In childhood, stories are always about exactly what they appear: “See Spot. See Spot run.” But as we grow older and our life experiences deepen, so do our story experiences. What emerges is often a complex weave of subtext and misdirection. Life isn’t always as we perceive it on its surface—and even when it is, half the time, we miss what’s right in front of our noses anyway. Our stories should reflect that, and one of the best tools for achieving this effect is character misdirection.
What is character misdirection? Simply: this is when the protagonist (and the readers) believe another character fulfills one role when, in fact, he fulfills exactly the opposite. The great John Truby calls these characters “Fake-Opponent Allies” and “Fake-Ally Opponents.” I prefer simply “False Enemies” and “False Allies.”
In short, these are characters who are not what they seem. They provide rich opportunities for dichotomy, juxtaposition, insights into the protagonist, insights into the theme, plot revelations, and plot twists. They’re both incredibly useful and incredibly fun to work with.
The 4 Variations of Character Misdirection
Character misdirection can be broken down into four variations on the False Enemy/Ally.
1. The False Ally
This is a character who pretends to be on the protagonist’s side—when really, she’s not. Even as she seems to support the protagonist’s goals, she is privately working toward her own ends, which are in opposition to the protagonist’s.
- The False Ally might be a mole or a spy, planted in the hero’s camp by the main antagonist.
- The False Ally might be someone who despises the protagonist and his goals, but who feels the best way to undermine him is by masquerading under the guise of friendship.
- The False Ally might be someone who has no actual ill will for the protagonist, but whose goals are so diametrically opposed to the protagonist’s welfare that her well-meaning advice is incredibly misleading and destructive for the protagonist.
- The False Ally might be someone who truly believes himself to be aligned with the protagonist, before his own goals and desires pull him away.
The False Ally often aligns with Dramatica’s Contagonist archetype, which stands in opposition to the Mentor/Guardian, in that she appears to be on the protagonist’s side while subtly luring him away from his Truth—and his victory in the conflict.
2. The False Enemy
Just the opposite of the above, the False Enemy is a character who appears to be opposed to the protagonist, but is, in fact, on the protagonist’s side, in part or in whole. The protagonist doesn’t trust him, either because he suspects the character is an enemy or because the character has outright presented himself as such. But as the story progresses, the facts just don’t quite stack up, and it becomes clear the true obstacle is the protagonist’s distrust of this character standing in the way of their working together toward a common goal.
- The False Enemy might be a double agent, someone who appears to be working for the enemy, but is, in fact, in the employ of the good guys all along.
- The False Enemy might be someone who fulfills a stereotypical “bad” role, prejudicing the protagonist against her, even as this character works toward the protagonist’s ultimate good.
- The False Enemy might be someone who is not “for” the protagonist, but who is working against the antagonist, so that his goals at least momentarily align with the protagonist’s, in a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” kind of twist.
3. The False Ally Turned True Ally
This is where things can get tricky. Sometimes characters who aren’t what they seem turn out to be exactly what they seem! The False Ally who becomes a true ally is a fun character because of the inherent character arc involved. Although this character starts out opposed to the protagonist, her exposure to the protagonist inspires change within her life to the point that her goals and motivations can entirely shift.
In Anatomy of Story, Truby says this character is…
…valuable because he is inherently complex. This character often goes under a fascinating change in the course of the story. By pretending to be an ally of the hero, the fake-ally opponent starts to feel like an ally. So he becomes torn by a dilemma.
- Sometimes the character will resolve his inner dilemma and turn away completely from the opposition to become a true ally.
- Sometimes the character will fail to completely resolve his internal dilemma. Torn between loyalties, he may fail to wholly satisfy either, or may reluctantly swerve back to his original alignment with the opposition.
4. The False Enemy Turned True Enemy
Finally, we have characters who masquerade as enemies only to end by creating genuine obstacles between the protagonist and her goals. These characters are rarer, since they present the least amount of conflict and complexity. The protagonist generally dislikes them from the start, which means there isn’t much in the way of angst when these characters really do betray her. Still, they can create an interesting subplot of personal turmoil as they sort through their own loyalties.
