolation where the country girl sees a verdant grassland filled with life and flowers and birds, and their escort sees a place where ambush is impossible but the only options are flight or fight.

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