Being a Better Writer: Self-Deceiving Characters

Hello readers! How was your weekend? Get any good reading in? I did. Working my way through Jack Campbell’s second Lost Fleet series, which has been good fun. Spoilers, but he has an interesting approach to alien life.

Anyway, there’s not much in the way of news (outside of the Beta Call for A Game of Stakes having gone out a couple of days ago, so check your inboxes) so we’re going to jump right to today’s topic. Which, by the way, is a companion piece to a Being a Better Writer post a month or so back on Ambiguous stories and characters.

See, over the course of that post it became clear that there was one aspect which needed its own time set aside. Sure, we can have a plot, events, or characters that is ambiguous or deceptive to the reader, and even to other characters through lack of information, the wrong information, or even the wrong position (all of which, if memory serves, came up in that other post), but what about a character who is ambiguous about things because they themselves refuse to acknowledge them. As in, well, the title today: A character that deliberately deceives themselves?

Now, as I sit here pondering on this, it does occur to me that this topic is kind of tricky, because there are hundreds of different ways for a character to be self-deceptive, and even more reasons as to why. Which, while in turn means that your options are wide open as far as getting them there and why you would use such a thing in the first place. So, with all of that in mind, let’s talk about … Well, let’s talk about the act of self-deception first. The different kinds and ways it can crop up. Then, after that, let’s talk shop and how or where you can make use of it.

Okay, so self-deception: What is it? Sounds simple, sure, but it’s not that easy. I’d wager that a number of you, when thinking of self-deception, are probably thinking of a character like Handsome Jack from Borderlands 2, the one that thinks they’re doing the right thing and is convinced that they are the hero of the story.

But, another number of you might be thinking of a character like Holden from The Catcher in the Rye, who’s blatantly (at least as I read it) in denial about himself and his situation. He’s angry at the world, and angry at himself, but because he doesn’t want to face his own hypocrisy or failings, lashes out and lies, quite regularly, about himself and others.

Or, you could be thinking of a character like Malcolm Crowe from The Sixth Sense (major spoiler territory here, just in case you haven’t seen it), who is in denial about what’s really going on—he’s dead—because the truth is just so devastating he can’t accept it. Facing the truth would break him mentally, so as a “defensive measure” his mind has chosen to believe something else.

All of these are correct. And others beside them that some of you may have thought of. They’re all great examples of characters that self-deceive for one reason or another. Better yet, they’re all also characters that are famous in their own circles for that self-deception. Part of what makes Handsome Jack’s character so interesting is his stern belief that he’s the hero while he goes around committing all sorts of horrid atrocities, and then how he holds to that even when the “villains” of his story (the protagonists anti-heroes) start to take him down. Holden’s constant hypocrisy and attitudes cemented him in American literary culture (to the delight or horror of English students for generations). And The Sixth Sense … While it’s not as big a deal as it was then, when it released the public reaction was one of horrified awe.

Point being? These are all different examples of different kinds of self-deception. Okay, yes, you could argue that they’re all the same if you distill them or dumb them down, but on their own, each delivers a different character and a different scenario as a result. And from that, we’ve got three different forms of self-deception that have cemented themselves, for one reason or another, as examples of the trope and classic, well-regarded entries into their medium.

But … let’s go a little further with these, in the hopes that we can use what we learn in our own stories. Let’s look at the first example with Handsome Jack. Jack is … well, if you have played Borderlands 2, you know: The guy’s a sociopath. And while not all characters (or people) who believe themselves to be the hero are, there’s a bit of a grain of truth there to be taken out into our characters.

Consider, for a moment, that Jack is a sociopathic individual who believes he is “the hero.” While not sociopaths, how many people in day to day living consider themselves the “hero” of their own stories to the degree that they downplay other’s actions as “slights” or even miss their own mistakes? Confused? Okay, let me put it this way: how many people do you know that have a story about driving in traffic where someone cuts them off or acts strangely?

Probably most everyone who knows anyone who drives. Everyone has a story, it seems, about a lousy driver. But how often is it that the one telling the story is the “lousy driver?”

It happens. Someone gets mad because they get cut off in a merge, and tells their friends about it, ignoring the fact that the reason they were cut off is because they refused to let the one who did the cutting off merge when traffic was supposed to.