- This character might be one who is an avowed triple agent from the start: a spy for the bad guys who also spies for the good guys but whose true loyalty really does lie with the bad guys (is your head spinning yet?).
- This character might also be one whose loyalties are conflicted from the beginning. He has a foot in each camp, genuinely caring for the protagonist even though the protagonist doesn’t know it—but ultimately not caring enough to do right by the protagonist.
These latter two categories can get confusing fast. It’s best to concentrate on the first two categories—straightforward False Allies and False Enemies—but also to realize they don’t always have to be straightforward.
5 Ways to Use Character Misdirection in Your Story
Have you been able to identify any False Allies or Enemies in your story—or perhaps just the potential for their use? If so, here’s where you get down to business and start using character misdirection to improve your story. Start by concentrating on these five angles:
1. To Create Conflict
Ultimately, the true and best use of character misdirection is to serve the heart of your plot: to create conflict. The joy of stories about mistaken identities is the havoc caused by the characters’ misconceptions. When your protagonist is drawing false assumptions about another character, he will be unable to fully grapple with the true conflict.
False Allies create conflict by misdirecting the protagonist away from the true fight, while secretly working against him.
False Enemies create conflict by (willing or unwillingly) drawing the protagonist into opposition against them, while the true conflict happens elsewhere.
2. To Create Layers of Complexity
One of the most delicious things about character misdirection is its ability to create complexity and nuance within the story. Instead of black and white good guys and bad guys, you’re able to present readers with characters of subtlety and subtext. Whose side are they really on? What is their true moral alignment? What shades of gray influence their convictions? The possibilities for thematic explorations and consequences are vast, as false characters are able to influence your protagonist in first one way and then another by commenting on both sides of the thematic premise.
False Allies create complexity by winning the protagonist’s heart while sowing seeds of the Lie and luring the character away from her Truth.
False Enemies create complexity by first hardening the protagonist’s heart against the Truth they’re trying to share, then winning her over to reconciliation and a keener understanding of the true thematic premise.
3. To Challenge the Protagonist’s Beliefs and Complacency
When the characters around the protagonist fail to fit neatly into boxes, according to the protagonist’s initial world view, you open the door to all kinds of personal catalysts within the protagonist’s character arc. False Allies and Enemies will challenge the protagonist’s established views of the world. Just like Pip in Great Expectations, sometimes the people we believe to be good turn out to be bad, and vice versa.
False Allies challenge the protagonist’s beliefs by creating a dichotomy between their seductive words and their dark actions in opposition to the protagonist’s goals.
False Enemies challenge the protagonist’s beliefs by disproving his prejudices and leading him to believe Truth can be found even in unexpected places.
4. To Turn the Plot
The revelations that arise from character misdirection can be wonderful plot catalysts. When the protagonist discovers the false characters’ true nature, the plot and its conflict necessarily advance by leaps and bounds.
False Allies turn the plot by forcing the protagonist to recognize he’s been betrayed—or perhaps even lured into betraying himself.
False Enemies turn the plot by forcing the protagonist to make up for the ground he lost by ignoring good advice—or perhaps by having to save his newly-realized ally whom he he just betrayed.
5. To Create Suspense and Plot Twists
The old “is he good or bad?” question that hangs over the heads of most false characters has the ability to create untold suspense. Readers will race through your pages, wondering if your protagonist is about get stabbed in the back. As William Cane points out in Write Like the Masters:
You can use the same Dickensian mystery story technique in your own work by purposefully withholding crucial information, such as who a friend (or enemy) of your hero really is.
The revelation of the truth often makes for some of the best and most moving opportunities for effective plot twists.
False Allies create suspense by casting doubt upon themselves and making readers wonder if they can really be trusted around the protagonist.
False Enemies create suspense in exactly the same way before eventually dispelling that doubt instead of fulfilling it.
Character misdirection is a delightful game authors get to play within the pages of their stories. Who’s good? Who’s bad? We don’t know! That sense of curiosity will entrance readers, raise the stakes, and keep them reading right to the very end.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you used character misdirection by including any false enemies or allies in your story? Tell me in the comments!
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