Strong fiction writing borrows behavior from real life. All you have to do is turn on the news and watch interviews full of denials that later turn out to be true to know that humans have varying ideas about the truth. The day you noticed a co-worker cross their arms and sit back from the table during a meeting signaled their feelings clearly. Unconsciously, we are broadcasting what we’re thinking and feeling every moment of every day.
We all have something to hide – some of us more than others.
Imagine the protagonist with a past indiscretion. How will they cover it up? And the antagonist usually doesn’t announce their ill intentions. It’s how they hide their secrets that keep the pages turning.
Loaded language, non-verbal cues, and visual cues influence human behavior every day. And, it’s how authors create complex and beautifully flawed characters.
This article is not intended for interpersonal or behavioral analysis, but rather a way to add realism to your character development and lay a foundation for your reader’s ah-ha moment.
When they don’t lie, they’re creating distance.
The best liars know that the way to not get caught in a lie is not to lie. They are masters at distancing.
You ask a question and they reply, but they don’t actually answer your question. Because it’s natural to believe you’re hearing their answer, it’s easy for the liar to move the conversation to the part of the story they can answer truthfully or change the subject altogether.
Jade Weekes knows a diversion when she hears it. ~
“I need something I can sell.” She met his stare, challenging. “Why are you in this?”
“You would sell a part of your family history?” he said.
“Not what I asked. I don’t have a family or a history,” she said. “What’s your stake, John?”
Or, unconsciously, they may use language to remove themselves from the scene of the crime or shift the focus to someone else.
“Did you help plan the robbery?”
“Why would anyone with as much to lose as me do such a thing?”
Notice the absence of the word “I.” The character is verbally removing themselves from the question. They may also counter with “No one would ever do that.”
Distancing can either protect the speaker from their internal conflict or create a layer between the truth and what the speaker won’t say.
Characters use misdirection to their advantage.
It’s human nature to look at the person speaking to you. Do you notice what their hands are doing? Do you see what’s going on behind their back?
Our brains are amazingly single-minded. Given a task, our focus will do an excellent job multi-tasking to execute a request, but everything else will be dismissed. Illustrated in a well-known experiment, “Did you spot the gorilla?” This is how magicians are able to amaze audiences and make the unbelievable appear to be real.
- Holding eye contact to prevent the other person from looking around.
- Moving their body to visually block your view.
- Walking or directing movement in an intentional direction.
- Saying, “Look here.” which serves to redirect your attention.
Misdirection also appears in different forms. Unbeknown to most, there are visual cues all around that influence how we behave.
When cornered, characters go on offense.
Going on the offensive to throw the other person off balance or put them on the defensive works nicely in their favor as well. Have you ever had a confrontation where you called someone out and they, in turn, brought up your faults and made that the focus of the conversation? Suddenly the tables are turned, and you’re on the defensive.
Starting to get the idea? Loaded language hides the truth, sometimes in ways that seem so natural as to be believable. All the while, clues to the facts are there, but the misdirection keeps the reader second-guessing until you allow the truth to be revealed.
Classic cat and mouse? Remember the first rule of character development: the protagonist is not 100% good. That would be boring. And sometimes, it’s not about what a character is hiding but what they are protecting. Complicate your character’s background and let them keep secrets they unknowingly reveal with their behaviors.
Crowd Control – Using spatial influences to direct behavior.
The layout of museum galleries, shops, and public spaces are designed to influence how we move and use the area. One of the most noticeable is within an art museum.
Wall placement moves patrons in a particular direction. The lighting pulls visitors in an intentional direction from one area to the next. Look down – to ensure you don’t get too close there’s a psychological barrier there too in the form of a strip of wood molding along the floor, or perhaps a border of carpeting. We know we can reach out and touch the artwork, but the border sends an unconscious signal to keep our distance and makes it easy for docents to see if anyone is getting too close.
Situated to keep you moving from one display to the next, store aisles use eye-catching sales displays to pull you deeper into the shop past the regularly priced products. In supermarkets, premium brands at eye level increase the likelihood you pick those over the lower-priced selection on the lower shelves – that is until you reach the candy and cereal aisle which places the premium brands eye level for the young influencers in your household.
The next time you’re in a public space, pay attention to the layout and the small, almost undetectable barriers placed to direct your movement. Use these cues to add complexity to your characters’ actions.
- Characters lie. They can even lie to themselves. It all boils down to their interior motives driving what they want to manipulate or what they are trying to hide.
- Misdirection is also lying. Is your main character having trouble using “I” in their denial? Then they are verbally stepping away from directly answering the question.
- You shall not pass. The million-dollar Bansky displayed in the art gallery calls to you, yet the box painted on the floor around the piece keeps you at arm’s length. Your brain knows this barrier signifies “Do Not Cross.”
Learn from those who know about human behavior.
A Burglar’s Guide To The City, Geoff Manaugh
Start with heists, tunnels, and break-ins, and then let your imagination take over. Manaugh guides you through the secrets hidden between the walls of the world around us. Ready to plan a crime for your next novel? Then this is the study guide you need to think like a thief.
A Spy’s Guide To Thinking & A Spy’s Guide To Strategy, John Braddock
Braddock, a former CIA case worker, explains Zero Sum thinking and how to size up any confrontation. A handy thing to know when outlining character motivations and in a battle of wills, who will win.
Body language is the tell that unconsciously shows the world how you feel and what you’re thinking. Exactly what writers need to do for readers without falling back on cliches. If your characters are trying to hide something, their body is giving it away. Ex FBI agent, Joe Navarro shares real-world non-verbal skills that that will add realism to your fiction and show readers everything you want them to see. Three Minutes To Doomsday is riveting, not only for the tight writing but also for the chilling fact it’s non-fiction.