I’m not telling you this to make you question or reevaluate your life (though a little introspection is always good) but to point out that this is a good way to make your characters a bit more real by having them engage in an act of self-deception that most people on some level participate in. Most characters and people will tend to offer themselves leeway and assume that their opposition is in the wrong.

Can this make for an interesting story or character? Well, while it can be mined for drama if we want, it can also just serve to make someone more relatable to a reader. You can use it in different ways as well. For example, a character who buys their own version  of events and refuses to acknowledge someone else’s, even small or petty can make a character that’s both real and unlikeable if they’re determined enough about it. Or a character who catches themselves and reasons out (or even admits) that they’re in the wrong can be used to make them sympathetic.

It can even bring a little spice to character interactions. One character says something from their point of view, and another character corrects it, for example. That can go a myriad of ways, but each one of them both tells us something about that character and gives the conversation a bit more reality.

Crud, you can even use this for a bit of humor. Over the weekend I beat the game Spark the Electric Jester, which, while not a game that brags about its plot (there isn’t much) did have a very funny exchange where near the end of the game the protagonist contacts the very important scientist guy trying to save the world, and said scientist mentions that he’ll hire the titular protagonist and create a paper trail for the last day or so. When Spark asks why, the scientist reminds him that technically all his activities leading up to that point have been pretty questionably legal, or even outright illegal, and with the scientists authority as backing, he probably won’t go to jail. Which gets a nice double-take from the protagonist (and got a laugh out of me) because … Well, they’re the hero! They’ve been saving the day. And, you know, barreling through millions of dollars of equipment, robot drones, and other tech at the same … Oh.

Okay, that’s enough about that. Point being, you can use it in your writing to create a more “real” character. Or you can crank it up a few notches with sociopathy and get someone like Handsome Jack. Or, you can use it to write a character who, for example, misses vital clues in a mystery because they’re looking in the wrong place, or predisposed to jump to the wrong conclusions.

Crud, Big Trouble in Little China is “I’m the hero: The Movie.” With the joke being that the character we spend the whole film following thinks that they’re the hero, but isn’t. They are the sidekick. The film plays on this skewed perspective to glorious comedic results.

Okay, moving on then, some of you might be wondering what makes this different from a character like Holden from Catcher in the Rye? After all, Holden self-deceives. What makes him different from the first example of someone seeing themselves as a hero?

Well, some of you may disagree, but to me, the reason I hold this differently is that Holden knows he’s not a hero. He’s not trying to frame the narrative so that he’s the “good guy.” Instead, he’s trying to downplay his own narrative because he knows he’s a hypocrite.

In other words, the difference with the kind of deception on display is that someone like Handsome Jack or even Jack Burton (okay, what is up with the number of characters showing the “hero” mentality being named Jack?) doesn’t know and if pressured, will either ignore it, shrug it off, or even admit it.

Holden, however, already knows on some level and reacts differently: He gets angry and defensive, then sinks into his self-deception more. One can easily argue that it’s the same, but personally I’ve always seen it as different. Handsome Jack doesn’t get mad when you say he’s not the hero. He just laughs and shoots you. Jack Burton doesn’t get mad when someone makes a fool of him. He just brushes it off and tries to act cool. Spark doesn’t get angry at being informed he’s broken the law. He just goes “Oops, can I get that fixed somehow?” Even a person who finds they were in the wrong in traffic may not flip out and grudgingly admit they were wrong.

Holden, however, sinks further into his self-delusion and lashes out. He won’t confront it or even admit that he’s wrong (and a hypocrite) but insists that the rest of the world is at fault and he is blameless. Which … makes him pretty unlikeable, which is why so many learn to hate the book in literature cflasses, but even so, the approach is viable, real, and useable.

For example, if you wanted to write a story about a protagonist’s fall to villainy, this kind of reactive approach to self-deception can be very useful. Create a character that over the course of the story, becomes more and more of a hypocrite, crossing more and more lines they attribute to others but refuse to see in themselves, and see where that gets you. Crud, they likely won’t ever realize that they’re becoming what they hate, but their reactions to everyone around them seeing it can produce a very compelling character study.

Granted, this one can be hard to use, because we tend not to like characters like this because, surprise surprise, we tend not to like people like this either. So while it makes for an interesting character, if you use one as a protagonist it can also make for a very unenjoyable experience.

