Wednesday, February 11

Writing Characters Whose Loyalty is Uncertain

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Q: I have a character in my current WIP who is a double agent, and I'm struggling to find ways to make the reader question which group she is truly loyal to without forcing the issue. Do you have any advice for how to write characters who don't stand clearly on one side of the line?
A: I have a WIP with an undercover spy, so I feel the pain here. It can be a challenge to write a character like this and still make her unpredictable (and likable, but that’s another issue).

The question didn’t specify if the double agent is a POV character or not, so let’s look at both.

If the Character is a POV Character

This is the harder one to write, since readers will be inside her head and privy to her thought process. If she’s hiding things, readers might feel like the author is purposefully holding back information to keep them from solving the novel’s puzzle and grow frustrated. But if the character reveals too much, there’s no puzzle to solve, and readers can grow bored.

Controlling what information gets shared will be key here. The farther the narrative distance the easier it will probably be, as a far narrative distance won’t let readers as deep into the character’s head. If you prefer a tighter narrative distance, you’ll have to work a little harder to “hide” information. Things you can try:

Don’t explain motives, just show the actions

If the character never thinks about why she’s doing what she’s doing (or at least, not the specific double agent aspect), then all readers will see are her actions. You can still use internalization, just be choosy about what to reveal. For example, she might think about how she wants to get someone to allow her access into a secure room, but not think about why. Or she’ll think about how she needs to get a laptop inside that room, but readers don’t know what she plans to do with it.

Avoid introspection or doubt

The more a character doubts herself or thinks about what she’s doing, the more her true motives will shine through. Unless the goal is to show this inner conflict over her motives, the character probably won’t question her own actions. She knows why she’s doing it, she doesn’t need to ponder it.

Let her believe the lie

It’s a common undercover trope to “get in too deep” and believe your cover, so why not use that to your advantage? If the double agent never goes out of character, she’ll always behave just like the person she’s pretending to be. Readers won’t know which is the real her.

Let her always be whatever person she needs to be

On the flip side, maybe she’s the type of spy who fully embraces the role she’s playing regardless of what that role is. She’s utterly the person she’s pretending to be at that moment. If she needs to be the supportive friend, let her be that friend both externally and internally—she does and thinks exactly what that “friend” would do or think. If she needs to be a deadly spy, then that’s who she is. This can allow her to be whatever the scene requires her to be and keep readers from ever knowing the truth.

One warning however: it can be easy to create an inconsistent character with this technique, so be careful to show that she’s a chameleon who can’t be trusted, not a flip-floppy character who changes on a whim.

Let her doubt her own motives

If she’s aware of her own inner conflict, and it would make the uncertainty stronger to know that, show her own struggles about where her loyalties lie. This won’t work if you want this aspect to be a mystery, but it can work if “which side will she choose?” is a potential story question. Avoid this if you want more of a “which side is she on?” question.

(Here's more on strengthening character motivations)

If the Character is Not a POV Character

This is easier to write, since motives will be concealed and it’ll be up to the POV character and the reader to decide what her actions mean.

Resist the urge to attribute motives to the character

It can be tempting to have the POV character assume the double agent is doing X for Y reasons, but unless the POV character would realistically wonder about the motives, odds are they won’t think about them. For example, if a friend cancels on us and says they’re not feeling well, we accept it and move on—we don’t spend time wondering why they canceled and if they’re lying about it (unless of course they’ve given us reasons to doubt them).

Trust in subtext and subtlety

Let the double agent be the agent and trust readers to pick up on clues and make their own decisions about the character. They’ll notice more than you think, and if you shine too bright on a light on hints, it might backfire on you. Details meant to be subtle suddenly scream “CLUE” and draw way more attention than you wanted.

Show examples of both loyalties in action

If the double agent has exhibited traits that could suggest loyalty to both (or either) sides, then motives will feel nice and murky. The trick here is to give the double agent logical and credible reasons for what she does. Sure, she sold the information to the enemy, but it wasn’t the real information (she claims), and she did it to fool the bad guys.

Cast doubt on others

If the double agent says she didn’t sell the information to the enemy, but the enemy acts on that information anyway, it’ll be obvious she lied. Make sure there’s a plausible reason for how the enemy could have gotten that information besides the double agent. If she can cast doubt on someone else’s loyalty, it’ll help hide which side she’s really on—and create a red herring to keep readers from looking too hard at her.

(Here's more on showing character motivations)

For Either a POV or Non-POV Character

Know what her true plan is and where her loyalties really lie

No matter what you do, make sure you as the author know where her loyalties lie (unless she really is questioning them), and why she’s doing the things she does in the novel. For example, if stealing the code key is what her spy bosses want, and she doesn’t do it, know why she makes that choice. Is it because she’s secretly working against the spy bosses, or because stealing that key will adversely affect her real goal and she knows it.

Give her a plausible reason for acting out of character

If she goes against one particular side and gets caught, make sure the reasons she gives for doing it are sound for the side she’s pretending to be loyal to. Let readers and the other characters be able to rationalize any odd behavior so they’re never sure if the double agent is lying or telling the truth.

Catch her in a lie

If everything is too pat or too perfect, it can ring just as false as the double agent flat out lying. But if she’s caught in a small lie, and is able to make the person who caught her feel guilty or foolish for suspecting her, then readers might give her the benefit of the doubt later (or they might be even more suspicious—you can manipulate them as needed).

Keeping loyalties uncertain takes a deft hand, but it really comes down to letting readers draw their own conclusions. They less you explain and the more ambiguity you show, the harder it will be for them to determine where a character’s loyalties truly lie.

Who are some of your favorite double agents?

Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.

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  1. This is fantastic! It gave me lots to think about and to work on. Thank you so much!

  2. I just discovered your blog and am already hooked! Thanks for answering the above question. Although the scenario is far from the book I'm currently plotting, some of the techniques you mentioned are helping me with a particulary tricky character quirk. Thank-you!

  3. I write romance - and I don't have any double agent characters - but this post has given me a way of tackling a problem I've been having with the characterisation of the hero in my WIP. Each time I go into his POV, the story looses its tension... I want to use the Hero's POV in order to give the reader knowledge that the heroine doesn't have - but perhaps I've been giving the reader TOO MUCH knowledge. I'm going to have a go at putting more narrative distance into my Hero's POV (duh!) Feeling pretty positive about this particular light bulb moment. Thank you question asker. Thank you Janice!

  4. This has to be the BEST blog on writing ... the content, the encouragement, the font ... everything. Thank you, Janice. And Snape, I think, is a superbly crafted double agent!

  5. We absolutely love your blog and find a lot of your post’s to be exactly I’m looking for. Does one offer guest writers to write content for you personally? I wouldn’t mind creating a post or elaborating on a lot of the subjects you write regarding here. Again, awesome weblog!

  6. I'm not writing a spy novel, but a lot of this also applies to any sort of devious character or character who's trying to hide something. Saving for future reference. Oh, what intricate webs we weave…and how difficult that is to do!