How can you tell if your favourite character is, in fact, a manipulative bastard?
This character, for me, will forever be judged against the standards of Shakespeare’s Iago. Has your character manipulated his friend into a bar brawl so he gets demoted? Convinced his wife to steal a handkerchief he later plants on said friend to implicate him in a torrid affair with his command’s wife? Also the commander will fall in to a jelous rage and kill his wife, causing him to go insane with grief and kill himself? No? Well, then he’s simply not trying hard enough.
If you’re not into Shakespeare, no worries, I’ve got you covered. See if you recognise any of these master manipulators:
- Raymond Reddington, Blacklist
- Keyser Söze, Unusual Suspects
- Francis Urquhart, House of Cards by Michael Dobbs (and subsequent BBC and Netflix adaptations)
- Hannibal, Hannibal
- Stephen Norton, Curtain by Agatha Christie
- Loki, Marvel (in every movie or comic he gets anywhere near)
- The Joker, DC (again, see above)
- Mr Wednesday, American Gods by Neil Gaiman
- Negan, The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman
- Reacher Gilt, Going Postal by Terry Pratchett.
- President Coriolanus Snow, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon by Raymond Chandler
- Eve Harrington, All About Eve
- Rachel, My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
Now, I don’t want to make any assumptions about you, but I’d be surprised if somewhere on that list, or in your own mind, there isn’t a master manipulator you don’t secretly love. These are the guys you love to hate. Or hate to love. Or love to love, or hate to hate. There’s really no black and white with these guys.
For me, I am eternally enthralled by the manipulative bad guy. And they’re not always an antagonist, as a manipulative villain protagonist can be just as exciting. These characters are plot drivers and force events to go there way, so they are forces of influence in any story. Whether it is felt by the hero, or in the background, they are forever pushing things their way and that’s what makes them exciting. Because a good manipulator can be an almost impossible force to bring down.
Which is why, for shame on you Shakespeare, he had to resort to the whole convenient ‘discovering the handkerchief on Iago’s person’. Something you feel certain Iago would never have done.
But how do these characters work? Here are a few pointers if any of you harbour ambitions of dastardly deeds.
Hiding in plain sight. If you want to be a convincing mastermind, the first thing you’re going to have to do is learn how to hide in plain sight. Maybe become a respected politician who’s a good honest chap, like Francis Urquhart. Have some apparent disability which will make everyone around you think less of you, like Keyser Söze.
Be the biggest guy in the room. If hiding in the corner and pretending you’re not a bad guy isn’t your style, here’s your alternative. Some manipulative bastards build themselves up until they’re virtually untouchable. They almost parade their falsity, like Reacher Gilt or Raymond Reddington – men who become almost a recontour of crime and you know they’re hiding much behind the smile and eloquent verboseness.
Be a man/woman of the world. It’s rare that children are cast as manipulators and when they are, it’s usually in a paranormal aspect, like the creepy Damien from The Omen. Manipulators are usually older and more experienced, you get the sense they’ve been everywhere and seen everything. And they usually use this experience against the younger and more naive, like Rachel and Philip (if you believe she’s guilty, which is arguable…)
Plain speaking. The pageantry is all well and good when you’re trying to impress your worldliness, but convincing the mark is another matter. We pride ourselves on being able to spot a con artist. So any manipulator who’s trying to seal the deal gets very good at being an honest, direct and plain speaking individual, naturally. And yet, like the small print on the end of a contract, the best plain speakers speak in nothing but double meanings. The kind of speech you wholeheartedly agree to until they leave the room and you realise you’ve just been sold life insurance.
Keep them guessing. Is Raymond Reddington a raging sociopath out for himself, or is he a secret hero bringing down bad guys? Is Rachel a murderer out for all the money she can get, or a troubled woman who sincerely cares for Philip? Is Loki really the evil, twisted god of lies who is out for nothing but power, or just really sexy and misunderstood? These characters can slaughter their way through a village, give you a rakish smile and clever quip, and you’ve already forgotten the dozen fictional, off-screen orphans they’ve just created. They keep you guessing and have you spend hours mulling over their motivations. Shakespearan scholars spend countless pages wondering whether or not Iago’s crimes were really unjustified.
Even when you’re writing this character, even when you have a window into their psychotic soul and even as you write every line of their dialogue and action knowing they’re a humongous lying cheat, you can’t help but love them. There’s something about a character who can’t be defined or controlled, like a tiger out of its cage. Beautiful and deadly. And the character readers are guaranteed to remember.