However, it also can be a fascinating, if sometimes dark, one, and you can do a lot with it, whether it’s watch a character spiral into being the very thing they hate, or watch one protagonist step out of the shadows to replace the self-deceptive one. Crud, a character with this sort of behavior and self-deception is very common in stories where the protagonist becomes the villain by the end.

Which kind of leads into the third form of self-deception I brought up, the one where the character is in denial or self-deceiving to avoid facing an unpleasant truth.

This one is hard to pull off right, in my opinion, because it dips deeply into the mental state of the character. That’s a complicated (and delicate) place. But that said, it can still be a very useful one, albeit one that usually comes with a common usage in storytelling.

What trope is that? Loss. Sands, even in thinking of examples of this, all the ones I can think of revolve around loss of some kind. Augustus Cole from Gears of War, for example, still writes his long-dead mother letters as if she were alive, and it’s mentioned in the series by a doctor that they’re not sure if he’s doing it because it’s his way of coping, or if he actually believes she’s still alive and can’t face up to a world where she’s dead and gone (they also conclude they don’t want to bring it up in case the latter is true and he cracks under the pressure). A character from a webcomic who punched out a therapist they were seeing over the “death” of their friend after the therapist tried to work them around to accepting that their friend was in fact dead and gone.

Or the example I gave above, with the protagonist of The Sixth Sense. His death was traumatic and horrible, and as a result he doesn’t want to believe it. So much so that he carries on as if he were still alive, instead treating his wife spending all this time without him and even locking up his office as a sign that she’s thinking of leaving him or angry at him but “doesn’t want to talk.”

Granted, since you see everything from his perspective, the reveal is all the more shocking. But then when he does realize what’s really going on, all that pain he’s spent so much time pushing away and pretending doesn’t exist crashes down on him like a wave.

But, psychology and effects aside, this is another form of self-deception, that of a truth a character doesn’t want to accept not because it’ll make them angry, or because they miss it due to prior bias, but because while they could accept it, the pain of the truth will hurt in some way, and possibly cause them to mentally “break.”

In fact, often this kind of deception is already a mental departure from the norm, where the mind is shielding itself from something painful, often creating its own versions of what happened or occurred to hide the truth. And this can be a powerful storytelling tool, as The Sixth Sense showed, but also a very fine-edged one, as it’s hard to get exactly right and may take a lot of work.

Speaking of making things work, we’ve talked about what some kinds of self-deception are and given examples, but what about using them in your own work, or even why?

Hopefully the last one, given the examples we’ve spoken of, is fairly evident. Because, like many tools in the writer’s toolbox, they open up new avenues of character or even world exploration. For example, say you wrote a murder mystery where the protagonist who is trying to solve the case is in denial about something to do with it, so much so that he does the third form of self-deception, refusing to acknowledge certain truths because it’ll hurt too much. What if you keep the story to a limited perspective? How will that change the mystery? Will you have the character misremember things that occurred earlier in the story as a clue to the reader? Or will you have two characters report completely different versions of what happened?

Both are valid. And both can be used in different ways. For example, in the webcomic I referred to earlier, the protagonist that punched the therapist had been, in the weeks leading up to the incident, relaying events differently that the other characters around him, which let the audience know that something was up. But Sixth Sense doesn’t offer another perspective to the audience … at least, not until the big reveal, offering only subtle hints that anything about the protagonist’s experience is wrong. The first left the audience on unsteady footing, unsure of what was real in the face of characters that didn’t agree, while the second went for an approach that shocks the audience just as it does the protagonist.

And there are more uses past that. The question you should ask, then, is what you want to do with such a tool. What will having a character be self-deceptive accomplish? Is it for the character, to make them more interesting? Is it for the story, to paint certain plot-lines in a different light? Sands, is it for comedy, to have a character suddenly realize to the amusement of everyone else what they’ve been doing (or not realize too)?

If you can find a good answer to those questions, then you’ve probably got a good reason to use a self-deceptive character. But don’t throw one in on “a whim” that it might make things easier. It likely won’t.

Again, self-deception is a tool in your toolbox. It can be used to make characters more relateable, or less likable. It can be used to hide information from the audience, the protagonist, or both. It can be used … well, for a lot. Or left in the tool box.

It’s up to you. Practice, play with it a little, and see what you can get out of it.

That’s all for this week. Good luck. Now get writing.

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